Tuning out distractions while reading
June 23, 2016 11:23 AM   Subscribe

I find it almost impossible to read when someone is watching TV in the same room or having a conversation at the next table. These are situations where I don't have control over my environment (I can't make people stop talking or turn off the TV). I'd like to be better at "walling off" the distractions mentally so that they don't disrupt my reading so much. Is this a skill I can develop? Are there techniques I can use to improve my ability to focus in these circumstances?

There is a ton of generic advice out there on improving concentration, but a lot of it seems to be about getting rid of the distractions (finding a quiet space, turning off Internet notifications), which isn't applicable in this case. Headphones or earplugs can help, but I'd like to be better at just tuning things out.
posted by Gerald Bostock to Grab Bag (24 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
I start by making a DOOT DOOT DOOT DOOT DOOT noise in my head while reading. It tunes out the background noise enough to read, and within about a minute I get going enough on the reading that I forget to keep doing the DOOT DOOT and it all tunes out.
posted by phunniemee at 11:26 AM on June 23, 2016 [3 favorites]

I would start by reading in a place with a lot of more distant distraction. Like a coffee shop where there are a lot of conversations going on, but all more than five feet away. And then work down to one distracting noise by reading in other places. One noise is the hardest for me, but I feel like working in a cube farm taught me to tune out noise.
posted by Kalmya at 11:33 AM on June 23, 2016

Practice reading in the most distracting environment you can imagine. Then ordinary distracting environments will be no sweat.
posted by kindall at 11:44 AM on June 23, 2016

I am sensitive to noise so I'll never be able to do deep reading in noisy environments. I've tried for years and it just will not happen. I try to mitigate this by either keeping to fluffy reading when I'm out in public or using noise canceling earbuds. Sometimes I use audiobooks in those situations.

It's not quite what you're looking for, but a coworker has these smart filtering earbuds and swears they're amazing for improving noisy environments.
posted by Candleman at 11:52 AM on June 23, 2016

I have ADD and this is a problem for me at times. When I'm struggling, I try to actively engage with what I'm reading--I mentally ask myself questions about what I just read, from chapter-by-chapter to paragraph-by-paragraph, depending n how much added focus I need, and in general "turn up" my inner monologue to drown out the noise around me.
posted by epj at 12:17 PM on June 23, 2016

You could try a reading aid like a bookmark to keep your attention focused on the line you are reading. I also wouldn't discount a good pair of noise canceling headphones in conjunction with a high quality white noise app like Simply Noise.
posted by the foreground at 12:18 PM on June 23, 2016

This is goofy but I'll often just wear headphones that aren't connected to anything and that helps me remember "Hey we're not concentrating on outside noises now" As far as just tuning things out, I sort of believe that people have a setting about how much noise is a problem or not but that you can adjust that setting somewhat through exposure and by reducing your own anxiety levels. The standard advice is meditation and limiting the caffeine and other things that ratchet up anxiety but also being forgiving of yourself if you're having a hard time getting around it..
posted by jessamyn at 12:26 PM on June 23, 2016 [2 favorites]

At home I sometimes use noise canceling headphones with nothing playing in them, but when I'm out and about, I typically use whatever earbuds I have with drone music or noise playing.
posted by soplerfo at 12:26 PM on June 23, 2016

I start by mouthing the words a bit. If focuses me until I'm engrossed into the reading (similar to phunniemee's doot doot method).

However, it requires engrossing reading. When I'm grading papers that are less than spellbinding, I have to find a quiet place or I can't focus.
posted by 26.2 at 12:32 PM on June 23, 2016

If something distracts me and I have re read a page I'll mark a little tally on the margin. By keeping track of the tallys I'm more motivated to move past the page.

The bookmark for line by line reading also helps when I'm reading fiction.

I find different things work for me depending on if I'm pleasure reading a novel or reading text for school. It might be worth exploring.
posted by LaunchBox at 12:35 PM on June 23, 2016

I'm sure this isn't universal, but I've never had much luck training myself to selectively filter noise, and not from lack of trying.

I have had to work in noisy environments, and have eventually been able to tune out background noise, but when I do, it creates a constant tension, which makes me very very jumpy and easily startled. When I do manage to zone out, I often don't hear things I need to hear like people coming up to me or talking to me until they're directly in my line of vision, so I'd just get acclimated to having multiple scares a day. It's horrible, and I have never found a way to comfortably manage it, particularly not long term.

At home where I have more control over the environment, I can make the noisy people compromise and adapt some of their behaviors so it's not always me having to make accommodations for them.

In public places where I don't have control, though, the only solutions I've found at all only get me to 'barely tolerating', and I don't even bother trying to read or concentrate because all that does is make it worse.

I'm sorry. I wish my answer were yes, but at least for me, I don't think it's possible to do this very successfully without huge tradeoffs.
posted by ernielundquist at 12:37 PM on June 23, 2016 [4 favorites]

I sprung for noise cancelling headphones (the cheapest "also great" model on this list). I am terrible with reading and writing in distracting environments, and I can't avoid the need to do so. In my office, I even have a post-it that I put on my headphones that say, "Headphones on? LEAVE ME BE." Everyone knows this means I need to read/write without distractions (I even have an inter-office recurring calendar bloc, 2 hours each day, that specify this is an undisturbed work period--which itself is a great thing to be able to implement in an office setting).
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 12:46 PM on June 23, 2016 [1 favorite]

I, too, wish my answer were 'yes', but I'm not so sure.

