You know, maybe I’m the only person in the world who’s having this problem. But then there’s that old saying — “the personal is universal” (some radical activist back in the 1970s said it, if I recall correctly). The things that we think are most uniquely dysfunctional about ourselves are actually super widespread.
That’s the idea, at least. I dunno if it’s true or not, but let’s pretend it is and run with it.
OK, a bit of background: I love books. Like, I lurv books. Like, anywhere I go, any neighborhood, any city, I’ll go to the nearest bookstore. I’ve only been to Taiwan once so far, but I spent the entire trip in bookstores in Taipei.
And yet, of late, being the proud owner of a powerful, lightweight, Internet-enabled, high-resolution tablet computer, I was finding myself (more often the not) surfing the web or watching fun but stupid YouTube videos.
Also, much to my digitized chagrin, I have, until recently, consistently found it easier to read paper books than digital books. Almost all my books are digital now; I have no bookshelves; I own more fingers than paper books; I needed to fix this.
It’s been clear to me for a long time (thanks to a technology blog post lost in the sands of time, back in the early aughts) that all of this has nothing to do with paper’s visual superiority to screens or eyes getting tired — I can read and watch stupid things online for hours.
In short, I knew that the issue was distraction: a paper book can only ever be itself, but a digitized book on a tablet screen can be swept aside instantly for another app. Such versatility is simultaneously tablets’ greatest strength and their greatest weakness.
So far so bad. But what I have — had — going for me is these two things:
- I knew the situation was bad; I mean, I was in a river in Egypt initially, but it rather rapidly dawned on me just how big a consumer of dumb content I was. Like, for real, I even went through an extended Instagram lurking phase (shudder) lol. And this despite mostly hating it! It’s as though I had become a bad webcomic punchline — the human blob that complains how much something (usually a movie or TV show) sucks but eventually sits through the whole thing anyhow! Yes, it’s worth this many exclamation marks 😉
- I have the benefit of seeing distractions amorally.
You see, distractions aren’t bad. They’re good. The fact that something distracts you doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with you, it means there’s something right with the thing that distracted you; it means that the “distraction” is structured in such a way as to attain and retain your attention.
Don’t believe me? Believe this. In addition to books, I also love movies. But I haven’t watched a movie on my own in months…years, even. Certainly not all the way through. The only movies I see to the end nowadays are at the cinema with friends.
Books and movies are similar. Awesome, but poorly structured. “Read a book” is too vague a goal. It can’t be performed in one sitting. Books vary wildly in length, tone, language, density, legibility and so on. Reading speed varies according to internal and external conditions (available time, content of book, personal energy levels, etc.).
“Watch a movie” is a similarly tall order (similar to “read a book”, that is). It almost feels like homework. It’s too much to do right here right now. It gets put off. You resolve to do it “later”, “when you have time”, in the year two thousand and never.
Now, what (else) do books and movies have in common? Well, for starters, a length that is both large and indeterminate. YouTube videos, on the other hand, are (in general) short, sharp and clear. They’re the ultimate “limited objective“ 1. Clear content, clear goal, clear endpoint.
So-called distractions are just well-structured activities. In order to win, one doesn’t beat them, one joins them — the key is not to fight them but to copy them: you alter the structure of your desired target activities is such a way as to mimic that of the distractions.
OK. Alright. So what do we do? Easy:
- Get a die, a simple six-sided guy should do (virtual works)
- Get a timer (again, virtual works, too)
- Roll the die
- Whatever number you get is the number of minutes you’re going to read for. Start your timer.
- Open (or go find) a book
- Read only that book for as long as the timer is running (no changing books once you start. Total focus.
- Don’t open any other apps (assuming your books are digital).
- If you need to use a dictionary, use another device or write down the unknown words on paper to look up later.
- When you run out of time (i.e. when your timer rings), go back to step (3)
It’s that simple. Micro-timeboxed reading. Reading books like you’d read YouTube videos. In short, sharp, concentrated, laser-like focussed bursts. Running marathons is hard, but running sprints is easy. Tack enough sprints together, end-to-end in sequence, and the marathon runs itself.
That is all. Try it and let me know how it goes.
- (Right now and for now, that is — no doubt something even more addictive and “distracting” will come along, and that in turn will also be replaced, ad infinitum et ultra) ↩