Reading attention span.
March 11, 2005 1:22 PM   Subscribe

I used to be able to read for hours. Now I'm lucky if I can read for ten minutes before checking my e-mail. What to do?

In my teenage years and early twenties, I would lose track of time because I would become so engrossed in my reading. In the past five years or so, I find it impossible to read. My main problem is focusing/attention. I don't meet the criteria for "Adult ADD" and I don't imbibe an abnormal amount of caffeine. Every ten minutes or so, I find myself wandering back to the computer to check the news, check my e-mail, etc. (I also don't meet the criteria for so-called "internet addiction.")

I chalked this up initially to the fact that my reading has become increasingly dry and complicated (I'm a graduate student) but I find that the same thing happens with fiction. What are your strategies for becoming more focused for long periods of time?

The catch: I'm a graduate student in PSYCHOLOGY so I'm immediately skeptical of most suggestions, but I'm going to keep an open mind here.
posted by trey to Education (29 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
Dude it's the internet. It really is. I was the same way: up until about 16 years of age I read voraciously. Then I stopped and didn't read anything that wasn't on a computer screen all throughout college. About three years ago I started sitting down with books again. It was hell. I couldn't read. My attention was fleeting and I found that I was trying to read books like I read stuff on a computer: with eyes all over the place.

It took me a few months to get into the swing of things and now I read religiously again. It feels good, but there are times when I've spent a lot of time on the internet during the week that I sit down to read and it takes a little while for my brain to adjust.

The internet is killing our attention spans. Like they said television would do.
posted by xmutex at 1:33 PM on March 11, 2005

Discipline -- staying within you focused boundary. It's fun being an adult.
posted by thomcatspike at 1:37 PM on March 11, 2005

I used to read so much more when I lived in a city with public transportation. O Chicago! Dear big-shouldered city where I could read novels whilst stuck on the el!

Now, I basically myself to turn off the computer and make myself get into bed and read at least a chapter of something (or a short story, or an article in the New Yorker, or whatever). Because yeah, I concur: teh intarweb has fucked with my attention span in the past few years in a way that thousands of hours spent in front of the ol' boob-tube as a young 'un never did.
posted by scody at 1:42 PM on March 11, 2005

read: "I basically force myself to turn off the computer..." d'oh!
posted by scody at 1:44 PM on March 11, 2005

i found that i was reading more and more "difficult" books - either "famous" fiction or "serious" non-fiction. what got me back into the groove was picking up a few junky sci-fi novels. so maybe try whatever you used to read, before you got all educated - it goes down fast n easy, and the hours slip by.
posted by andrew cooke at 1:48 PM on March 11, 2005 [1 favorite]

Watch as this thread turns into a support group.

Seriously, I share this problem. The one effective means I've found to combat it is to go to a coffee shop and read...without the laptop! When I don't have Internet access, I don't really miss it, but if it's there, I'm on it.
posted by adamrice at 1:49 PM on March 11, 2005

I'm a grad student in literature, and I have the same problem. My solution: I go to the library, where there are no computers. I sit down there and read for hours, and hours, and hours.

I for one am tired of computers, and my particular computer especially. I wish there were a way I could make it disappear (poof!) and reappear (pfft!) at a momen't notice.

Music helps, too--I listen to radio in other languages and that keeps me awake. But the key thing: get away from the computer.
posted by josh at 1:51 PM on March 11, 2005

Best answer: When I have this problem, I leave the house and go bring my book someplace nice where there is no Internet which is actually a lot of the places around here, especially no-electricity places like the town park, or down by the river. A few other techniques include getting up and starting to read before I'm up and dressed. Just get a cup of coffee and get back in to bed with a book, set a deadline for email checking and stick to it. Same with before bed. Turn off the computer before I go watch a movie or the Daily Show and then don't turn it back on before I go to sleep. This way there's a buiffer at the beginning and end of the day that is just for reading things that aren't plugged in which, incidentally, I think helps me sleep better. Also what Andrew says, pick up something delightfully fun and easy to read and you'll give yourself more of a reason to pick up that book! I keep a short stack of 5 or 6 books I might like to read by the bed, so there's usually at least one that looks good at any given time.
posted by jessamyn at 1:52 PM on March 11, 2005 [1 favorite]

I know it's kind of ducking the issue but I get around it by having all email go to my Blackberry, then use distinctive ringtones to tell me who is emailing, no more checking. I had the same problem and this solution has me back reading again.
posted by Cosine at 2:00 PM on March 11, 2005

*puts down interesting book to participate in askme thread*


*goes back to book*
posted by carter at 2:01 PM on March 11, 2005

*puts down book to check thread again*
posted by carter at 2:07 PM on March 11, 2005

This is one thing I like about travelling. It's one of the only times I get out of my digital habits as well as my pysical home. I don't use internet cafes when I travel.

