Y Kant Anoni Read
October 31, 2011 12:29 PM   Subscribe

Grad student can no longer read. ADD reading strategies sought, please.

I am a grad student in the social sciences. This year I was diagnosed with ADD and prescribed methylphenidate (Ritalin). It has helped in some areas, especially in boosting my ability to truck forward on more active tasks such as writing papers, but it hasn't really helped my ability to focus on more passive tasks at all. Specifically, I am almost completely unable to read in any meaningful way. This is very distressing because 1) I have to do a ton of reading for my degree, and 2) I was an extremely avid reader from a very early age and it is disturbing to have suddenly acquired this inability in the past few years. My ADD symptoms have definitely been getting worse with time, not better. I spent a few years working between undergrad and grad school, so I'm really feeling the escalation of my symptoms, suddenly being back in an academic program.

It's not that I'm inherently bored by what I read, it's that I just can't focus. Either what I'm reading is boring, and I'm distracted by other, more interesting things, or the reading is actually something that interests me incredibly, and when I try to read it my mind goes into "OH MY GOD THIS IS SO EXCITING I AM SO EXCITED THAT I AM READING ABOUT THIS AAAAH LET ME THINK ABOUT THIS TOPIC WHILE RUNNING AROUND THE ROOM OH MY GOD I LOVE THIS TOPIC". It's totally absurd. The hardest part is that most of my reading is on the computer, which makes it 20 times harder, but I'm doing my best to print out as frequently as possible, though it's not always practical. Nonetheless, reading in print is really not that much easier. Weirdly enough, even though I tend to enjoy nonfiction a lot better in theory, I find it much easier to read fiction now-- it's much easier to get into that locked-in reading trance. In fact, now that I write it out, that's exactly what I suddenly lack-- the ability to just get into that groove where you're locked into what you're reading, and unconsciously following along; what normal people seem to be able to do and what I used to be able to do effortlessly. Now every clause is a true struggle and I never get into any sort of flow.

I'm in dialogue with my psychiatrist about this, so I'm interested in non-pharmaceutical coping strategies you can suggest. Nothing I have tried has worked; I always just end up sitting in front of unread text for an hour.

Thanks muchly in advance.

Throwaway email cantread@cluemail.com if you prefer to answer anonymously.
posted by anonymous to Health & Fitness (19 answers total) 39 users marked this as a favorite
The hardest part is that most of my reading is on the computer, which makes it 20 times harder, but I'm doing my best to print out as frequently as possible, though it's not always practical.

(ideally, you do this with two monitors, and one window on each monitor). Set up two windows. Close basically everything else except MAYBE iTunes. Nothing with notifications. Get your reading material in the right hand window. Get your text editor in your left hand window. Every time you read about a paragraph or so, tab back to the editor window and describe what you just read. Chattily, without the "writing"-ness of it, as if you were preparing some notes that you were going to send to a friend who didn't have access to the book, but needed to know the stuff that was in the book. In fact, the more you re-explain it, rather than paraphrasing the book, the better. Make up your own metaphors, etc. When you read further and you realize they are wrong, go back and update them.

At the end, you should be through your text, but you should have another huge document that's like a slangy alternate-universe version of your text.


One thing I do for this is every question/idea I have I write down. For some reason I generally use a pen/paper for this, rather than another window. I had a thing set up where I could hit a key command and start adding text to a buffer for this but I drifted back to the pen and paper. I keep a notebook and a pen next to my computer and when I can't concentrate, and my brain starts running of with "BUT WAIT WHAT IF THIS IS THE HOLD ON LEMME JUST LOOK UP THE" I just write that crap down and promise myself I'll come back to it later. It's like some sort of mental judo: what you are doing is procrastinating the procrastinating.

It takes FOREVER to read this way, but it works for me. I do this all the time with stuff I can't brain onto for one reason or another.
posted by jeb at 12:43 PM on October 31, 2011 [18 favorites]

ADD reading strategies sought, please.

Do you retain information better by hearing it rather than reading it? Maybe try getting a text to speech app and just listening to your readings?

