How to focus on reading?
May 7, 2021 1:21 PM   Subscribe

I have trouble focusing and getting really into both novels and non-fiction, no matter how interesting I think they are, how much I would love to read them, and how much I want to know what happens. It’s like I just want the book to be over. How do I learn to enjoy and absorb, and be absorbed by the books, better?
posted by jitterbug perfume to Media & Arts (20 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Apologies if this is blatantly obvious — have you tried audiobooks?
posted by mekily at 1:31 PM on May 7, 2021 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: I should’ve specified... this happens with audiobooks as well, I even tried speeding them up from normal pacing.
posted by jitterbug perfume at 1:37 PM on May 7, 2021

Best answer: I've been like this since the pandemic started and I don't know why. "This book is great! Is it almost over?" What has helped me lately is checking out physical books from the library. With my Kindle, I can't tell how far along I am unless I search for the tiny percentage in the bottom corner of the display. But when I'm holding a book, I subconsciously know how far along I am, and it helps my "are we there yet?" reflex to fade into the background just enough for me to fall deeper into the book.
posted by kimberussell at 1:48 PM on May 7, 2021 [4 favorites]

I love reading, but it's often hard for me to be doing only one thing. I do most of my reading while I'm walking my dogs. I read for fun, so it really doesn't matter if a sentence gets interrupted by a poop or something. I also read while eating, or while putting 10% of my attention tending an idle clicker game on my tablet, or while sitting out on my stoop watching the dogs in the yard. Etc. Back in the day I would mostly read on transit/walking to work, so without that I'm recreating that mindless background activity in other ways.
posted by phunniemee at 2:00 PM on May 7, 2021 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Like anything that hinges on focus, I find it helps to treat it like a muscle and start small. Try to read for just 20min per day for a week, then gradually build up to whatever amount you'd like to be reading.
posted by coffeecat at 2:26 PM on May 7, 2021 [5 favorites]

Get a pencil in your hand. Underline and take notes. That way you're not just turning pages waiting for the book to end.
posted by praemunire at 2:39 PM on May 7, 2021 [1 favorite]

In the flip from kimberussell, I've found that while I definitely prefer paper books as an aesthetic object, if I read on my phone I can translate the same infinite scroll zone from social media to reading a book. As in, I accidentally read a 1000-page book in a week just by syphoning off a bit of my doomscrolling time from the birdsite.
posted by past unusual at 2:41 PM on May 7, 2021 [7 favorites]

Maybe try reading shorter books and building up from there. I built my habit back up by reading children's chapter books. There are some good ones out there, and they're usually shorter than adult fiction.

It could also be that your tastes have changed-- try browsing for different books and see if something else is more compelling. Try switching to romance or nonfiction or whatever you would normally consider the opposite of what you usually like-- go to the library and pick up like 20 books and just give them all 10 minutes of concentration to see if any stick with you. (Librarians do not care if you don't finish them. A whole bunch of books going in and out is good for our stats.) In addition to having to build up my concentration skills after a stressful year, I'm also finding that I don't care about "serious" literature and can read romance and sci-fi again after like 10 years of only heavy nonfiction. It may be you are simply a different person now.
posted by blnkfrnk at 2:52 PM on May 7, 2021 [3 favorites]

Practice. I stopped reading books much for a while, and have had some difficulty picking it up again. Read books known to be readable. It helps practice the set of skills. Then read something a bit more complex, and go back to something easier and more engaging again as needed. Reading on the web has changed my attention span and reading habits, but these are habits and subject to re-learning.
posted by theora55 at 2:54 PM on May 7, 2021 [3 favorites]

Best answer: How do I learn to enjoy and absorb, and be absorbed by the books, better?

It's all about the atmosphere for me. I find it really hard to focus on reading unless I'm super physically comfortable. I also find that snacking helps me focus. So, make yourself a reading nook and make it the most cozy space in your home. Make sure your chair/swing/window seat is comfy and get yourself a lovely lap blanket. Make sure you have nice lighting. Pick out a special snack and beverage combo for reading time (I like pretzels and ginger ale in hot weather and herbal tea and shortbread cookies in winter) and only snack on that combo when you read. Basically, make it so you don't want to do anything but read because your reading nook and snacks are the best thing in this cruel world.
posted by RobinofFrocksley at 3:03 PM on May 7, 2021 [5 favorites]

Best answer: for me paper books make this much much easier.

Kindle is convenient and it's what I mostly default to, but not being able to easily see how much I've read and how much is left makes me panicky. It's not just "are we done yet", it's that the position in the book helps me unconsciously to understand "where we are" in the story (like that thing that just happened, was that the climax of the book or was that just the end of the first act?) and to enjoy it.

