Help for the Restless Reader

mgyp0LmIn recent years, I’ve become a restless reader.

I just can’t relax. Maybe it’s because I spend so many weeks of the year reading stuff I don’t feel like reading, including some really terrible writing, because I’m an English teacher. Maybe it’s because the Internet age has broken my brain. Maybe it’s because I’m an adult with adult responsibilities, like emptying the dishwasher and watching all four seasons of Scott and Bailey as fast as possible. Whatever the explanation, I look back fondly on my childhood days of curling up in an armchair or on my bed and reading for hours and hours, but I just can’t seem to do it any more.

This summer, a number of niggling projects have eaten away at my time, and I’ve felt even less inclined to abandon everything and read a book. Once the first of August loomed, though, a sort of reader’s panic set in. School is coming! I will have no time to do the things I want to do! All those library books will have to be returned unread! Read, dammit, read!

And yet the deficit in my attention remained, until I hit on a possible remedy.

I’ve heard references over the last couple of years to the Pomodoro Technique, a productivity aid in which you set a timer for 25 minutes and work intensively for that time, then take a 5-minute break, and then get back at it for another 25 minutes. I’ve never read any of the Pomodoro Technique literature or implemented any of the more complex elements of this technique, like tracking how many 25-minute increments a task requires, or recapping what was achieved in the last 25 minutes and reviewing before I take a break. (I have watched the little video on their website; that’s how I know these things are required if I want to be a “Certified Pomodoro Master”.)

However, I think a lot of teachers probably do their own variations on the Pomodoro technique. For example, I almost always grade papers one at a time, taking a short break after each to go put on a load of laundry, make a cup of tea, or go out in the garden to pick some tomatoes for lunch. Teachers also live our lives in defined and limited time intervals: the 15-week semester; the two-hour classroom block; the four-hour break between classes in which we planned to go to yoga but in which we’ll probably just eat chocolate and read our Bloglovin’ feed.

The Pomodoro technique, at least in its broad strokes, appeals to me, especially when it comes to really onerous tasks. I recently procrastinated creating a research questionnaire for almost two months; telling myself I only had to work on it for 25 minutes a day meant I finally got it done within a week. I think I could make it work for housecleaning, too.Ā  (Maybe.) (Not holding my breath.)

But then a couple of days ago, I thought: I bet reading in 25-minute spells would make me a happier reader.

So I tried it. It helped that it was no longer 41 degrees outside (that’s 106 for you Americans), so I could spend my reading time on the deck. I set my phone alarm to a pleasant melody. I poured myself some sparkling water. I made room on my comfy patio armchair for the cat. And then I forgot about everything else I had to do for 25 full minutes.

After the alarm went off, I dumped the book I’d been reading into my library bag, because it was now clear that I hadn’t been making time for it previously because I didn’t really like it. I made myself a cup of tea. I emptied the dishwasher. I pulled a few more books out of my “unread books” pile, returned to the deck, and set the timer again. This time, one of the books grabbed me right away. I have been reading it in 25-minute increments for the last two afternoons, until it’s dark or rainy enough to go inside, make dinner, and crochet in front of the TV, no longer feeling any conflict about not reading, because I have more reading to look forward to sometime tomorrow!

As a result, I’ve had a beautifully relaxing and nourishing couple of days. In the morning, I write and go for a run, and take care of any other urgent tasks. Then I settle in, without feeling like I’m trying to fill a whole empty afternoon: I’m just taking 25 minutes to do something enjoyable, and then I can deal with something practical, briefly, if need be. For someone like me, who constantly feels like some important task is not being taken care of, this practice allows me to really sink into a book, come up for air, and then sink in again. It allows me to spend the last days of my vacation reading, something I’d been planning to do from the first days, but for some reason just couldn’t.

Things I’ve learned from this practice:

  • If you don’t feel like reading it for 25 minutes, chuck it. The world is full of amazing books that you want to read right now; go find one.
  • Whatever you think needs to be done instead of reading, it can probably wait for 25 minutes.
  • I need to create a reading space inside my house that is as comfy and inviting and peaceful as that deck chair.

I’m going to suggest this technique to my students, especially those who have trouble reading long texts: set aside a block of time to get your reading done, but break it into 25-minute intervals. Keep track of how much you get read in that time, and use that information to figure out how much time you need to read a given text. In between intervals, get up and move. Too much sitting is bad for you anyway.

Are you a compulsive reader who will shunt everything off to read all day? Or do you find yourself distracted by Facebook, work email, and the children’s’ need to be fed and spoken to? How do you make time for reading? This method is working for me, but I’d love to hear yours.

Image by sanja gjenero

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19 responses

  1. For the past few years, I’ve been getting progressively worse at marking work. I’ve been putting it off during the week and waiting until I have a mountain that I have to take home and stay up too late to finish. I’ll give this a try for my problem area next year.