Another thing that might help you retain information better, particularly for dense/confusing/dry material is to read one paragraph at a time and then write your own summary/explanation in the margin. If a paragraph is too much then you can go sentence by sentence at times. A side benefit of this is that when you have to go back and refer to your readings later, you can just skim down the margins and see what was where, instead of searching through dense text.
posted by cairdeas at 12:44 PM on October 31, 2011 [1 favorite]

This happens to me sometimes.
My first thought, upon seeing you're on Ritalin, is Different drugs, stat!. Ritalin is a little steam-age, as ADD drugs go. For reference, I was taking it as a 4th grader in 1986.
Adderal is slightly newer, and some people swear by it. I found the complications of getting a controlled substance prescription daunting enough to set off my ADD's powerful aww, fuck it failsafe system. The drugs you don't take won't help you. Right now, I'm between meds, but feeling like I need to get a new one. There are lots. Find a neurologist or psychiatrist who's willing to help you find the right one for you.
Good luck. I know how hard it can be.
posted by willpie at 1:01 PM on October 31, 2011 [1 favorite]

Walk outside, on a treadmill, or wherever you can walk while you read. I sometimes have issues with finishing readings for classes and whatnot when I'm sitting at my desk but I find that standing (or walking around) helps me to not be so distracted. When I come back to my desk I've already invested some time and effort in understanding what I've read so I generally feel more capable of summarizing it in a useful way.

I also can't read from a computer for classes; I bought a laser printer and print everything double sided/ two pages per sheet with recycled cartridges because otherwise I just don't absorb the information.
posted by _cave at 1:01 PM on October 31, 2011

My husband has ADD and audio books work much better for him. I don't know how much of an option this is for you. An off-the-wall suggestion - your school should have an accessibility office, and if your ADD is considered a learning disability for which you require accommodation, perhaps you could have someone record the books for you to listen to?
posted by desjardins at 1:04 PM on October 31, 2011 [1 favorite]

I suffer from this too and can empathize. A couple of things that help me:

1. Get rid of all distractions. So no mobile phone, sit facing away from the window, no browser open on the computer, etc.

2. If you have to read on-screen, use your cursor to focus your eyes by running it along the bottom of every line you read the way you might do with your finger when reading something on paper.

3. Try to schedule your reading at the best time of day for you. For me, and for most people I think, this is in the morning from after I've had a cup of coffee up til just before lunchtime.
posted by hazyjane at 1:06 PM on October 31, 2011 [1 favorite]

Try reading stuff aloud to yourself. Take your computer/printouts someplace where you won't disturb anybody and read out loud. I find that, with deadly boring stuff, something about engaging the additional brain circuits really helps. You have to parse each sentence to figure out the right intonation, which sideslips you into understanding it. Free, easy and harmless - why not give it a try?
posted by Quietgal at 1:11 PM on October 31, 2011 [1 favorite]

I have ADD, as does one of my sons. Reading was not really a problem for me until recently, but as I get older I find it harder and harder to read for long stretches. Two things I do that you may find helpful:
  1. Read for short stretches. I tend to carry books around with me and read them for a little bit whenever I get the chance. When I get antsy, I put the book down and play with my iphone until i get bored with that, and then go back to reading. I will say I have a very good memory, and am always able to pick up a book wherever I left it, no matter how long I put it down for. Not everyone can do this.
  2. Read aloud. This completely changes the experience of reading for me, it makes it almost a different activity. You can use this strategy and #1 together profitably.
  3. Taking good notes (as suggested above) helps too, but not as much as 1 & 2.
I know you said non-pharmaceutical strategies, but don't underestimate the effectiveness of switching meds. My son always hated reading, but the feces didn't really hit the fan until law school. He got an ADD diagnosis (in all his high school and 4 years of ivy league college, no one suspected), got some Adderall, and now loves to read. If Adderall doesn't work, try Vyvanse. I take Strattera but I can't say it particularly helps with reading.
posted by ubiquity at 1:14 PM on October 31, 2011

Oops. Three things I do...
posted by ubiquity at 1:15 PM on October 31, 2011

Maybe try getting a text to speech app and just listening to your readings?

I came in here to suggest this. I have an Android phone and I bought Moon+ reader for $5, and it has probably doubled my productivity. It's better than a run-of-the-mill text-to-speech app because it is an ereader with text-to-speech, so it remembers where I was in my text instead of forcing me to remember. But the speech is really helpful on those days when I just.can't.read., because it forces me to move ahead. It takes some self-control to put the phone down and not touch it to mess around, and I probably don't get as thorough an understanding by hearing as opposed to reading, but I get the gist of the work and that's enough.

