Reading puts me asleep; or I simply drift off.
November 8, 2019 11:31 AM   Subscribe

I read a lot; short stuff; NYT. But anything like a book I find myself drifting away, wondering what I just read. Little retention, easily distracted, so little memorization and comprehension. I try to read again, harder, concentrate more. Not my glasses (I've had them checked for reading distance) and not the subjects. This is not new, had trouble when I was a kid. Help! I want to read all the books I buy but barely get started on. Need to add that short attention is not just a reading issue in my life!
posted by ebesan to Grab Bag (15 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Set a timer for five minutes and try for once a day - it is okay to read a a book in tiny snippets. Do you drive alone or take public transport to work? Both of those times are perfect for audiobooks. One other thing to try is a collection of short stories or essays.
posted by soelo at 11:40 AM on November 8, 2019

Sometimes when this happens to me, audiobooks work.

When I’m reading for school and desperate, reading aloud helps.
posted by CMcG at 11:55 AM on November 8, 2019 [1 favorite]

Read standing up.
posted by dobbs at 12:11 PM on November 8, 2019 [1 favorite]

I have this issue with TV more than books, but keeping my hands occupied helps. Knitting, origami, just moving beads around. (Does require a book stand or a Kindle that you can prop somewhere.)
posted by I claim sanctuary at 12:21 PM on November 8, 2019

I can read more on my Kindle than I can on paper books. My theory is that the object is less distracting.
posted by The corpse in the library at 12:22 PM on November 8, 2019

I Internet too much and it has shortened my attention span. I have been able to get it back in shape a bit by reading books that are quite engaging, maybe a bit less high-flown& literary. Reading at set times has helped also. Reading paper books at bedtime is relaxing. I get ebooks on my phone and tablet, quite nice for times I have to wait or hang out. Reading is a mental exercise, you will be able to do it better by doing it more.
posted by theora55 at 12:37 PM on November 8, 2019 [4 favorites]

Reading often puts me right to sleep as well. One solution has been to listen to audiobooks while I do something else (clean, exercise, drive, etc.)

On the rare occasions I can stay awake to read (not listen) to a book, I do find that I have to read certain sections over again because my mind wandered, often more than once. I've started to just accept that I've become a slower reader, and to allow that so I can focus more on comprehension.
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 1:21 PM on November 8, 2019

Try an e-reader-- for some people, making the text all the same size and making the pages endlessly scroll helps a lot.
posted by blnkfrnk at 1:49 PM on November 8, 2019 [1 favorite]

I'll add one thing that hasn't been mentioned yet: if you're having problems with drifting off to sleep when reading, then never read right before bed, or while lying in bed. If you do that, you train your brain to associate reading with sleeping.

I have ADHD and go through spates of being unable to pay attention to longer narratives. To get back into that, I do things like go sit in a chair in a different room that doesn't have a TV, put on bland music on low volume (which seems to knock other sounds that distract me out of my awareness), or turn off all the lights in the room except the one I'm reading by, which like the music keeps things in my environment from distracting me.

These times are the times in which I also indulge in light, fast reads: tropey romance, airplane-reading thrillers, etc. Books that are deliberately constructed to keep you turning the page.
posted by telophase at 2:36 PM on November 8, 2019 [1 favorite]

I have a chaotic attention span where I tend to either read intensely fairly quickly (usually being able to finish a few hundred pages of narrative/light nonfiction in a day's worth of train commuting, mileage varies for dense nonfiction) or I struggle to focus. Over the years, here's some things that have worked for me:

- Music in headphones. When I want to hunker down and read something dense, I usually listen to familiar external stimuli of my choosing (loud music w/ vocals in headphones to drown out the unwanted external stimuli of people talking, outside music, train noises, etc). Silence interrupted by the occasional rustle or toned-down-unwanted-noise gets me too restless to concentrate, so headphone music is imperative, even though the usual study/reading advice is to avoid listening to music with vocals because that will be a distraction. I'm also the kind of person who's very content to listen to the same song(s) on repeat a bajillion times, which can be really great for zoning out everything besides the thing I'm reading. YMMV!

- Reducing visual distractions. I get a lot of reading done as a passenger on long uninterrupted trips (30+ min, vs just hopping on a bus/lightrail for a few stops) and cafes or other public spaces if I'm on my own, since there's not much else to do besides sit. I tend not to get a lot of sustained reading done at home unless a book is immediately compelling. When I was a student, I'd go to the school library/public library with my mp3 player, headphones, and reading. Now that I'm no longer a student, I either save the bulk of my reading for situations where I don't have much else I can do besides read, or I have to first put away everything else that can distract me besides music to limit my visual distractions. Even if I'm using my phone to play music (e.g. while on the train), I put it away in my pocket or keep it facedown on the table in front of me (wireless headphones are terrific for this) so I'm less tempted to pick it up at a moment's whim.

