How can I focus while reading?
August 17, 2008 2:25 PM   Subscribe

How can I learn to focus better (especially while reading)?

I like to read, but quite often when I'm reading, my thoughts are too far elsewhere to focus on the book. After reading a few pages, I'll realize that I can't remember a single things that happened on those pages. Is there anything I can do to make myself focus better?
posted by comwiz to Health & Fitness (19 answers total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
I wish I had better advice for you -- I have this exact same problem, and feel it has negatively impacted quite a few grades throughout college.

For me -- I *pray* that I can find a audio book, or an ebook version that I can run through a OCR application and get text out of it. I find that I can retain the book fairly well if I read it while I listen to it. When I dont have either of those options, I have found reading aloud, and then every half page or so I orally explain to myself what happened.

For me this seems like a wallowing in the lake solution, but I tend to keep my head above water doing it this way.
posted by SirStan at 2:39 PM on August 17, 2008

Depends on whether you're talking about studying or just enjoyment-reading. Although in the latter case you wouldn't have this problem.

Force yourself to outline your readings. Try to condense every paragraph into a single conceptual sentence in the outline, for instance, and that will force you to not only read, but digest it. Outlines are great for studying, and most school subjects facilitate outlining. Even better, write it out by hand, then go back and type it up. This will avoid the whole Internet thing and force a "twice-over," making the content stick even more.
posted by Ky at 3:01 PM on August 17, 2008 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Actually, the problem seems to be more pronounced in just-for-enjoyment reading.
posted by comwiz at 3:07 PM on August 17, 2008

Actually, the problem seems to be more pronounced in just-for-enjoyment reading.

Eh, then I'd make sure there are no distractions nearby--TV, computer. But it doesn't sound like you have those specific distractions?

In terms of internal distractions, another question to ask is what those distractions are. If you're constantly thinking about, say, a specific person or expected events in the coming week... the problem may not be about the reading at all.

Maybe joining a casual book club will encourage an "obligation" to read more thoroughly if there's an expectation of discussion...
posted by Ky at 3:12 PM on August 17, 2008

posted by nicwolff at 3:14 PM on August 17, 2008

If you can describe it--someone has a drug for it.
posted by SirStan at 3:23 PM on August 17, 2008

Sleep, plenty of water, quiet.
posted by baggymp at 3:24 PM on August 17, 2008

I'll venture to say that if your thoughts are somewhere else totally, then you must not be all that interested in the book. I find this happens to me as well sometimes, but never when I'm actually enjoying and into what I'm reading.
posted by reenum at 4:14 PM on August 17, 2008

Increase your intake of complex carbs and protein. Whenever I eat sweet and starchy foods, I get really unfocused and even fall asleep a few hours later.
posted by sixcolors at 5:04 PM on August 17, 2008

I'll venture to say that if your thoughts are somewhere else totally, then you must not be all that interested in the book. I find this happens to me as well sometimes, but never when I'm actually enjoying and into what I'm reading.

This was my feeling, especially if reading anything else (e.g. task-oriented, something school-related, the newspaper, etc.) doesn't produce the same problem. OP would need to clarify that point, though.

When I find a book I'm truly "into," you can't tear me away from it. I basically ignore my sleep schedule until I finish the thing. Not everyone is like that, but "passing curiosity" isn't necessarily the same thing as a burning enjoyment either.
posted by Ky at 5:06 PM on August 17, 2008

I think that reading is really... not boring, but unstimulating compared to some of the other stuff we humans like doing. What I mean is that most books just don't arouse our attention enough for us to naturally focus on them, not like when we actually are enjoying what we're reading, like reenum said.

One strategy for coping with this could be to devise an interesting activity that will stimulate your brain into focus mode. Go and listen to some music and dance, play a sport or video game, or go exercise.... and THEN come back and try your reading.
posted by Theloupgarou at 5:16 PM on August 17, 2008 [1 favorite]

If you haven't had one recently, go to an optician and get an eye test. Vision problems can manifest as this inability to concentrate while reading.

Failing that, read out loud, at least for a page or two. This will force you to pay more attention to the words. But it will also establish a definite narrative voice for the text. It's much easier to focus on a text when you can hear (whether you're actually speaking it or not) the rhythms and stresses of it.
posted by xchmp at 5:21 PM on August 17, 2008

Three suggestions:

* Have two pieces of paper ready while you're reading. Use one to jot down distractions, like liketitanic said, and use the other to write a summary of what you're reading, like Ky said. Do this even when reading for pleasure, at least for a little while (say, the next five books you read).

* At the end of each paragraph, stop and write down a sentence about what just happened. Do that for at least a chapter; if it feels like too much, switch to a few pauses per chapter, or even one per chapter.

* Find someone you can describe the book to, or write little essays describing what's happening. In addition to summarizing the plot, mention your own responses - what seems well written, what you think of characters and their actions, and so on.