This might not work as well for you for these reasons: first, it requires changing the readings (which presumably come as PDF or HTML) into text or ePub files. Conversion software is really dumb and will include every header, footer, and page number. So you have to eliminate that, which can done pretty quickly with MS Office or LibreOffice. Otherwise you have to listen to the same useless interrupting information on every page, which drove me nuts after 60 or so pages. Also, you may have too much reading for this to work: it's probably slower than reading (haven't done any time trials), so it works for my part-time program but might be too slow for you - but you can control the speech speed on Android which might fix that. Finally, the biggest improvement has been allowing me to get some "reading" done while I'm in the car, and you may not drive as much as I.

But with those caveats, I'd suggest looking into it.
posted by Tehhund at 1:17 PM on October 31, 2011 [1 favorite]

I have ADD and made it through grad school, but I didn't have this problem. What I will recommend, however, is looking at the ways that are most successful for you to learn.

First: a terrible cheating technique. I almost never read full articles. I read the abstract, then searched through the article for whatever specific data I needed. If the reading doesn't have an abstract, Google around to see who else cites this article and what they say about it.

Definitely go into your reading with a purpose. If you know what you're looking for, you'll drive yourself to find that, instead of just waiting for something to pop out at you.

Reading on the computer is probably the most passive way you can do it. Just today I was reading a bunch of stuff and nearly fell asleep (really). It doesn't help that -- unless you're using some sort of iPad thing with markup -- you can't reach into the text and highlight it or write questions in the margins.

I write what I consider to be terrific lecture/meeting notes because it's SOMETHING TO DO. It's like activity-based Ritalin, in that performing a physical activity AND listening AND processing AND trying to figure out how to order it on the sheet makes my brain work so hard that it MUST focus in order to figure out what happens next.

If you can't print things out, write notes (if that works for you). Summarize every paragraph or page on your own paper, then rewrite it later (entering in handwritten notes, or just reordering your typed mashup) so you have another opportunity to take the material in.

Break it up into meaningful segments. Read one chapter or ten pages, then switch to something else before coming back. Set a timer. Use the Pomodoro Technique or similar.

Get in touch with your university's disability services office. You might think that your condition isn't as severe as XYZ, but who cares? This is what they're there for. It's better for everyone involved -- you, your professors, your fellow students, the university -- if you are able to learn better and get more out of the experience, so go for it!

I know how the printing thing goes; it's a pain. Maybe someone in this office can advocate for you to have a copy card available so you have easier printing access, or they can chat up your professors ahead of time to make a course reader available all at once at the beginning of the semester (or at least provide printed versions of last-minute additions).
posted by Madamina at 1:28 PM on October 31, 2011

What works for me (another social scientist with worsening ADD): create a prosthetic version of the cozy locked-in reading trance, by manipulating your material environment.

A folding butterfly chair is ideal, because it's (a) super-comfy; (b) a pain to get out of. When I have something I'm resisting reading, I climb in there. Lap-desks or a lap-top make it even harder to leave. (Hardest of all: a lap-cat.) Along similar lines: be in a cold room, under a blanket. Or in a dark room, under the only pool of light. Sip hot beverages.

I've also had to abandon habitual reverence for books. Mark them up a lot. Get materials you really like using -- I'm partial to fine-tip gel pens, and those post-it-type notes that are mostly clear, with a color tab at the end so you can color-code. That way you have a pleasurable, kinetic activity that lets you express your thoughts, but keeps you grappling with the text.
posted by feral_goldfish at 1:29 PM on October 31, 2011 [5 favorites]

My stupid reading trick. Highlight everything important. Try to find important things to highlight. Highlight them. I practically made it a game.

Not as useful on a monitor but it can still work. Got me through my masters degree.
posted by bitdamaged at 3:07 PM on October 31, 2011

I sometimes have trouble focusing as well.

Reading aloud, as suggested above, sometimes helps me focus.

I also don't like reading on a computer screen, but I guess I don't have any other suggestions besides printing stuff out. Maybe it would be wise to invest in a Kindle or a computer that is easier on the eyes, if you can afford it.

Physical exercise also helps me focus a lot.

