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How to Focus On Reading: 10 Tips For Sustained Concentration

Learning how to focus on reading is an important part of enhancing your learning and mastering new skills.

Too many of us read in a manner that’s disengaged and mindless. We pass the time and make the attempt, but don’t truly absorb all of the information being presented to us.

Focused reading is a skill, like playing the piano, learning a new language, or playing soccer. And as with any skill, it can be improved with the right strategy and enough practice.

This article will cover simple tips for how to focus on reading. With some subtle adjustments to your environment and a little bit of tactical reading comprehension advice, you’ll be able to cut your learning curve and retain more of what you read.

 

Who Do We Struggle To Focus On Reading?

There are two main obstacles that prevent us from being able to focus on reading. The first is simply the fact that society is more technologically advanced than ever before.

We live in a world where distractions are at our fingertips. Our smartphones are always within arms reach. We’re able to access our favorite shows with a few clicks of a button.

This is a significant impediment to improved productivity. There’s so much stuff that competes for our attention that our willpower tires quickly trying to avoid it.

The second reason why we struggle to concentrate on reading is because our brain is always looking to feel stimulated. 

Our brain has a low tolerance for boredom. It wants us to feel good all of the time, which means it’s on a constant hunt for dopamine.

Dopamine is the feel good neurotransmitter that gets released whenever we do something pleasurable – watch porn, check social media, eat cake, exercise, etc. 

The release of dopamine signals to our brain that an activity is worth repeating in the future. So guess what your brain is doing while you’re sitting there with a good book in your hands?

Yep, it’s actively trying to pull you towards dopamine releasing activities so that it can get its fix. It thinks it’s working for you by suggesting activities that will make you feel good, but really it’s sabotaging your long-term goals.

We’re naturally wired to seek distractions and stimulation, and we live in a world where both of these things are right at our fingertips. 

That’s what you call a recipe for disaster.

 

Designing Your Environment For Focused Reading

Enough about the roadblocks to concentration, let’s work to solve the dilemma of how to focus on reading despite the challenges I’ve just laid out.

The approach that most people take is to simply rely on willpower. And while willpower can work sometimes, it’s not an effective long-term strategy.

Ever heard the saying that talks about how battles are often won before they are fought? Well, that principle certainly applies to our attempts to remain focused.

Battling your brain’s natural urge to seek alternatives when reading is a fight you’re going to lose more often than not. Your best course of action is to give yourself a head start by designing a reading environment that promotes success.

Let’s discuss a few ways you can do that.

 

how to focus on reading in bed

 

#1: Be Specific About When You’re Going To Read

Make sure that you give your brain a clear directive for when you’re going to read. This is an important part of forming new habits giving them a time and space to live in your life.

Most of us think we lack motivation or willpower when what we really lack is clarity. To illustrate this, let me lay out two scenarios for you.

  • Scenario #1: You’re wandering around your house and see a book that you want to read on the table. It seems like a productive use of your time, so you pick up the book and start reading
  • Scenario #2: You’re planning out your day the night before and decide that you’re going to spend 20 minutes reading from 9:00 a.m. – 9:20 a.m. When the clock hits nine the next morning, you pick up the book and start reading.

Which scenario do you think you’ll find it easier to maintain concentration? Obviously, it’s the second scenario, and here’s why:

Your brain has been given a clear directive for how to spend the next 20 minutes.

It’s not some spontaneous task that you happened to stumble upon, there’s been prior commitments made the day before. Your brain’s thinking….“Okay, the next 20 minutes are dedicated to reading so I guess we’ll do that” 

You’ll be less likely to fall victim to distractions when you have a plan ahead of time. In the second scenario, reading was not a planned activity, which means it’ll be easier to direct your attention elsewhere whenever  the first opportunity presents itself.

Whether you’re studying a school textbook or reading about a subject that you’re naturally interested in, you’ll find it much easier to focus when you schedule it in advance.

 

#2: Buy Paperback Books

I already know what you’re thinking, “What is this dude talking about, we’re not living in the stone ages anymore.”

I get it, buying books now is easier than ever. You can go to Amazon, pick a book that you want to read, and have it downloaded onto your computer or tablet within 60 seconds.

Wonderful, isn’t it? Well, yes and no. 

The ease with which we can access information comes with a price. That price is millions of other websites that can pull your attention away from whatever it is you want to read.