Or conversely, the other day I was reading a history book on kindle and when the story ended, the author started on a long and boring digression which, if I'd known at the outset was going to be as long as it was, I would have happily not started at all, rather than beginning it and feeling increasingly annoyed the longer it went on.
posted by fingersandtoes at 3:30 PM on May 7, 2021

Best answer: I could have written this question from 2015 (when I got my first smartphone) and 2019 (before the pandemic). What helped me become a much better reader:
• Get your vision tested and make sure you have the right lens prescription if you need them.
• Clear your calendar as much as possible. (thanks, pandemic!). This is important, because you want to feel like reading is the only thing you have to do.
• Put the smartphone, tv, and computer far, far away from the book.
• Spend a decent amount of time "shopping" around for your next great reads.
• Keep only a very short book stack to start with. A tall stack can be stressful if you are not confident about your reading pace.
• Be physically comfortable with lots of pillows.
• Read while eating breakfast or lunch.
• Stop watching tv and endlessly scrolling social media.
• Read physical books. Choose books that are pleasing to hold and look at.
• Ask your trusted people which books they absolutely love, and even if you don't enjoy the book, you can learn something about what your people like, which gives you great conversation topics.
• Learn your preferences, not just genre but writing style. I had never given a lot of thought to the writing styles that resonated with me, and now I know. Do you like omniscient narrator? First person POV? Epistolary? Linear storyline or jumping around? Lots of dialog or very little?
• Find stories that are described as page turners.
• Give yourself permission to lapse on some household duties, so you can think of reading as the reward, or alternative to chores.
posted by oxisos at 4:06 PM on May 7, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I try to set a 'pages read' goal when this happens to me. It disciplines me to set aside time to read, which, in turn, helps me to become immersed in the story. I find that if I just grab my book any old time I can get distracted, read just a few pages before putting it down and then lose the rhythm of the story. This is mostly for fiction.

But then again sometimes these periods are just a run of less than stellar books, and it helps to remember that it's okay to give up on something you don't enjoy. I know that for me, the trump years and then covid seemed to make me less interested in what was being published in the fiction world. There were notable exceptions, but my reading has shifted toward nonfiction.
posted by OHenryPacey at 4:08 PM on May 7, 2021 [1 favorite]

Tried and tested solution: No internet at home. Done. Solved. This gets me to re-start reading books.
posted by aniola at 5:29 PM on May 7, 2021 [2 favorites]

Best answer: This recent ask may also be useful.
posted by Paper rabies at 6:12 PM on May 7, 2021

Response by poster: Thanks so much everyone! Just wanted to add (I should have before) that I have a disability which makes it hard for me to hold books with my hands sometimes, so I’m in even more of a bind because I largely *have* to go the audiobook route. What fingerandtoes said is exactly right - I need to know “where we are” in the story to engage properly. Does anyone have any suggestions on that front? I can’t even tell what page I’m on or how many there are.
posted by jitterbug perfume at 6:20 PM on May 7, 2021

From above, I second getting rid of Internet or putting smartphone and tv away as options. Also, maybe finding a book you like more? A book you read and loved in the past?

As for audiobooks, having the audio version and the kindle version is a true luxury for me. You can switch back and forth and the audio/kindle keeps your place. Also, if you listen to the audiobook on an app - amazon or libby are ones I've used - it shows your progress through a percent / progress bar.
posted by RoadScholar at 6:33 PM on May 7, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I have this problem from time to time. What’s helped me-

1) sounds really silly, but I set myself the target to read for 1 minute per day. I set the alarm for 2 minutes to allow time for finding my place (so I know I’ll have definitely read 1 minute). I usually end up reading for longer. I found that even 5 minutes sometimes felt like too much pressure, and I’d worry I hadn’t *really* read for 5 minutes because I wasn’t concentrating the whole time, or I lost my place. Giving myself permission to stop after 1 minute alleviated that and enabled me to read for longer than if I’d set a more ambitious goal.

2) I sometimes get bogged down with all the “worthy” books I feel I should read, and get paralysed by the thought of everything I think I should be reading. This is a good time to give myself to read something untaxing, trashy or a guilty pleasure. Trashy thrillers, romance or YA in my case. That way I’m reading just for the pleasure, which takes the pressure of “should” off my shoulders. When I get the momentum going by reading something not on my long list of great literary works to read before I die, I remember I love reading and those weightier tomes don’t seem as intimidating.

3) I recently worked some night shifts, where phones were not allowed but books were. I got so much reading done. For me, the more instant gratification of my phone has been quite devastating to my ability to concentrate. My plan post pandemic is to go to a cafe with a book and without my phone and just read. When I don’t have the option of anything easier, reading is so much fun. When my phones around, it seems difficult and boring. If you have more willpower than me, you could just switch off your phone, or whatever else distracts you.

4) don’t start a new book unless you’ve got about 45 minutes to read. It can take a while to get immersed in a new book, but once I get going, I’m happy to snatch the odd 5 minutes here and there.
posted by Dwardles at 2:06 AM on May 8, 2021 [1 favorite]

I’ve had a good experience with Libby on my older iPad, which tracks progress for audio and visual books from my library. Mentioning this as it may be something to try that’s free.
posted by childofTethys at 3:05 AM on May 8, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I have a disability which makes it hard for me to hold books with my hands sometimes

Would a book holder help with that?
posted by brainwane at 7:14 PM on May 8, 2021

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