I grew up without a TV, so reading was how I relaxed when I needed a break from life. I got so good that I could breeze through 60 pages of Dostoevsky without looking up. That was then. Now, I can maybe make it through three pages of conversational writing before I’m bored to death, and tired from the effort it took to focus.
It’s not just print books I can’t handle. I installed an app that tracks how much time I spend on any given web page, and the other day I read an article (okay, I skimmed it), changed tabs, and found out I’d spent a whopping 35 seconds reading before I’d gotten bored.
Houston, we have a problem.
It’s no mystery why my reading skills have been circling the drain. I just haven’t needed to really read anything in a while. Nobody’s making me, and I can get most of the information I want from internet headlines, video clips, and short, snappy paragraphs. But with my reading comprehension went my attention span for everything else, and got replaced by a strong, unhelpful desire for instant gratification, not just with knowledge, but with every other area of my life, too.
I want to be able to read print again without it being such hard work. There’s a whole host of benefits that I can’t ignore. Besides the obvious increase in knowledge, it fights our growing need for instant gratification, lengthens our attention span, and improves memory retention, too.
I’ve been looking into what I can do to change these bad habits, and the bad news is, there’s not a quick fix. The good news is that the fix is about as simple as anything gets. Studies show that reading is like a muscle — the more you use it, the stronger you get. That doesn’t mean grit your teeth and dive into War and Peace, any more than you’d try to bench press 200 pounds on your first day at the gym. But you have to do it to get better. Try:
Reading out loud
This way, you’re forced not to skim, skip hard words, or skip around on the page. The book might be more lively, too, since you’ll have to reflect its inflection and emphasis with your own voice. As a bonus, if you’re reading to other people, they’ll encourage you not to give up. Everyone loves being read to, so you’ll have somebody to remind you to keep it up.
Reading something you love
It seems obvious, but isn’t always. I tend to get ahead of myself and throw myself into books that are too hard for me, or into topics that I’d like to become an expert on. I burn out fast that way, though, when they don’t hold my interest. Right now, the idea is to get better at reading anything, and eventually you’ll build up the stamina for works that you want to love, but don’t love yet. It’s also less daunting to begin if you know you’ll enjoy it. If you’re not sure what you like, don’t force yourself to finish what doesn’t grab your interest. That just adds to the burden.
Scheduling time for reading
Lots of what I put on my to-do list never gets done, especially when I haven’t intentionally made time for it. If I give myself set times during the day when I have a book with me — lunchtime and before bed are great — then it helps solidify the habit, and I have fewer excuses to skip it.
Reading is its own reward when it’s easy, but when it still takes effort, there’s no reason why you can’t give yourself a reason to stick with it — an iced coffee every 50 pages, or Chinese takeout when you’ve finally finished, isn’t cheating. A little incentive goes a long way, and reading before it’s a habit really is hard work. It’s worth acknowledging that.
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