How to Focus on Reading: 5 Ways to Retrain Your Brain
If you feel like it’s been years since you sat down with a good book and allowed yourself to dive into the story with no distractions, you’re not alone. Whether you’re a student struggling to get through readings for classes you usually find interesting or a formerly voracious reader with the same half-finished book on your nightstand for months, recent surveys reveal that across the board, people simply aren’t reading as much as they used to. Approximately one-quarter of American adults say they haven’t read a book in the past year, and it’s likely that frequent smartphone use is impeding our ability to enjoy our favorite novels.
Addicting technology is so embedded in our daily lives that we’ve become accustomed to having the information we want available within seconds, summed up in
140 280 characters or less. We constantly switch between apps, and when we get a notification, we drop what we’re doing and check it out. These habits are impairing our concentration and making it difficult for us to focus on tasks like reading that require sustained focus.
How Do We Spend Our Time?
Just how much time are we spending on smartphones and in front of screens? The average American spends about 2.25 hours on social media every day, up from 1.5 hours in 2012. In total, we spend just over 4 hours per day on our smartphones, and we’re staring at a screen for 10.8 hours each day.
To put these numbers into context, let’s break down how we split our time during a typical week. Between 40 hours of work, 8 hours of sleep each night, and an average of 3 hours taking care of household chores and hygiene each day, we’re left with 58 hours over the course of the week for indulging in our hobbies, relaxing, or socializing. But with many people spending up to 50 hours per week in front of their laptops or smartphones, we’re left with only 8 free hours, or just over one hour per day. We barely have time to curl up with a book—and when we do, we often find it hard to keep our attention on the page.
Scrolling through your Twitter feed and skimming the news of the day doesn’t take much motivation, but reading a book requires more effort. Our excessive use of technology and the prolonged periods of time we spend in front of screens are changing the way our brains works, making it harder for us to put in that kind of effort—even when our phones are off. Smartphone use can affect our ability to focus on a task and remember important information.
Technology is Changing Our Brains
Our devices give us constant notifications, and when we hear that alert sound, it actually sets off a “fight or flight” reaction within our bodies. This rapid rise in the stress hormone cortisol is intended to give us the energy necessary to outrun danger, but in our fast-paced, modern society, it can harm us rather than help us. When cortisol floods our system, it can break our concentration and make it difficult for us to retain focus.
Here’s the problem: this is generally happening several times per day, every single day, and therefore, it has long-term effects. The overwhelming majority of college students report hearing or feeling “phantom alerts” from their phones, or getting the random urge to check their phones even when they know they don’t have any new messages.
Responding to distractions actually would have been advantageous in throughout our evolutionary history—if you wanted to survive, you had to be observant and stay aware of potential dangers. This is why sustaining serious concentration takes effort and practice. Tuning out distractions could have been dangerous in the early days of humanity, but today, it’s a necessary skill.
The deluge of notifications putting our brains and bodies in a near-constant state of stress interferes with an area of the brain called the prefrontal cortex, which handles highest-order cognitive functioning. If you don’t work to maintain this ability, your prefrontal cortex will not be able to function properly, and your brain will revert back to that “default state” of responding to every distraction.
Screen Time and Your Attention
Excessive screen time and incessant notifications may also contribute to mental health conditions like ADHD. Early research on this topic links symptoms of attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder and heavy screen use. A recent study examined a sample size of 2,600 teenagers with no prior symptoms of ADHD for two years, and the results suggest that smartphone use could be exceptionally harmful for young people. The results showed that teenagers who used “multiple types of digital media, multiple times a day” were twice as likely to self-report new symptoms of ADHD than their classmates who spent less time using digital media.
While more research is needed in this specific area, and it’s possible that teens who are predisposed to ADHD are more likely to gravitate towards social media in the first place, it’s possible that when teenagers are exposed to frequent digital distractions, it could cause them to develop ADHD symptoms over time.
Free time without digital distractions may feel boring or even uncomfortable, but experts say that we need to give ourselves periods of unscheduled time and space to promote creative thinking. Prioritizing quiet time when we can focus on hobbies and tasks that require sustained attention is a great way to improve your concentration, but spending hours every day staring at a screen will be disruptive. Here are five ways to retrain your brain to focus so that you can finally finish that book on your nightstand.
How to retrain your brain to focus
1. Try some basic concentration exercises.
When you’re trying to fix concentration issues that have been holding you back for months or even years, it’s best to get back to basics first. There are several simple concentration exercises you can start with to help you get your focus back. A few minutes of meditation each morning can be beneficial for your overall mental health, but if you would rather try something a little more active, a “moving” meditation practice might be a better fit. For example, leaving your phone at home and taking a walk with the intention of being mindful, focusing on your breath, and observing the details of the natural world around you can provide low-impact physical exercise and help improve your concentration.
2. Start by reading small sections of a book each day.
If you fall into the one-quarter of Americans who haven’t read a book in over a year, picking up a long novel and trying to finish it in a week might prove difficult. Instead, choose a shorter book and commit to reading small sections each day. Start with ten or fifteen pages, and then try increasing it as time goes on. It helps if you designate a certain time each day as reading time, and you can use the Freedom mobile app to block notifications in order to get the most out of your book.
3. Bring a book with you to read during any downtime.
For many of us, reaching for our smartphone when we have even a minute or two of downtime throughout the day is a deeply ingrained habit. How do we break the cycle? Get into the habit of bringing a book with you, and the next time you’re waiting for an appointment or find yourself with a few minutes to kill, leave your phone in your bag and take out your book instead. This will help you get rid of that pesky instinct to check your phone every time you have a spare minute, and you’ll be surprised at how much reading you can get done during those lulls in the day.
4. Take notes!
Give yourself a little homework to take your reading from passive to active and motivate yourself to concentrate. This is especially helpful for students with long assigned readings, but even if your time in the classroom is far behind you, you can still benefit from note-taking while you read. Grab a highlighter or pen and underline quotes that you like. Mark up important passages with your own observations and use sticky notes to indicate sections with useful information you might want to come back to. In addition to improving your concentration, this will prompt you to use your analytical thinking skills. You won’t just be skimming each page—you’ll have to stop and think about what you’re reading.
5. Use Freedom to set up a recurring block schedule.
Sometimes, your smartphone can actually help you concentrate! By using the Freedom app, you can set up a daily “block schedule” that will allow you to automatically block all notifications and use of any distracting apps during certain periods of time each day. For example, if you would like to block notifications an hour before bed so that you can use that time to read instead, simply program a recurring block starting at the same time each night. That time will now be free for you to relax with a book instead of flipping through social media apps, and you won’t hear a single alert to break your focus.
Retraining your focus may feel difficult at first, but with the right habits and tools, it’s completely possible. Our current reliance on technology has left us struggling to concentrate, but you can silence the frequent notifications, block out time for yourself, and slowly let go of the need to respond to every message or stay up to date on every post. Soon, you’ll be digging into the unread books on your shelves, ready to get back to your old hobbies.