Once you get in the habit of doing these things, your mind will focus more on what you're reading, because it will expect that you're going to want to summarize and describe it all later.
posted by kristi at 5:56 PM on August 17, 2008 [4 favorites]

kristi's third point reminded me of another idea:

Blog reviews. Getting more critical of a book is a different mindset than mere passive enjoyment, of course, but one of my friends found great enjoyment and, above all, motivation to read various "remotely interesting" things when she blogged about them, even if only three other friends read the entries. Or even just informal reviews on Amazon as opposed to maintaining a blog.
posted by Ky at 6:05 PM on August 17, 2008

Back in the 1970's, they used to advertise the Evelyn Wood Speed Reading program all the time. Years later, I came across a copy for about $6.00 while killing time in the student center and bought it out of curiousity. It was great! Much of the book was about how to keep your eyes focused and, by extension your brain, because you don't waste time reading the same paragraph over and over.

I'd also suggest a book on how to study. Oddly enough, I never learned in elementary school and I had to learn how once I got to graduate school. How To Study worked well for me.
posted by monkeydluffy at 6:41 PM on August 17, 2008

I find that when I try to tackle reading something challenging, it often takes me a few minutes for my mind to become less distracted. Perhaps find some other reading material (a magazine article or something else you can finish in a few minutes) that'll get you in the groove, then go back to the book.
posted by action man bow-tie at 6:41 PM on August 17, 2008

The Guardian recently did a nice piece on the reasons behind book abandonment. Good stuff.

I'm surprised the web hasn't gotten more play in this thread - I've found in the last couple of years that regular web use has pretty much smashed my attention span into tiny, tiny bits. This is a relatively recent phenomenon - I've been a web user for over ten years, and used it heavily for about five. I can sum up what's destroyed my attention span in a handy acronym:


The constant drip - drip - drip of RSS makes the web a non-static, ever changing source of information, and makes it exponentially easier to stay glued to it. Five years ago, I'd log on at most once per day, often going without for days at a time. Then I got Bloglines, and latterly Google Reader, and now I can see, in close to real-time, when and how things are being updated. For sites like MeFi with a high update rate, that's killer. I've slowly pruned my RSS feeds of the high-volume, short length, low value feeds (your Engadgets and BoingBoings of the world) in favour of MeFi and sites which publish relatively long pieces.

However, these pieces are still generally short in the grand scheme of things. A couple of thousand words from Bruce Schnier is awesome, but I miss being able to sit down with any book and get a lot out of it, fiction or non-fiction. I mean, really, six or seven years ago I was a two-books-a-week type. Now I'm lucky if I get through one a month. And I know exactly where that time has gone - web surfing. For a while now I've been considering junking RSS entirely, and going cold turkey on the web at large, because I really, really don't want to wake up in my mid-forties and have spent twenty years punching F5 like a rat in a lab for what is, in essence, pretty ephemeral stuff.

General tips that I've found work even despite my small-invertebrate like attention span? Good light (I sit by the door in bright sunlight). Good seating - get a good reading chair, and a lamp for the evening. Don't read in bed if you can help it, you'll drift off. Turn off the TV, radio and any other background noise (although nice music can really help if you have the 'silent room' issue, which I'm convinced for many is a mental block created by memories of trying to study in school libraries in their youth). Have a glass of water at hand to still the 'make a cup of tea/coffee/whatever' instinct. I also like the ideas presented about using a notebook to record what I see as the 'Google Twitch'. Constant exposure to the web makes it very easy to develop the habit of instantly acting on any mental question or query, in part because of ease of accessibility (why wouldn't you look up the answer?) and partly because of the fear, whether conscious or not, that you'll forget the question if you don't act on it instantly. This is a valid fear in the kind of mind that RSS create - a constant river of new content. It's less of a risk in slower, longer form discursive thought, but the notepad will be a handy crutch.

I'll be trying to rebuild a positive reading habit at the same time as you, and am edging toward binning RSS entirely. If you think mutual support might help, MeFi mail me.
posted by Happy Dave at 11:17 PM on August 17, 2008 [5 favorites]

Read alone, and read aloud. Once you get past the initial "this is so stupid/embarrassing/weird", you'll find that reading aloud 1) slows you down so that you must read every word (many people think they're reading when they're actually skimming, and therefore can't remember what they read, because they didn't read all the words, and 2) allows you to hear the words as well as read them, giving you simultaneous visual and aural input.

Self-talking is often dismissed as something children do, then eventually grow out of, but it is a strong cognitive reinforcement and ordering of actions. When I have to perform a complex tasks I talk myself through it. I've grown well past caring if other people can hear me, because it works every time.
posted by tzikeh at 12:31 AM on August 18, 2008

My solution to the drip problem has been to leave my computer at my office.

Not quite at that point yet - I've got a laptop at home. However, I did bin all my RSS feeds today after being shamed inspired by this thread, so, you know, baby steps. I plan to do the dishes then read a book when I get home.
posted by Happy Dave at 9:01 AM on August 18, 2008

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