Good luck.
posted by bearette at 6:01 PM on October 31, 2011

I'm a social scientists that was once in your shoes. I would try switching drugs. Strattera or Adderal may work better. If your problem is brain chemistry, the best solution is to rebalance your noggin. I have hundreds of coping tricks that I employ for various tasks, but nothing beats the right prescription.
posted by Crotalus at 7:15 PM on October 31, 2011

I was reading something really dense lately, and discovered, by dint of being short on time, that reading a printout of the material while walking and reading it aloud focused me like crazy. Several parts of my brain were engaged simultaneously: Don't hit that wall! Don't run into anyone. Follow the line of text while you're bobbing and weaving. Translate to speech! Use intonation! I looked barking mad, but I got done with it in time, and got around to where I needed to be.
posted by thelastcamel at 8:35 AM on November 1, 2011

1. Pomodoro method. It works for a number of reasons: specified tasks that are doable in fairly short amounts of time. Instead of "Prepare for X Class" the tasks might be: (1) read pages 1-30 of article ABC, (2) read pages 30-78 of article ABC. Pomodoro also helps because it starts to train you into knowing how long these kinds of tasks will take you, and being aware of passing time. It's much easier to say "work for one pomodoro" instead of "sit here for 8 hours and do your work." Finally, it requires that you do what Jeb suggests - have a scratch pad where you record "internal interruptions" about the things you're thinking of, or don't want to forget. There are apps but I find paper works the best.

2. Active reading is way easier for us ADD folks, because while you're reading, you can think not only about the content itself, but how you'd effectively summarize this paragraph into 1 sentence. Then write that sentence down, and move onto the next paragraph. At some point you might prefer to do ~5 bullet points per section, or some other useful breakdown. But start with 1 sentence = 1 paragraph.

Get Self-Control or one of the other internet blocking software systems. I still allow myself access to most of the internet so I can look up stuff if needed, but sometimes I literally block it for a 2 hour stint. Sure, it's a "fake" control in that it's going to do the work for you while you're on the computer, and you're not actively choosing to ignore each impulse to go wandering on the internet, but I say, who cares! Fake it til you make it. It takes control just to set up the software and know that you'll be blocking it for awhile. It gives you some space to settle into the task so that you can turn off that part of your brain that says, "look up this word! look up this author! I wonder who else said this! I love this idea, where else can I read about it?" and just focus on the active reading itself.

3. Exercise. I know it's a cliche, but take a good fresh brisk walk in the morning, or go to the gym, and come back to work. Work to a SWEAT, not a general amble about. It gets out some of those anxious tendencies and floods you with good endorphins.

4. Good luck, I know it's really difficult.
posted by barnone at 12:20 PM on November 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

I second the Kindle, as it does allow you to highlight passages and take notes (I think there's a limit though). I'm a lot like you - avid reader turned totally unfocused - though the listening options wouldn't work for me either because I'd zonk out and forget.

Are you pretty experiential with your learning? Do you like to do things? Is there a way you can join a study group and discuss your readings together? If it's an especially massive one you could even split the work, so it doesn't seem as daunting, and in the process of teaching the information to others you teach yourself too.
posted by divabat at 7:12 PM on November 3, 2011

I have trouble focusing on reading and writing, too (also a grad student!). I have been using a few productivity software programs that help me focus while I am trying to work on my computer.

The first is called "Self Control" and it basically just blocks whatever sites you put on its "blacklist", for however long you want. Very, very basic. This usually means no Facebook for 8 hours.

The second is more complex, it's called Concentrate. I am using a trial version, but I think it will cost around $30 when I use up the free minutes. You set up different "tasks" that can have various parameters (which program open and close, how long, etc). For example, you could have a task called "Read Being and Time". You could set it so that when you start the task, your "Being and Time" pdf opens, Firefox and Mail close, a new desktop color appears, a weird robotic voice says "good luck kiddo!". You could set it to do this for however long you like (20-30 minutes is usually best).

Besides technological help, I also agree with taking notes while you read. I also have the problem of being either very excited or very bored, but if I know I have to participate in a small seminar class the next day, I make sure to jot down questions and clever notes so that I'll have a few things to say. Also, trying to relate the reading to previous readings can help you stay focused (and make you sound like a super smarty pants!).
posted by cejl at 10:44 AM on February 15, 2012

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