a shelf of colorful cognitive science books

How Reading Books Can Help You Reclaim Your Attention

Scrolling through social media is easy. Reading a novel? For many, not so much. Here's how to retrain your attention span.

I have 38 tabs open in the browser on my phone. Some of them contain long, no doubt fascinating articles on microbiomes, archeology, architecture, nonfiction books I'm considering reading, gardening. I'm standing outside on the deck watching the kids play in the water table. I could read one of these long articles. I would probably learn something interesting. Or, I could scroll.

Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, all the popular social media platforms you use: they are all built the same way. There's the constant expectation that maybe the next thing you find will be funny or insightful. Or maybe the next thing. Or maybe the next. So you keep scrolling.

Why scroll when you can... not scroll?

Last year, I decided that instead of scrolling, I should read more books. Books are generally more interesting—better edited, deeper stories. But more importantly, the media you consume trains your attention. Books require a longer attention span.

Many people have reported that they can no longer sit and read a book. A book requires too much attention. It's too long. Too much to invest in—reading the same thing for more than 30 seconds? Nah. Social media, on the other hand? That's easy.

What's the attention cure?

The way to improve your attention is to practice. Make attending to things a practice, something you do every day. Here are a few ideas for ways you can practice attention in the age of distraction:

Read a book. Read for 20 minutes a day. If that's too difficult starting out, work up to it: start with reading 5 minutes of a book a day for a week, then increase to 7 minutes the next week, 10 the next, then 15, 18, 20. Build up slowly the same way you'd add reps or weight in exercise.

Try a mindfulness practice, meditation, or prayer (whatever floats your boat). Commit to the whole twenty minutes, one rosary, one whatever. I admit, this one is harder to practice with young children.

Set a timer for work. If you feel inclined to check email or social media during that time, don't. Instead, jot the thought down on a piece of paper and go back to working. Offloading the thought can help you stay focused.

The point of all these activities is similar: focus on a set activity for a set time. Train your attention by slowly increasing the time spent on the activity. Build a habit of attention.

A return in reading style

Instead of spending half an hour scrolling through social media, I read ebooks from the library on my phone. The mobile e-reader app is decent. If I'm just going to be looking at my phone anyway, I've decided I might as well be reading a novel, someone's memoir, or a book about homeschooling.

In the past six months, I've read 22 books (that weren't picture book for my kids). Eleven were on my phone. My original goal to get myself reading regularly was a small 20 minutes a day. Now, some days, I read for an hour or more!

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We're Jacqueline and Randy, a blogging duo with backgrounds in tech, robots, art, and writing, now raising our family in northern Idaho.

Our goal is to encourage deliberate choices, individual responsibility, and lifelong curiosity by sharing stories about our adventures in living, loving, and learning.

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