- Reading a physical print copy of the book or a digital copy on a barebones e-reader (no other apps, no tablets or other devices where it's easy to switch over to browsing the internet, but occasionally I'll read on the e-reader app on my laptop by maximizing the window so I can't see any of the other windows/apps going on). Sort of a subset of the above: limit your ability to get distracted by other stuff. I scan a physical page much faster than a digital one and also can only read that one book at a time, vs switching to another ebook on a whim just b/c I know I can, but if it's just casual reading where I don't really care much about retention, ebooks are nbd.

- Interacting with the text as I read. For physical books, I either use a writing utensil to mark passages or jot notes to myself (pg numbers/the full quote) in a separate pocket notebook like a Field Notes for a reading log. For e-books, I highlight/mark passages as I go. Sometimes it's for retention/for future reference, sometimes it's just b/c I like keeping visual track of my progress so I know for sure how far I've read. Sometimes I also make a quick list of chapters/sections and check them off as I go (unless it's a page-turner narrative like the Broken Earth trilogy where I don't even need to bother w/ the chapter listing). Sometimes I take phone pictures of printed passages like a dork b/c I don't have anything on me to mark up a printed copy, can't mark up a borrowed copy, or have been highlighting so much of the ebook that it's just easier to take a pic as well so I can save an especially good passage as an image/remember to find it in the text later.

- Not relying on a routine or specific environment to read, but always having a book with you so you can read it whenever you're free to do so. I don't associate any particular routine or ritual with reading (other than knowing if I'm taking the train or that I'll have some spare time b/c I have to wait somewhere), which also helps, I think? For example, I'll read on the train when it's standing room only and I don't need to hold onto something to avoid falling over & don't need to check my phone or get back to someone right away. Also sometimes I resent anyone trying to elbow in on my reading time (it's my time!) and in that respect, reading in public tends to make me concentrate even better on recreational reading than if I'm comfy and lounging around at home.
posted by rather be jorting at 4:14 PM on November 8, 2019 [2 favorites]

Besides various attention-focusing strategies, sometimes it's easier for me to read a book if I've already had the sense of accomplishment from finishing another book, even if it's in a totally different genre, complexity, etc. It's like some conceptual high or confidence-booster or something.

Page-turners can be great for this, especially if you've heard about something through word of mouth and you want to know what all the hype is about. Or if you're already reading something and you enjoy it but you think you "ought" to set it aside to read something else w/ more reputation or critical acclaim or w/e - finish the thing you're already enjoying or curious about, the other stuff will always be there in your ever-changing to-read list.
posted by rather be jorting at 4:19 PM on November 8, 2019 [1 favorite]

Do you also get sleepy when you're watching a movie in a dark room, or doing other dull things like being in a boring meeting or being a passenger on a long trip? Because if so, you might have a sleep disorder.
posted by wintersweet at 4:43 PM on November 8, 2019 [1 favorite]

Reading usually puts me to sleep, although for me, that’s a feature, not a bug. It just means I’m tired. I also have read while eating ever since I was a kid. If you aren’t obligated to be sociable during a meal, try that.
posted by Autumnheart at 5:41 PM on November 8, 2019

Here's 2 things I'd like to offer which help me out in one way or another:

-my favorite reading experiences usually happen after the exposition of the book. I find that I have to work to get myself through the introductory portion, where the characters, relationships, locations, themes, etc. are introduced. That's what gets me invested, but it can be a slog. Once I'm past that section, then reading becomes an entirely different experience - I can't wait to get back to it! (Assuming the writing is good, that is.) So for me, the advice of trying short stories doesn't work - because that just means more frequent exposition - the hard part of reading, before I know or care about the material. There are askme's re: long, immersive reads - such as the bullfinch, or jonathan strange and dr. whatever... (is it morrell? great book.) - maybe give those a try?

-there are some activities that you do that do NOT put you to sleep. Treat reading like one of these activities. Do it in the middle of the day, in a public space such as a cafe where falling asleep is not an option. Do it at a time when your brain is attuned to activity - such as first thing in the morning, right after you've woken up. Or take a nap first, and then read. Point being - treat like an activity that you devote waking, thoughtful time to. This approach helps me focus.
posted by fingers_of_fire at 9:20 AM on November 9, 2019

Echoing some of the advice above to make reading more interactive.

Research shows that one of the best ways we learn is by making ourselves remember something - quizzing ourselves.

So, try reading at least four books like this:

* Read sitting in a chair, not lying down in bed.
* Have a notebook and pen with you.
* Skim the first page. If it's fiction, write down the names of one or more characters on the page
* Now actually read that page. Write down where the characters are and 3-5 words about what happens.
* Turn to the next page and do the same thing.
* Repeat for pages 3-5.
* At page 5, pause and read back over your notes. Now look away from your notes and tell yourself (aloud, ideally) a 3-5 sentence summary of what you just read, adding in as much detail as you can remember from what you read (vs. the very minimal notes you've been taking).
* When you get to the end of a chapter, do a similar verbal summary of the whole chapter.
* Keep going through the book the same way.

For non-fiction, you can do something similar, but with fewer characters and plot, and more ideas, arguments, and data.

The idea is not necessarily that you will always read this way forever, but rather that you can help accustom your brain to paying more attention and watching out for things you'll want to remember later.
posted by kristi at 7:51 PM on November 11, 2019

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