Try a 2-week trip combined with a concerted effort to get back into reading once you get home. You may even find that your internet-fed hunger for information might increase your appetite for books once books are the only thing you feed it.
posted by scarabic at 2:38 PM on March 11, 2005

Oh, I give up! Well, as far as I can make out for me, it's a mixture of working with computers, probably too much caffeine and sugar (although I don't take a lot), stress, not reading 'fun' stuff any more - and also just having too much not-very-well-written stuff to read. I think your brain just needs a break from all this to process it for a while, otherwise it's like eating pudding all day; you just get bloated and distracted. FWIW I usually get my best reading done when it's oriented towards achieving a particular project, although if I *have* to read all the time, I just get read-ed out at some point.
posted by carter at 2:41 PM on March 11, 2005

Best answer: Agreeing with the suggestions above... ya gotta set it up so that staying where you are and reading is the most compelling choice. And hopefully, once you get deep enough into the material, you'll continue reading out of interest. I do it by riding trains and buses, going to "boring" places for the afternoon (usually low-traffic library areas, caf├ęs, anyone else's house while they are away), and sometimes sitting in the car (facing a decent view, if possible). At home I will sometimes set up for reading in the kitchen, along with cooking something that needs occasional stirring. That way, I need to be kitchen-based, but the cooking is not too distracting. (And if your apartment is small, definitely shut down the computer so you don't check email every time you get up to stir.) Getting in bed is a good idea too. In the winter, especially -- don't wear a sweater, get in bed, read, and then you won't want to get out to check your email because it's too cold out there...
posted by xo at 2:48 PM on March 11, 2005

Books can be a two week commitment. I feel a bit thick taking more DVDs out of the library than I do books. But a movie tells its story in two hours - it fills short periods of time - and it tickles more senses: there's the narrative, the light and shadow, the sound. And familiarity with a movie is a touchstone you can share with a greater number of people; we have individual films more in common than we do books.

Reading regularly died for me years ago. I wish I could regain it, but I think it's just gone. There's no pull anymore to read any Great Books, because I feel too far behind, and I've stupidly forgotten most of what I have read (while other people at places like Metafilter seem to be able to recount whole plots and characters). Too many times I pick up a new hyped novel that I think might reignite the passion, only to find it full of the same old style tricks and concerns that have no relevance to the world around me, and I lose interest at page 175, to either drag myself through the remainder or let it collect the dustballs underneath the bed.

Sometimes I think changing reading interests might help. Maybe many people feel less attraction to fiction, or serious fiction anyway, as they move out of their college years/ early adulthood. So reading non-fiction might help. Or rereading old favourites.
posted by TimTypeZed at 2:50 PM on March 11, 2005 [1 favorite]

You may be frustrated with your life. I took a couple too many years to finish my PhD. By the time I finished, I was convinced that I no longer enjoyed reading, and that I had ADD. What I needed was a break. It took me almost a year out of school before I began to read for pleasure. I started reading detective fiction and magazines. I'm now back to my old ways.
posted by gesamtkunstwerk at 2:57 PM on March 11, 2005

Same problem here. Discussion fora and aggregators like Mefi are the worst. The primary problem is not the Internet per se. It's gratification. ADD could be related somewhere in there. Right now, I've 5-6 nonfiction books on loan from the library. All of them cover engaging subject material. Yet, I've barely covered the introductions of only some of them. Well, they are 200+ page books, which means reading sessions will be 1 hour or longer. "They better be good or worthwhile". On the other hand, metafilter threads and discussions are added regularly, can be skipped, or perused quickly. Stimulation quicker, variety even moreso. Maybe someone has some tips.
posted by Gyan at 3:01 PM on March 11, 2005

It's not the internet: it's school. When you're a grad student it's your job to read. Not just to read, but to read extended arguments that take time, concentration, and effort.