Going old-school is an easy solution to this problem. Reading paperback books may make you feel like you’re in a time machine, but at least your Facebook feed isn’t a click away.

 

#3: Create A Reading Zone In Your Home/Apartment

Have you ever noticed something about the habits that you engage in on a daily basis? They all seem to take place in a certain location.

When you need to work out, you head to the gym. When you want to be productive, you sit down at your desk. When you want to check status updates or watch Netflix, you’re likely on your couch or in bed.

Every particular environment acts a trigger for certain activities. 

Let me give you a perfect example from my own life that illustrates how powerful this concept is. One of the first spaces to close down to the public during the COVID-19 lockdowns were gyms.

As someone who takes fitness seriously, this posed an issue for me. However, it wasn’t the end of the world, after all I’d still be able to exercise at home right?

Wrong. 

Despite being a gym rat who’d spent the last year working out 4-5x a week, forcing myself to workout at home felt like pulling teeth. 

It just didn’t feel right. It felt like something I had to force myself to do as opposed to an automatic behavior that was a normal part of my day.

That’s because my brain didn’t see my apartment as a “workout space.” It perceived my apartment as the location where I’d eat, sleep, and watch TV – not a place where I got in shape.

As a result, my workout habit completely slipped. The missed days piled up and months went by where I had no consistent fitness regime. 

Now what do you think happened when gyms opened back up? Well, things went back to normal and I had no trouble getting back in the gym consistently.

So what’s the lesson to be learned here? Dedicate a specific area of your home to reading. Your brain will gradually pick up on the fact that the location you choose is dedicated to focused reading, and you’ll be less likely to feel pulled towards distractions.

 

reading in a safe space

 

#4: Lose The Phone

Please for the love of all that is holy do not try to rely on willpower to avoid checking your phone while reading.

It won’t work. You’ll sit down to read and before you know it, you’ll be scrolling through Instagram or watching Tik Tok videos.

Learning how to focus on reading means learning how to use your brain’s laziness to your advantage. Whenever you sit down to read, either turn off your phone or put it in a completely different room with the ringer off. 

Better yet, do all three of these things. 

The basic principle of breaking bad habits is to put more steps in between you and your bad behaviors. If you make mindless phone scrolling more difficult, your brain will likely decide that it’s not worth it and you’ll continue to read distraction-free.

 

phone next to a book

 

#5: Consider Blue Light Glasses If You Refuse To Read Paperback Books

If you’re unwilling to part ways with your Kindle Reader, then you may want to consider investing in a pair of blue-light glasses.

Blue-light glasses are specifically designed to filter out the harmful blue-violet light rays that are emitted from digital screens. It’s impossible to avoid screens given that most of what we do on a daily basis involves technology, but keep in mind that we didn’t have these kinds of tools thousands of years ago.

We didn’t evolve to spend hours per day staring at screens. Consistent exposure to blue-light strains our eyes and can make it difficult to concentrate.

Blue-light glasses work to counteract these effects by blocking the blue-light ways that get emitted from your devices.

If you’re reading before bed, blue-light glasses are a must. Screens keep your brain stimulated and awake, meaning that screen time before bed impairs the quality of your sleep and keeps you up longer.

You may think that special glasses like these are super expensive, but they’re not. You can order a pair from Amazon for around $15.

Here are is the pair that I recommend and use personally while I’m working

 

How To Focus On Reading Comprehension

Now that your environment is set up for success, let’s talk about improving your ability to retain what you read so that you get the most out of your reading/study sessions.

The following tips will specifically cover how to focus on reading comprehension.

 

#1: Pick What You Want To Read, Not What People Tell You To Read

With so many people telling you about the best books about { insert any subject area here }, it can be difficult to personalize your reading choices.

That’s not to say these recommendations aren’t valuable, but you should be using these lists as a starting point and not a definitive guide. You’re always going to feel more engaged in a book that you picked on your own. 

If you’re looking to dive into some books about mindfulness, reading an article about the best books on the topic can give you some ideas.

However, don’t just pick the top choice that the author recommends. Do your own research to figure out the central concepts and the sub-topics that it covers.

If they resonate, then give the book a shot. If you dig a little deeper and find that you’re looking for something slightly different, then keep digging until you land on the winner.

 

#2: Picture Yourself as a Teacher

Studies show that people retain 90% of what they teach. If you can’t easily explain a subject to someone else, chances are you probably don’t understand it well enough. 

