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(I hope this is sufficiently on-topic - couldn't find anywhere else in Stack Exchange more suitable...)

Currently I am having to do a lot of reading of academic papers - some dry stuff but not excessively so. The problem is that, given the average length of a paper, it takes me about 90 mins to read, minimum, sometimes up to a couple of hours for the longer ones. I am having trouble concentrating throughout and my mind ends up wandering, making me lose some of the gist and waste valuable minutes over the course of reading several papers every week.

Though to a much lesser extent, I have this problem when reading normal books too (where the content is that much more engaging than your typical academic paper). So I'm looking for some techniques to improve my reading concentration (or more acutely, some way when reading of becoming aware that my mind is wandering).

(Also, any suggestions of where else to ask this question could be helpful.)

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closed as off topic by Dori, Ralph Gallagher, John Smithers, justkt Feb 8 '11 at 14:03

Questions on Writers Stack Exchange are expected to relate to writing, copywriting, publishing or editing within the scope defined by the community. Consider editing the question or leaving comments for improvement if you believe the question can be reworded to fit within the scope. Read more about reopening questions here.If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

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I do not believe this is on-topic, but please feel free to take it to Meta to ask. Questions on writers need to relate to writing. If your question was about improving concentration with reading for the purposes of writing better (a clearer academic summary, review, or paper or being a better writer because of reading models), it would be on-topic. –  justkt Feb 7 '11 at 15:30
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Please see the discussion on Meta. –  justkt Feb 7 '11 at 19:22
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7 Answers 7

up vote 3 down vote accepted

You have to define the problem before attempting a solution.

  • Are you distracted? (ambient noise, music, silence, TV, someone talking)

  • Are you uncomfortable? (crappy chair, bad posture, headache, eyestrain, bad light, hungry, thirsty, tired)

  • Are you a restless person by nature? Do you have trouble sitting down for X length of time even when doing some other sedentary activity, like watching TV or sitting at the computer?

  • A bit of a stretch, but do you have any reading issues like dyslexia?

See if you can narrow down what's actually causing your mind to wander, particularly when you're reading something you enjoy. If you can resolve it (a white-noise machine, a better chair, more light, new glasses), or even just alleviate it, that might help with the technical papers.

If you're the type of person who just can't sit, try this: get a timer (a kitchen timer will do fine). Press start when you start to read. The moment you realize you're drifting, press stop. Make a note of how long it was. Reset and do it again. See if a pattern emerges, or take an average. If you can only sit for, let's say, seven minutes before getting distracted, then set the timer for six. When the timer goes off, get up and do something physical — 20 jumping-jacks, or run up and down the stairs twice. Then sit down again and restart the timer. You will lose time in the breaks, but you will only lose one minute of six, and you know you can focus for six, so you aren't losing even more time by not knowing when the next break is.

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Great trick (the timing thing); I'll definitely try that out. Thanks for a great answer! –  Mark Gibaud Feb 9 '11 at 12:49
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This might be a silly answer, but as an avid reader with a remarkably short attention span, I'll toss in what I've found.

It helps me if I play music and/or stand up over my desk to read. That way I can fidget without actually having an excuse to get up and do something else. I just sort of vibrate and clutch the desk until I can't take it anymore. The music gives me something to flail and twitch to (believe me, it's not dancing) and also helps me not focus on other noises. No matter where you go, there will be sounds. If you're like me, if you don't recognise them, you will wonder where they come from and soon you will realise that you've read two pages concerning the origin of that weird clicky noise from the hallway, or maybe it was that closet....If all you can hear is music, you can't get distracted that way. I tend to listen to the same CD (...or song) a few (or many) times in a row. Some people can't do that. I think it helps keep me from actually paying attention to the lyrics....

If that's not enough, you can also try reading aloud, or reading silently in a funny voice. No, really. There have been many exams that I would not have done so well on if I hadn't made Count Dracula or pirates or my professor in a funny costume read my textbook/dry academic blah to me. It's not the sort of thing you forget quickly.

As for regular fun books, I ascribe to the school of "don't fight it," which is probably useless to you. If you're more interested in remembering what you read than in saving time, just get up and do something else if you begin to lose it or if you start thinking ahead of the story. Don't try to force yourself to concentrate. You'll just get frustrated and eventually give up if you're at all like me. I have to run back and forth across my house like a moth around a light periodically whatever I'm reading. When I actually remember how terribly out of shape I am, I go back and read some more.

If I'm trying to save time, but I can't concentrate for 5 minutes straight, I use a system. Every time I walk/run/gallop/twirl across my house, I have to read a paragraph. If I can't remember a whole paragraph, I have to read the first sentence, and I have to keep rereading it until I make sense of it. By the time I make sense of it, my brain has usually congealed enough to tackle the whole paragraph...

I don't know what's wrong with me, but hopefully something in there will help someone.

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Summarize as you go. It works.

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In addition to @cchart's excellent advice about summarizing, also make notes about your reaction to what you are reading, any thoughts or feelings that arise as you read.

  • Do you agree or disagree with what the author is saying? How strongly? Why?
  • What relevant experiences have you had?
  • What ideas have you had about the topic, or do you now have as you're reading?
  • What surprises you? What seems like old news?
  • If what the authors are saying is true, what would be the consequences of that?
  • How might you test the author's claims?
  • What other reactions do you have as you're reading?
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What I would do:

  • Break every 40 minutes-ish for 5 minutes and do something completely different. Exercise usually.
  • Verbalise as you go. I mean, talk your thoughts. As you are reading. Sure, you might sound crazy, but that's okay :).
  • If it's non-fiction material, get in the shoes of the most critical mind you know and think .. "What would they be thinking right now?".
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I'm reading one of those accounting books that is best described by a reviewer who said it was like "going through WWI trench warfare".

So here is what I did thanks to a friend who suggested this

I read only 3 pages at a time - that's it.

I would do something else that needs to be done from my task list that was broken down into really small chunks so I am away for just enough of a while to encourage controlled ADD.

Then come back, read another 3 pages.

Now because you are accomplishing other stuff, 1) You will feel encouraged 2) Write down in the margins either a summary of what you just read in a few words, that helps tremendously and keeps you on track and brings you back because your mind is catching up with where you were.

In case of an academic article, I would read only one page at a time because I have been there too and wish I had the strategy before.

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Whenever I start reading the same lines over and over again, I start skimming. Whether it's fact or fiction.

When a text stops engaging, it is either written in a way that doesn't "suit my mind", or I don't have any "cognitive pegs" to stick the material to. Either way, reading it carefully won't help me.

I start skimming, and as soon as the text gets interesting again, I will naturally slow down and pay attention. Usually I have unconsciously picked up bits and pieces along the way. I usually discard the book if the skimming continues for too long. If the book has interested me at some point, I can go on for a while. If it is unengaging from the start, I give it max 20-30 pages.

(I took me a while to understand that I don't have to read and understand everything. If I had realized that earlier, I probably would have finished 'The Lord of the Rings', instead of giving up at the council of Elrond. Twice.)

People are different and will convey and absorb material differently. If you find a book on a subject matter hard to read, find another one. There are usually tons of books written on every thinkable subject - you just have to find the ones that suit your way of learning.

Academic papers are awkward since they often relate to other papers, and talk about them as if you know what they are saying. You usually read academic papers in search of specific knowledge, so I tend to read them they way I browse the internet, filtering out the parts that interest me, and following the references.


Life is too short to read books that doesn't appeal to you. Especially since there are so may others out there that probably will - even on the same subject. Everything can be taught and everything can be interesting, if it is conveyed in a way that appeals to YOU.

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