When I got to college, I was NOT prepared for the amount of reading needed to keep up in my classes. After many nights of falling asleep on my books or reading the same paragraph over and over, I had to figure out how to focus on reading.
After lots of trial and error, I found a reliable way to make sure I can get my reading done – faster. Here’s the process in five main steps. At the end, you can get a cheatsheet to use while you read.
You will need these things for sure:
- Book or ereader
- Chair or comfortable place to sit upright
Each of these optional items will increase your focus:
- Notepad and pen/pencil
- Clock or timer
- Cold water
- Process reminder cheatsheet (bonus printable)
How to Focus on Reading
Step 1: Prepare your brain to focus
To be successful, you have to prepare your brain to focus. If you’re tired or emotional or it’s been quite a while since your last meal, take care of those things first.
Sleepiness – If you fall asleep while reading, you really need to get more sleep at night. That doesn’t always happen, so here’s my hack – a nap will revive you and boost your learning potential. I go for a 10-20 minute micro-nap. Any longer than that and I end up drowsy.
Agitation – If your mind keeps wandering off your reading onto something that bothers you, you can do two things:
- Write it down and decide to deal with it later.
- Clear your mind for 1-5 minutes using a quick meditation for focus: see “the breathing exercise”.
Hunger – Concentrating increases the amount of energy your brain needs. To compensate, eat a balanced snack that has some fat, carbs and protein. Some good examples are:
- a piece of fruit with some jerky,
- hummus with carrot sticks, or
- a small handful of mixed nuts.
Step 2: Gather your materials and go to a good location
Go to a quiet location where you have a chair you can sit upright in. Your desk at home or a library carrel are ideal spots. If you can see a clock from where you sit, that’s helpful, too. Good lighting will also help you stay alert and focused.
The idea here is to create a context that reminds your brain when it’s time to focus. Set up the same surroundings each time and it will get easier to snap into focus mode.
Remove all distractions. Close your door if you can, or make it clear to other people that you’re busy.
Silence your phone and hide it out of sight. I can’t stress this one enough. Even if you don’t act on the buzzes and chimes, getting alerts destroys your concentration.
Step 3: Get motivated
Ask yourself “Why am I reading this?” When you have a good reason, it Increases your excitement about the reading material. That’s because you know what you’re going to get out of it.
Keep it positive by making it your choice. For instance, “I’m reading this because I want to learn about psychology” is more motivating than “I’m reading this because I have to pass my class.”
Set up a goal with a reward. Define how much time you will focus on reading and what treat you will get after. Example: I will focus on reading for 10 minutes, and then I will get a piece of chocolate.
Pick a length of time that challenges you a little bit. Use a reward that motivates you personally, like browsing your favorite site for 10 minutes, or playing a game.
Set your timer (or note the time on the clock), and start reading!
Step 4: Stay alert while you read
Posture is the most important factor in staying focused. Sit up straight, and check your posture every few minutes. Reading on your bed or lying down are sure ways to confuse your brain into thinking it’s time to relax and sleep instead of focus.
Take notes. Use that notepad to take notes on what you’re reading. If you’re looking for what’s most important to write down, you will pay more attention to the material.
Bring your attention back when it wanders. It’s normal to get distracted if you haven’t practiced focusing. Just remind yourself why you are reading, and start reading again.
Tip: If distracting ideas bother you repeatedly, write them down in the margin of your notepad to get them off your mind. Sometimes I’ll be trying to concentrate, and it will occur to me that I need to remember to do something. Just write it down and keep going.
Take breaks. At a minimum, take a short break after every 25 minutes of reading.
- Stand up.
- Do a “W” stretch to help your posture.
- Look at something at 20 feet away for 20 seconds.This gives your eyes a break.
- Maybe do a couple air squats to get your circulation going.
Pro Tip – Sip cold water. Here’s one that helps me when I’m getting sleepy. Sip on some ice water. It gives you a little shock that helps your attention.
Step 5: Finishing reading
Review you reading session.
- What did I just read?
- Did I get out of it what I wanted?
- How was my focus this session, and what is one thing I could do to focus better next time?
Celebrate your win with a reward. Make good on your promise to yourself and have that treat.
Bonus step: Consider scheduling your next reading session now. Defining ahead of time when and where you will do something makes it much more likely to happen.
It takes repeated practice over time to train your brain to focus on reading. Be patient and celebrate each success.