I have the opposite problem. When I'm reading, you could be shouting for help in the next room and I might not notice for a minute or two. It's even possible for me to respond to questions (with a 'yeah, uh huh') without consciously realizing the conversation has even happened. Reading brain just generally shuts to doors to the other parts of the brain and leaves them to do their own thing. It's ridiculous. I have not been successful at turning this 'capability' off, and I don't know if someone could turn it on.
posted by Ausamor at 1:18 PM on June 23, 2016

I also mouth the words as I read, if I really gotta focus. I always listen to music, without words. Frequently if it's really hard to focus and I need to "turn my ears off", I'll listen to something like this or this
posted by rebent at 1:28 PM on June 23, 2016

What's been strangely, counterintuitively helpful for me is reading on my phone. I have a 4" iPhone, with a long, narrow screen, and I realized that having to tap to go to the next page so often (because the screen could show so few words) was helping me focus. It's impossible to get lost on a page that has three sentences on it, and tapping really often to make you feel like you're doing something is a classic addictive-mobile-game move.

I still prefer e-ink, but when I use it I have much wider margins than I used to.
posted by Polycarp at 1:35 PM on June 23, 2016

I keep a pencil in hand (or index finger, for e-versions) and mark up my books -- talk back to them, ask questions, underline things I really like, whatever gets my attention.
posted by gnomeloaf at 1:36 PM on June 23, 2016 [1 favorite]

I've never found anything that works for me. When people start doing distracting things near me, and I'm trying to do something that requires concentration, I go somewhere else. I don't make a big deal out of it or try to make people feel bad, I just leave. If I'm at work, I shut the door and play my own music (which is less distracting than other people's music, for some reason) to cover the noise. But if I'm somewhere where I can leave the area, that's what I do. It's just so much simpler and more effective than trying to block out the distraction, and creates less frustration and resentment on my part. I've learned to recognize that this is my problem to deal with rather than other people's (family members have a right to watch TV in the living room at moderate volumes for instance, even if it drives me batty) and I deal with it in my own way.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 2:23 PM on June 23, 2016 [4 favorites]

I use an iPhone app called Chill with ordinary headphones. It has a selection of noises that can be used to tune anything out. I primarily use the wind, ocean waves, and rain, occasionally plain old white noise.
posted by chimpsonfilm at 2:35 PM on June 23, 2016

Nthing unplugged headphones and using motor skills to center yourself: trace line with finger, tap foot, mark up text. Also sunglasses.
posted by fritillary at 2:55 PM on June 23, 2016

I've always had difficulty filtering out voices, regardless of how hard I try. What's working for me these days (since I can't afford $300 for noise-cancelling earbuds) is an iOS app called… well, it's currently called The app formerly known as H _ _ r because of a legal challenge regarding the name.

The "Office" mode is great for shutting out noises of the outside world and concentrating. "Happy" is fun when on the bus or walking around out in public. I haven't experimented with the other modes.

Here are a couple of articles about it: This App Gives You Trippy Super-Hearing Powers Through Your Earbuds, Hear for iOS turns the world into a surreal, useful soundscape.
posted by Lexica at 2:57 PM on June 23, 2016 [1 favorite]

My go to method when the distractions are intruding is to "orate" in my head. I read using the intonations, pauses etc as if I was doing a public reading.

It's a bit slower reading that way at first, but as you become increasingly focused on what you are reading you will naturally speed up your reading and drop the "oration" style. If something breaks my focus I just go back to my private orating in my head.

This is somewhat similar to the above techniques of writing in the book or using a bookmark but without accessories.
posted by IpsoFacto at 4:16 PM on June 23, 2016

Instrumental music with noise cancelling headphones. Try that and see. Spotify and Google Play both offer these for readers.
posted by Coffeetyme at 4:21 PM on June 23, 2016

Like many others, I also use music and headphones to tune people out, but when that's not available one thing that works for me is that I "read" out loud in my mind. I... don't know how to explain that exactly, but it's kind of the same practice as self-talk.

It does slow down the reading at first, but once I get past the "EFFINGDISTRACTIONS" phase I go back to my usual pace.
posted by sm1tten at 6:42 PM on June 23, 2016

I work in an open-plan office that used to be even more open-plan. The solution I found to this problem was to get big over-ear DJ headphones and play Coffitivity (recordings of ambient voice noise from coffee shops), white noise, and music at the same time. "Coffeeshop recordings" maybe sounds like it couldn't possibly help, but it is critical: once you get above a certain threshold of people talking all at once, you can't resolve what they're saying anymore and it suddenly becomes easy to tune them out. White noise buries non-voice sounds and music (without lyrics) sets the mood and gives my ears something to hang onto that's still asemic. If people need to reach me, they can knock on my desk.

Another thing I have done is to wear earbuds under those firing-range earmuffs but it is not very comfortable. You can also try listening to music on over-ear headphones while wearing earplugs. These solutions are inelegant (putting on and taking off two sets of ear things is annoying), but they are possibly cheaper than DJ headphones with reasonable sound isolation.

Active noise-canceling doesn't do shit for voices. In fact, it will actually tend to make the problem worse by mainly removing background noise, making the voices clearer and more easily distinguishable. Fancy noise-canceling phones may coincidentally make the voices quieter, but that's from the passive noise removal (i.e., they cover your ears and physically block sound). Save your money, unless you want to listen to music on planes/loud transportation.

Sorry I don't have a non-technological solution. Fiddling with stuff and mentally auralizing help a little, but not nearly to the same degree.
posted by en forme de poire at 1:32 AM on June 24, 2016

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