    To this day, I still have trouble getting into a book enough that I wouldn’t want to ditch something if it hasn’t hooked me in 25 minutes. I know myself and my reading habits enough to know that I would have missed out on some of my favorite books if I had moved on too early.

    I enjoyed your post. Thank you.

    • Dr H: on my Facebook page, a reader mentioned that she gives herself a sticker in her calendar every time she finishes grading 10 papers. I think this is a GREAT idea. There’s something about accumulating physical validations (I sometimes put stickers on my to-do list when I finish tasks. It’s surprisingly satisfying.) Thanks for reading!

  2. This sounds like a great idea. I’ll give it a try, and try not to get distracted. With the amount of things available to do in a day I find it hard to concentrate in just read and enjoy the moment.

    • AP: Me too. I think this is why this method has been helping. No matter what I’m doing, I almost feel like I should be doing something else, but if I think, “I’m just going to do this for 25 minutes,” I can let go of that urgency. Thanks for reading!

  3. I, too, am an English teacher. So I feel for you. There are times that I become so stuck in the bog of my student’s writing that I don’t have a chance to read for pleasure. Thank goodness for summer’s off. This method sounds interesting, but I feel like I would ignore the timer if I got my nose in a really good book.

    Thanks for posting.

    • James: yes, I can imagine that if I got really excited I might just hush the timer and keep plugging on! That sometimes happens when I’m doing timed writing, and I’m always happy about it.

  4. I have a real hard time stopping reading a book – no matter how bad. It is something that is deep in me, a sense that to not finish is not right… I have finished some real rubbish clangers! I like the reflection, if I stop liking reading… it is not the reading… it is the book I have in front of me… and I should dump it šŸ˜‰

    • Conor: I used to have that same impulse, and still struggle with it. In doing education research I came across Nancy Atwell’s The Reading Zone, in which she says that encouraging children to abandon books they don’t like is key to making them avid readers, especially nowadays when they have so many other easy distractions. So I try to give myself that permission as well!

  5. Hey Siobhan,

    I write with a group and we sometimes do the Pomodoro for 15 – 25 minutes to do a write-in. The slight shift in intention seems to make a huge difference in productivity. I’m going to try it for reading…I have had some struggles with distractibility in reading lately as well.

    Thanks,
    Mark

    • Mark: I often give myself time limits for writing: it ties in with Anne Lamott’s philosophy of “small assignments” – a task is a lot less daunting if you just have to accomplish a tiny bit, and then another tiny bit, and so forth. And I trained myself as a writer on Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones: she is a big advocate of timed freewriting. It really gets the juices flowing.

  6. I can read ALL day if the book is good. And, I’ve learned to toss the book aside and move to the next one in the pile when it isn’t any good.
    I used the Pomodoro technique with my writing for awhile, but I prefer to let my thirst or need for the restroom pull me away from my work – especially when I’m creating. I can see how it would help someone who is obsessive about getting all the “little things” accomplished and feeling like “reading” is wasting time.

    • Sharon: Hmm. I wonder if you’ve hit on something here: I’ve certainly never consciously believed that reading is a “waste of time,” and was taught by my parents that it’s a very valuable thing to do, but maybe deep down I think it’s less important than the other stuff I need to accomplish. On the other hand, I definitely think that watching MasterChef is a waste of time, but I can dedicate hours to that without any incentive. It’s a conundrum.

  7. I’ve been home most of the summer because we’re under construction and all that involves, plus some medical fun and family obligations, seems I never read enough. I’ll try the timed technique, but fear I would keep going if it hooked me well enough. Gotta use this time because it’s flying by! Enjoyed your post. Looking forward to new chapters, too!

    • T-B: Oh, I definitely carry on if I’m absorbed enough and there’s nothing pressing I need to get to. And yes, I’m working on a new chapter that should be up soon! So glad you’re enjoying.

  8. Siobhan, I’ve always wanted to own a library and now that I have my little Ipad, I do and I furnish it with new writers and classics that I enjoyed in my youth. I wouldn’t waste 25 minutes of my precious time deciding if I liked a book or not. It’s like breaking in new shoes. If you’re immediately not comfortable, you never will be. And it’s easier to toss an electronic book. šŸ™‚

  9. I’m not sure why, but I felt it’s an obligation to finish the book i start, and scandalous to try and read more than two books at a time. I’d been using pomodoro for work, but never thought it would do for recreational reading too. Because there would be times my mood just won’t align with the book’s style, nature or genre!

    I’m more thankful to you for standing by this idea of picking anything I feel like ‘for that moment’. I can now be at peace with myself with chucking something which requires more brain cycles than I can spare. šŸ™‚

  10. I enjoyed this post. I am also a teacher and reading your insight about reading for work and for pleasure reminded me that I may have unwittingly merged the two. So now I tend to briefly browse over long texts that don’t catch my attention, as opposed to when I used to savor how words are strung together.

    Then again, as you pointed out, it could just be a bad book.

    Thank you! šŸ™‚

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