"More than machinery, we need humanity."
There is far too much going on these days.
Truly, the world is being very inconsiderate. How can someone like yourself be expected to get any reading done when there are so many distractions? Where once you prided yourself on reading books at the rate of [insert your own answer here] you now find yourself reading books at the rate of [insert your own answer here, but it should be a slower rate than your previous answer]! It can be a challenge to even make it through a lengthy article these days. There is simply far too much going on.
But do not despair! As part of our ongoing effort to provide quality advice, we have conducted a rigorous study seeking to determine the best strategies to help you avoid getting distracted while you read. What follows are the wisest solutions we came across. These strategies should be of use to casual readers, students (of all levels), scholars, and anyone else who feels as though they are perpetually locked in a battle between their ability to focus on what they are reading and all of the things tugging at their attention.
Instead of simply forcing yourself to focus and then feeling a deep sense of guilt when you inevitably get distracted: plan out periodic breaks. This way those distractions no longer truly count as distractions, they fit within your overall reading plan. Some authors cleverly build those breaks right into their own work (chapters, sections, etc…) which can make it easy for you to know when you can pause; however, quite often such breaks are few and far between. Thus it can be worthwhile to plan out your breaks in advance.
Here is one way to do this: read for the first twenty five minutes of the hour, and then allow yourself a five minute “distraction” break, then read for the next twenty five minutes of the hour, and then allow yourself another five minute “distraction” break. Want to check social media? Do it during that five minute period. Want to send a text message? Do it during that five minute period. Need to get yourself a snack? Do it during that five minute period. Want to see what the cat is yowling about? Don’t wait for that five minute period, the cat can cause untold destruction if you wait. Want to check your email? Do it during that five minute period. Hopefully you are sensing a pattern here.
It is difficult to truly escape from the tug of distractions, but the constant nagging feeling can be diminished by permitting yourself occasional moments to look up from your book.
While it is certainly true that there are many distracting things happening in the world, it is also true that many of us are surrounded by devices that constantly buzz/ring/light-up or otherwise attempt to distract us from whatever it is that we are doing so that we pay attention to the device instead of what we had been reading. As has been documented at length, these gadgets have been deliberately designed to distract us from other things so that we devote all of our attention to the gadgets and the various platforms that run on those devices. In short, don’t blame yourself.
In recent years some of those responsible for constructing these infernal machines have sought redemption, and have advised that people might consider taking the step of turning off notifications or putting the devices on silent. While such individuals should not be applauded for feeling slightly chastened after unleashing all manner of hell, the idea of turning off notifications and silencing your devices is actually a pretty decent step if you want to keep yourself from getting distracted while you are trying to read. Your phone can’t keep distracting you if you take steps to minimize your phone’s ability to constantly distract you. Alas, you may find that you have become so accustomed to the constant buzzing of your device that you feel as though it is buzzing at you even though you know you have turned it off. What’s more, if you are of a rather nervous disposition, you may even find that you are interpreting the lack of buzzing as a sign that something must be really wrong (why haven’t they texted you back!?!?).
Nevertheless, if you have the option of literally turning off a source of distractions, it would be wise to do so.
In the moment when you feel yourself tempted to step away from whatever you’re reading to give in to the temptation of distraction, ask yourself: is the thing I’m about to do only going to make me feel miserable?
If so, just keep reading. You’ll be happier that way.
It is considered uncouth in many circles to make the following claim, so if these words offend you, please accept our humble apologies. But, if you find that you keep getting distracted from what you’re reading, consider that the problem might not be you, and it might not be the world, it might actually be…the thing you’re reading. Perhaps you keep getting distracted because the book you’re reading just isn’t holding your attention. Thus, it may well be that what you need to do to keep from getting distracted while you read this book is for you to read a different book.
Lest a swarm of angry authors begin typing angry emails (and feeling the need to write an angry email is something that can distract you from what you had been reading), it should be clear that this is not to say that those books are bad. It is simply to say that there are some books that hold the reader’s attention more easily than others, and the book that truly grabs a reader today may not be able to grab that same reader next week. This is also not to claim that all books need to be easy to read. There is much to be said for a challenging complex tome, but if you’re going to try to carve your way through such a volume you really do need to be in the right mood to do so. If you find yourself getting an urge to putter about your abode, or check the contents of your fridge, or do pushups, or check the news after every page, it might be time for you to try reading something else. Don’t worry, the book wont’ be offended (most books are inanimate objects without emotions). You can always come back to that book later.
Caveat: if you are a student reading the book for class, you probably have to keep reading it.
If you find that the world around you is distracting you from your reading, you could always try to do something to change what the world around you looks like. No, this doesn’t mean that you should rearrange your furniture, it means that you should consider relocating.
Here are some places you might consider going, and though many of these locations will offer you fewer distractions they are not without their own drawbacks.