And if you don’t understand it that well, then you aren’t really retaining what you’re learning. 

I’m a sucker for any book related to self-improvement. Any books related to productivity or building better habits will consume my attention for hours.

But my goal isn’t just to be exposed to new ideas, it’s to understand the concepts well enough to teach other people about them and apply them into my own life.

So whenever an insightful tidbit of information grabs my attention, here’s the simple exercise that I perform. 

  • I take a pause from reading the book
  • Immediately after, I imagine myself in a class giving a lecture on the topic
  • I begin explaining the concept in a concise manner and suggest ways that it’s applicable to daily life
  • After about 60 seconds, I return to the book and continue reading

It’s a simple exercise, but one that’s incredibly valuable for absorbing new information. 

Ever wondered why your college professors could talk for hours about a subject without fumbling their words? Because they’ve taught the information over and over again.

The valuable insights they share seem to just flow out. It’s something that I am always impressed with. Now you may not want to be a teacher, but being able to clearly explain things to others is a prerequisite for mastery in any field.

Performing this exercise whenever you come across something useful will help solidify that new concept idea into your memory.

 

being a teacher - how to focus on reading

 

#3: Write A One Paragraph Summary Of Each Book You Finish

This is a neat reading comprehension tip that I picked up from James Clear.

There’s only so much room in that space between our ears. Trying to remember every little detail and tidbit that we picked up from a certain book is an impossible task.

But the good news is that we don’t need to grasp every word of what we read. All we need to do is remember the important stuff that’s actually applicable.

If we can remember the main ideas, we can also connect them to some of the finer nuances. This almost creates a “knowledge tree” where we’re able to piece related information together.

So whenever you finish reading a book, write a brief summary of what you’ve read. If you’re reading purely out of enjoyment, then feel free to ignore this advice.

Here’s how it works:

  • After you put the book down, get out a sheet of paper
  • In 4-5 sentences, describe the main ideas covered in the book
  • Make sure to include a couple of ways that these ideas can be applied into your own life

If you’re able to complete this exercise fairly easily, that’s a good sign that you’re ready to move on to your next book.

 

#4: Highlight Key Passages And Then Re-Read Them

This tip is somewhat related to the previous one, as it will help you craft the brief summary of whatever you’ve just read.

Essentially, my three step process for reading any book goes like this:

  • First, I read the book in its entirety, highlighting key pieces of useful information along the way
  • Once the book is finished, I re-read those highlights only
  • Finally, I craft my short summary of the book

In every book, there are central golden nuggets that really deliver value. The rest of the book typically contains anecdotes and stories that further explain these main ideas. 

So as you’re reading, be sure to highlight anything that stands out to you. Once you’ve finished a book, re-read only the highlighted portions and base your written summary around those ideas.

While you can’t retain every single thing you read, doing this will make sure that you have a grasp on the important stuff.

 

highlighting words

 

#5: Read In Intervals

The last tip in this brief guide for how to focus on reading highlights the importance of not overwhelming your brain.

Productivity experts haven’t come to a consensus on a specific number, but it’s generally accepted that your brain can focus intensely on something for 50-90 minutes.

After that point, mental fatigue sets in which leads to impaired concentration. So whenever you sit down to read, don’t plan on a marathon session where you read for hours and hours.

Give yourself reasonable intervals between sessions. Personally, I think that even 90 minutes is a bit too long. I’d recommend periods of 30-60 minutes of focused reading before taking a break. 

Shorter reading sessions mean shorter breaks. Longer reading sessions mean longer breaks. A good rule of thumb is to take a 5 minute break for every 30 minutes that you read.

Example:

  • 30 minutes of focused reading = 5 minute break
  • 60 minutes of focused reading = 10 minute break
  • 90 minutes of focused reading = 15-20 minute break

Taking scheduled breaks will ensure you’re operating at peak capacity as you try to comprehend new material.

 

Final Thoughts On How To Focus On Reading

I hope you enjoyed this article covering how to focus on reading and improving your ability to retain what you read.

All it takes is a few subtle shifts in your environment to remove distractions and prime your brain for engaged reading.

Once that’s out of the way, the rest comes down to tactics.

Pick books that naturally interest you. Imagine you’re a teacher and explain what you read. Highlight key pieces of information and write short summaries. And last but not least, give your brain some rest.

Apply these tips into your reading sessions and you’ll start consuming and retaining information at a rapid pace.

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