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How reading fiction can improve your work & facilitate creativity

“Find more time to read.” This seems to be a common line item on people’s self-improvement lists or a common response to “What would you do if you had more hours in a day?” Finding time to read for pleasure gets harder and harder and even then, all the books recommended to me are some form of professional development book. Now, with nothing but time at home, I’ve been able to revisit some of my favorite fictional stories. It also seems as good a time as any to run through a few of the many benefits of picking up a book, because if the love of the written word doesn’t inspire you – some of these facts just might.

Decision making

We are estimated to make 35,000 decisions everyday. Overwhelmed?? Reading can help. Reading can help facilitate creative and rational decision making. Studies have found that many of the decisions we make—even when we’re being as intentional as possible—stem from the need for cognitive closure, a term that “describes the human desire to obtain a straight answer…leaving no space for confusion or ambiguity.” Uncertainty makes us uncomfortable. In attempts to resolve that feeling, we often rush to decisions that simply alleviate uncertainty or ambiguity without taking time to address the bigger picture. In fact, researchers at the University of Toronto found that the need for cognitive closure is “associated with a variety of suboptimal information processing strategies” and leads to decreased creativity and rationality.

Enter reading! Those same researchers found that exposure to fictional narratives actually reduced a person’s need for cognitive closure. This means that reading fiction can make the reader more open to and comfortable with ambiguous situations in everyday life (and work), leaving more space for creative and rational decisions.

Leadership and empathy

It’s an entertaining exercise to look back on some of my favorite books from childhood and take note of the profound, character-building lessons that were nestled into my favorite storylines and characters. Engaging with stories that were dramatically different than my reality has helped me appreciate the diverse perspectives and experiences of those around me in the real world. In short, these stories were teaching me lessons in empathy. Empathy is a vital skill in both interpersonal and professional relationships and one required of exceptional leaders. Empathy is essential in leadership because “empathy enables you to know if the people you’re trying to reach are actually reached.”

Knowing that empathy and emotional intelligence are key to our professional lives and working relationships, the question remains: how do we train and improve upon that skill? Reading may be a good start. According to a meta-analysis conducted by a researcher at the University of Rochester, data overwhelmingly supports the idea that reading has a positive effect on “social cognition” or emotional intelligence – empathy in particular. This may be because fiction readers “get extra practice with the same social processes” used in the real world, or because books provide information about “countries, cultures, and peoples that readers may never have access to otherwise.” Essentially – reading about characters different from yourself makes you more empathetic and improves emotional intelligence.

Stress Relief

It goes without saying that stress and anxiety impact people adversely. From mental health and physical manifestations of stress to impacts on decision making and interpersonal relationships, stress can touch every part of your work and personal life. The name of the game, then, is reducing stress wherever you can! Everyone has their own strategies for this, but if reading isn’t in your arsenal of stress relief activities, here’s why it should be. Research has shown that reading fiction for at least six minutes can help reduce stress by up to 68%. Measuring stress levels is not an exact science, but if all it takes is 5-10 minutes of diving into a good story, reading could prove to be an inexpensive and easy way to unwind.

Whether you want to make better decisions, improve leadership skills, or relieve stress, reading can help. Need inspiration? Try this list of 100 stories to read in a lifetime!

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