Pros: plenty of books, enforced quiet
Cons: good wi-fi, many are closed due to the pandemic
Something that is a pro and a con: you might decide to become a librarian
An old cottage deep in the woods
Pros: isolation, no wi-fi
Cons: cottage upkeep is challenging, bears
Something that is a pro and a con: people will think you’re a witch.
Pros: quiet as the grave
Cons: cold as the grave
Something that is a pro and a con: how do you feel about ghosts?
A desert island
Pros: you have plenty of time to read (and get a tan)
Cons: hard to get more books
Something that is a pro and a con: the struggle to survive is really the ultimate distraction.
A sensory deprivation tank
Pros: Very (very) peaceful
Cons: too dark and wet to be able to read
Something that is a pro and a con: you will be all alone with your thoughts.
Accountability can be a powerful motivator. Well, it can be for some people. But quite often reading has fairly low stakes. Does it really matter if you finish that book today? In some cases, yes, yes it does.
Need to focus on the book? Consider running a book club. If you’re responsible for running the group (and coming up with discussion questions), than you really need to make sure you’ve read the darn thing (and paid attention to it). Furthermore, seeing as groups meet on certain dates, you’ll have a clear deadline to keep you on track. If that doesn’t sound like sufficient pressure, consider running seven book groups (with each group reading a different book), that ought to really keep your attention locked on the page. Book clubs are not the only way to go with this, you could also consider agreeing to write/podcast/stream book reviews, as long as there’s a clear deadline in place you may find that this is the pressure you need to keep yourself from getting distracted.
Some people might decide that the best kind of accountability is to enroll in some manner of formal class. This might work out for some, but anyone who has ever sat in a K-12/college/grad classroom knows that many of the people who are supposed to have done the reading…haven’t actually done the reading. Indeed, some such settings are notorious for giving rise to convoluted strategies devised to allow individuals to make it seem like they did the reading when they did not in fact do it. Of course, if you flip the tables around and make it so that you are the teacher/instructor/professor in the classroom you might find that this is another way to ensure that you really focus on getting the reading done. No educator wants to find themselves in a situation wherein the students have read the assigned text more closely than they have.
Furthermore, if you find that you have to focus on reading things for a classroom setting it might have the added benefit of turning the other reading you do into pleasure reading—and then you can claim that reading is what is actually distracting you from everything else.
One of the reasons why it is so easy to allow yourself to get distracted while you read is because the only real victim in that scenario is you. Sure, you might get quite frustrated with yourself, but (let’s be honest) learning to live with getting routinely frustrated with yourself is a skill that many of us have really mastered over the years. However, if you always let yourself stop reading after every three pages to check the news, one solution is to team up with someone who will get annoyed with you if you keep doing that. In other words: read aloud to someone else.
When you’re reading to someone else they will be focused on your words, eager to hear what happens next, and they’ll be rather perturbed if you continually stop reading just because you think you felt your phone buzz. Of course, here the problem becomes that you’ll need to find someone who wants to hear the book you want to read. Many a parent knows the ordeal of a child who loves to have the same book read to them over and over and over and over again. And while there may be opportunities to read an old favorite aloud to a new generation, not all six year old’s are particularly keen on having you read aloud that 600 page biography of that obscure artist that you recently picked up. That being said, perhaps reading that biography aloud will help make your kid fall asleep. It is worth noting that opportunities to read to others may be more plentiful than you realize: many community centers, libraries, and retirement communities are looking for volunteers who will come and read aloud. Which provides you an opportunity to force yourself to stay focused on what you’re reading while you’re reading it, while simultaneously doing a good deed (everyone’s a winner).
Any attempt to provide advice as to what a person should do is remiss if it does not also include attention to what a person should not do. Therefore, here are a few strategies that may at first seem worthwhile but which are not actually particularly good for keeping you focused on the book you are trying to read:
A distraction is something that diverts your attention away from something else, with the connotation here clearly being that it is pulling you away from that to which you had been trying to devote your attention. All of which serves to raise another question: when is a distraction not a distraction? To which the answer is: when you can reclassify the things you’re being distracted by as the things you really should be paying attention to.
Let’s be honest here, more than one academic, more than one journalist, more than one college/grad student, got their start by deciding to devote themselves fully to the study of something that was originally a distraction for them. Or to put it another way, if you find that you are obsessively checking to see how conspiratorial misinformation campaigns are spreading in real time—maybe you should decide to study that. If you can’t finish reading a novel but read every single article that comes out about [insert your topic of choice here] maybe you should figure out a way to make reading all about [that same topic] your job. After all, how can you fault yourself for getting distracted by something if that something is an important part of your research?
Granted, this may not be the total solution it seems to be. Unfortunately, once you make it so that you are now studying the thing that once distracted you, it is quite common to still find yourself getting distracted by new things—and you really can’t repeat this cycle indefinitely (though perpetually going back to school is one way to stay ahead of having to payback your student loans).
Perhaps in a world that is constantly calling for your attention, choosing to devote your time to really reading something may be the real distraction?
If so, it is a worthwhile one.
More advice of questionable merit