In February 2018, when Elon Musk’s Falcon Heavy rocket left Earth in a hurricane of smoke, it was carrying an unlikely payload. Instead of equipment or astronauts, the Space X entrepreneur famously loaded it with his car – a cherry-red Tesla Roadster. A mannequin dressed in a spacesuit occupied the driver’s seat.
But the real surprise was in the glovebox. There, immortalised in etched glass, was a copy of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series of books. Set in a crumbling galactic empire some 50,000 years in the future, the science fiction saga ignited Musk’s interest in space travel when he was a teenager. Now it is set to float around our solar system for the next 10 million years or so.
Such is the power of books. From the fictional “Earth” software developed in the novel Snow Crash that foreshadowed Google Earth to a short story about sentient telephones that might’ve led to the creation of the internet, reading has planted seeds in the heads of countless innovators. Former US President Barack Obama has said that reading taught him who he is and what he believes in.
Even if you don’t have such grand ambitions, reading books might well give your career a boost; the habit has been shown to reduce stress, boost brain functioning and even improve empathy. That’s not to mention the obvious benefits of all the information trapped in their pages. So here’s your guide to the proven upsides of reading books – and how to join the exclusive club of people who do it for at least an hour every single day.
Read your way to empathy
Take empathy. Though the business world has traditionally side-lined emotional intelligence in favour of factors like confidence and the ability to make important decisions, in recent years it has been more widely regarded as an important skill. According to a 2016 study by the human resources consulting firm Development Dimensions International, leaders who master empathy tend to outperform others by 40%.
Back in 2013, social psychologist David Kidd was thinking about which activities might lead to greater empathy. “And as a lifelong reader, it occurred to me that fiction is a place where we regularly get a lot of support in engaging with the unique experiences of other people,” he says.
The habit has been shown to reduce stress, boost brain functioning and even improve empathy
Together with a colleague from The New School for Social Research in New York, Kidd decided to investigate whether reading can improve our so-called theory of mind – broadly the ability to understand that other people have thoughts and desires, and that these might be different from one’s own. It’s not the same as empathy, but the two skills are thought to be closely linked.
To find out, they asked study participants to read excerpts of either award-winning, so-called “literary fiction” – such as Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations – or popular “genre fiction”, such as crime thrillers and romance novels. Others were asked to read a nonfiction book or nothing at all. Then they were tested to see if their theory of mind had improved.
The idea was that really “good” writing, the kind shortlisted for prizes, tends to present a world of more realistic characters into whose heads the reader can clamber – like a training ground for honing your understanding of other people. On the other hand, the genre fiction was taken from an anthology, so it didn’t have the same endorsement from critics. The researchers reasoned that this writing would probably be of a lower quality, and perhaps include more one-dimensional characters who act in a predictable way.
The results were striking: the readers of critic-endorsed literary fiction scored the highest scores on every single test, compared with those who read genre fiction, nonfiction or nothing And though the researchers didn’t directly measure how this improved theory of mind might play out in the real world, Kidd says it’s a fairly safe bet that regular readers will experience an empathy boost. “Most people, if they know how people are feeling, will use that information in prosocial ways.”
In addition to improving your ability to relate to colleagues and employees, empathy could lead to more productive meetings and collaborations. “There’s research showing that people tend to be more productive in groups where they feel free to express disagreement – especially when it comes to creative tasks,” says Kidd. “I think that’s an example where an increased sensitivity and interest in other people’s experiences could be helpful in the workplace.”
Tips from avid readers
So now that you’re convinced of the benefits of reading, consider this: according to a 2017 survey of 1,875 people by the UK media regulator Ofcom, the average British adult spends around two hours and 49 minutes on their phone each day. To hit the daily target of an hour with books, most people would just have to reduce their screen time by a third.
To help you along the way, whether you’re a natural hoarder – the kind of person who likes to amass knowledge on their bookshelf in the hope that it will magically percolate into their brain one day – or a smug exaggerator, the type of reader who likes to evangelise about their favourite books for hours, having only finished the first page – here are some tips from people who can proudly call themselves “avid readers” without crossing their fingers behind their back.