Reading for relaxation can become a bit too much like work. My solution is multifaceted:

One, I just don't read as much for pure pleasure when I'm working on stuff that requires lots of reading, but I save good looking fiction for a reward on breaks.

Two, I don't require myself to read stuff that's "good for me." I'm already reading stuff that's good for me! I read pulp and genre fiction and kid's books for a break when I'm doing a lot of academic reading.

Three, I get friends who aren't in grad school to recommend books.

Four, (I tell myself) the internet is different from reading academic books or novels. The whole interface is different, it provides shorter pieces of info and requires less concentration, which is why it is more of a break from academic reading than a novel.

On preview: gesamtkunstwerk pretty much hit the same nail I was going for, with a smaller hammer :)
posted by carmen at 3:04 PM on March 11, 2005

Response by poster: What a great bunch of answers! So far it seems like the common theme is "Turn off the computer." And while I knew that this was the way, I suppose I just need to find the self-control to do it.

I'd like to hear any additional answers but I definitely appreciate those who have contributed.
posted by trey at 3:15 PM on March 11, 2005

Psych. undergrad just returned to school, myself. I set my watch with an "internet bedtime" (at 9pm) when I have to get off the computer and get into bed. That's when I read with my bedlamp until about 10.
posted by Eideteker at 4:23 PM on March 11, 2005

A minor suggestion: checking email happens in part because you're anticipating some pleasant distraction. Either set your email client to check only every hour or so, or set it to notify you in some obvious way when email does arrive, so that you have no reason to check for email until actually notified.
posted by orthogonality at 5:09 PM on March 11, 2005

I got reading glasses. I hadn't been reading comfortably, and getting glasses resolve the problem. They're cheaters from the drugstore. When I went to the eye doctor for a real eye test, they were the right magnification.
posted by theora55 at 6:03 PM on March 11, 2005

For me, two things: First, I read online. Etexts are for when I'm in front of the computer and have nothing to do. I have the little gmail notifier thinger extention on Firefox, so I don't need to check. It's like a really big newsgroup post.

Another thing is: I read half drunk. Even without coffee, I'm a jumpy motherfucker. I was diagnosed with ADD as a kid; I may or may not have it now, but I'm also just kind of neurotic and always checking everything online. It's hard for me to really focus unless I'm tired, pissed off, have a headache, or am somehow otherwise mentally diminished.
posted by saysthis at 7:14 AM on March 12, 2005

I have an evening ritual of relaxing in the tub with a book. No way I'm getting out to check email.

Sadly, this doesn't work with huge books, but it's great for most stuff.
posted by frykitty at 9:45 AM on March 12, 2005

This is a really good question. I do think that people have shorter attention spans than they used to when I was a kid. Even on the net - some of you might remember what it was like to access a website with a 14k dial-up connection (darn, I even remember what it was like to use a 2,400 bps modem...) Now with widespread broadband, everything has to be accessible instantly, we can't wait, everything is preferably filtered, abridged, summarised.

Anyway, my best suggestion echoes scarabic. Go on a holiday. Somewhere where you will not have internet or at least have to pay by the minute for it - you will get used to it after a couple of days of painful nonline existence. And somewhere that involves bus travel, long flights, etc. I just came back from Vietnam and managed to finish 6 books in 3 weeks on long bus journeys.
posted by keijo at 11:36 AM on March 12, 2005

If you have time to watch a movie or two, or TV of any kind, you have time to read a book. A typical book takes 2-4 hours to read. If you can't find 2-4 hours, that's one thing, but if you find yourself doing other things that take 2-4 hours (like watching a movie) when you could be reading, it's just that your priorities have changed. Nothing wrong with that. I don't read as much as I used to either.
posted by kindall at 3:30 PM on March 12, 2005

Books can be a two week commitment.

Two weeks!? There are perhaps a small handful of books I've read within two weeks. More like ten months/a year in my case. Then again, time always seems like it's rushing by for me :) I've had Georges Perec's Life: A User's Manual open for three months now and am ten pages in.
posted by wackybrit at 3:49 PM on March 12, 2005

I read every single night lying in bed before going to sleep. It's really the only uninterrupted time i have in the day, and works really well.
posted by amberglow at 5:12 PM on March 12, 2005

Yep - get in that tub: the room of water will be your only sanctury from electronics. Sure, your paperbacks might end up a bit wrinkly, but it's better than them gathering dust....
posted by forallmankind at 9:18 PM on March 14, 2005

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