Minding the Borderlands

Mark Koester (@markwkoester) on the art of travel and technology

Distracted Reading vs. Conscious Reading: Some Thoughts on Technologies and Mindsets for Reading Today

I read a lot. I tend to read about a pretty wide range of subjects and use various devices and apps (even the paper-bound ones) for consuming my reading material. I like reading, and I could easily spend an entire day just reading. Sometimes I do.

Good reading requires more than just good reading materials (which there is a ton of today!). It requires good conditions and mindset for reading.

Unfortunately, researchers claim that reading via your computer screen is less effective for retention and concentration than reading paper materials. I largely agree. It’s not ideal to read articles in the browser.

I don’t think that the poor quality of computer reading is necessarily only caused by the technical characteristics of screen-reading. In my opinion, many of the issues with computer-based reading is due to all the distractions and multiple stimuli pulling for our attention when we find and read articles through the browser and through social media like Twitter and Facebook. When we try to reading in these contexts, it seems to feel like there is always something else, something next begging for us to read that first, even before finishing the article we are reading.

I don’t necessarily think the browser is a bad place to do part of your reading and researching, since I find almost all of my new reading, books and articles online. While blogs and social media are great sources of links and new information, reading the articles themselves in their original context via a computer or mobile browser tends to put us in a state of distracted reading. We are reading that article but we are already potentially distracted by the next link or the other information further down your feed. It’s hard to focus and concentrate, which conscious reading reading requires.

Recently, I’ve been trying to segment my reading habits into two phases. During the distracted, expository reading phase, I gather links, collect articles and read the initial words. I filter my reading to locate potentially valuable things to read. And during what I called conscious reading phase, I attempt to eliminate distractions and focus on the article itself in order to understand and get the most out of it.

In this post, I’d like to talk about how I employ different technologies and mindsets to optimize both kinds of reading.

Distracted Reading Phase: Finding Things to Read

Being distracted is not necessarily a bad thing. In today’s information-overload society, we sometimes need to get out of our general trends and explore different areas and ideas. Obviously if you are supposed to be concentrated on a work task or project and get distracted, that’s a bad thing. But the research and exploritory process of distracted reading is important to finding new and powerful shifts and staying up-to-date.

Generally during this distracted reading phase, I try not to read so much as go fishing. I’m following trends and higher level story lines as a glance through titles and taglines. I’m not really reading though. I’m looking for stuff that are worth reading. I’m collecting.

For the exploratory reading phase, I use social networks (like Twitter and Facebook), news apps like Flipboard, and social forums like Reddit to get exposed to interesting articles. I also end up going into Google Search research phases where I collect articles too. I suppose there are other sites and services I could be using but I tend to find more than enough things to read this way.

When I do find something that merits reading, I add it to my “read it later” list via a few different methods. A couple years ago, I used to bookmark articles to read or re-read. I don’t really use bookmarks this way anymore. Instead, I started to email myself articles that merited more time and concentration. Recently though, I’ve started using Pocket to collect articles to read later.

In terms of time, I generally try to avoid spending much time on these sites like Facebook since they don’t provide a ton of long-term value. In a typical day, I spend 2 or 3 short fishing session of around 10 to 20 minutes collecting articles to really read.

Concscious Reading: Getting Into a State of Focused Reading

Browser-based reading is not great for actually reading since there are a lot of distractions and it’s difficult to concentrate on just that article. You got sidebars and advertisements and popups to this-and-that. It’s hard to last more than half a minute before getting pulled towards some other shiny distractions. When you really want to read, you need to be conscious about the act and aware of what you are reading. And, as much as possible, you need to avoid distractions.

For quality reading, the goal is simple: take your reading (and yourself!) to state where you can consciously read, focus and think about what you are reading.

One simple solution, which I have used over the years, is to print out the articles you want to really read. This also has the advantage of letting your write all over your reading material. I’ve used these even on some technical ebooks I’ve bought in order to focus on my reading and learning. It’s also a waste of paper.

Over the past couple weeks, I’ve been using Pocket (aka “Read It Later”) to help me do more focused reading. You basically send it links to articles you want to read. It then extracts just the article’s main text and images and presents you with a distraction-free reading experience. You can tag and favorite the articles you send it, and once you’ve finished reading something you mark it “read.” It’s web-based but also has great apps on iOS and Android, so basically you can read anywhere.

As an app, it’s an extremely smooth experience and also allows you to customize font size, brightness and colors (black text on white background, brown text on tan or my prefered white text on black background) to avoid eye strain and to create my most comfortable reading experience. I find it quite pleasurable to read articles this way.

Most importantly though, it lets me get into a state of conscious, distraction-free reading. I am able to extract myself from the world of browsers and focus on the text. I can just read.

Conclusion: How I read (and Why)

Why do I read? I read to learn and grow.

Learning is a key part of life as a modern knowledge worker. You graduate with a set of skills, but in most jobs you can’t set on just that knowledge and skill set. You can to keep growing and clearing. Reading is crucial to learning.

While it’s important to consider why and how we read, the why behind any habit or activity is also important. Due to the changing nature of work and skills today, in order to stay ahead you need to constantly stay current with latest social and technological changes. College degrees are expensive, but I think you can learn all the major, relevant information for your field through the internet alone. In my opinion, reading high-quality and well-thought-out articles provide you with a college-level education without the hefty price tag. The best way to do this is through a diverse reading list.

In college, I felt like the majority of my reading was with physical books. Since then the rise of technology and online content creation means I do much less reading of physical books. I generally have three or four paper-bound or kindle books I’m reading at one time, but this is not necessarily where I spend most of my reading time now. By my estimate, I get exposed to couple hundred articles a week and end up consciously reading a few dozen.

How do I read? By dividing my reading into two phases–exploratory or distracting reading and conscious, focused reading, I’ve been able to find a good balance between staying current on a wide range of trends and also focusing on reading and understanding some specific articles.

While time tracking and time management are important aspects of how I manage and study my life, I generally don’t try to put “hard numbers” on how much time should be spent on this activity or that each day. Each day I spend time reading and studying but rarely do I follow some set schedule of this period of this activity. Each week I review my time logs and study which areas bring the most value according to how much time I put into it. There is no obvious answer on where you should put your time, except perhaps by saying you should spend your time on whatever activity is most valuable to do at that moment and context.

For me, conscious reading is really important for understanding an article or topic. It’s critical for learning and growing that you read consciously and as distraction free as possible. I can’t learn well unless my mind is focused on that topic. It’s easy to get distracted but distraction is not always so bad. In today’s changing world you also need to give yourself time to explore and be distracted by new and developing things.

Hopefully by combining these two mindsets and some of these technologies (like Pocket), my reading habits can be both openly distracted by the new and upcoming and also productively focused on the words in front of me.

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