1) Read because you want to
Cristina Chipurici taught herself to read when she was four years old. As her newfound passion took hold, she devoured every single book in her parents’ house. But then something happened. “Once I started primary school and reading became mandatory, I developed a repulsion towards the activity, caused by the language teacher we had, and it made me not want to read a book ever again,” she says.
In addition to improving your ability to relate to colleagues and employees, empathy could lead to more productive meetings and collaborations
This aversion to books lasted until her 20s, when Chipurici slowly began to realise what she had been missing – how far ahead people who did read had got, and the important information books contain which could have made a difference to her career.
She learned to love reading again and eventually set up The CEO Library, a website about the books which have shaped the careers of the world’s most successful people, from authors to politicians to investment magnates.
“There were many factors that caused this shift, from mentors, to making the decision to invest in an online course where I discovered a different educational system, to reading Ryan Holiday’s blog articles [he has authored several books on marketing culture and was formerly the director of marketing for the fashion brand American Apparel], where he always talks about how books have helped him, and probably many others I’m not even aware of.” If there’s a moral to this story, it’s to read because you want to – and never allow it to become a chore.
2) Find a reading format that works for you
Though the clichéd bibliophile is someone who walks around clutching armfuls of physical books and tends to their first-edition copies as though they are precious ancient artefacts, it doesn’t have to be this way. “I have a two-hour commute, each way,” says Kidd. “It’s not ideal but it does give a lot of time for reading.” When he’s travelling to and from work – not driving! – he’s found that it’s much more convenient to read on a screen, such as his phone, rather than lugging a book around all the time. When he’s reading nonfiction, which many people struggle to get into, he turns to *shocked gasp* audiobooks.
3) Don’t set intimidating goals
Keeping up with the habits of CEOs can be an intimidating task. Two prominent high-achievers who have been interviewed for The CEO Library are Fabrice Grinda, a leading tech entrepreneur who started out with $100,000 (£77,000) of credit card debt and has now raked in over $300 million by selling his stakes in successful investments, and Naveen Jain, an entrepreneur and philanthropist who founded Moon Express – a Silicon Valley start-up that ultimately hopes to mine the moon for natural resources. The former reads 100 books each year; the latter likes to wake up at 04:00 to read books for three hours.
But it needn’t be that way. Andra Zaharia is a freelance content marketer, podcast host and passionate reader. Her top tip is to avoid unrealistic expectations and intimidating goals. “Incorporating daily reading, I think, is a matter of starting small,” she says. Zaharia suggests starting by asking friends for book recommendations and reading just one or two pages. “You don’t have to go on Goodreads and set a goal of 60 books per year. Kindle books can actually be easier, because you can’t easily see the number of pages that are remaining”.
4) If you’re really struggling, try the “Rule of 50”
This rule of thumb will help you to decide when to give up on a book. If you’re either prone to ruthlessly abandoning a read at page four or slogging it out with giant tomes that you’ve grown to hate, the idea is to read 50 pages and then decide if the book – in the words of Marie Kondo – “sparks joy”. If it doesn’t, give it up.
The strategy was invented by the author, librarian and literary critic Nancy Pearl and explained in her book, Book Lust. It includes a thoughtful caveat for people who are over 50 years old, who she suggests should subtract their age from 100 instead – the resulting number is how many pages they should read. Because as you age, life really does become too short to read bad books.
So there you have it. Prising your phone out of your hand for just an hour a day, and placing a book in your texting claw instead, could boost your empathy levels and make you more productive. If the world’s most busy and successful people can manage it, you can too.
Who knows what you’ll do with all that extra knowledge and inspiration. You might even end up with your own space venture.
To comment on this story or anything else you have seen on BBC Capital, please head over to our Facebookpage or message us on Twitter.
If you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter called "If You Only Read 6 Things This Week". A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Culture, Capital and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.