Unfocusing to Focus On Reading More Books

BOOKS. (Not my BOOKS, it’s a Creative Commons photo.)

Well, this seems counterintuitive, doesn’t it? Something I’ve been thinking about for about the last five years now is my focus, or lack thereof, on reading. When I was younger, and into my teens, I was a voracious reader. I devoured books on a fairly regular basis. It was a running joke in my family that if a family gathering was going on, Brett was probably shunning the gathering to go upstairs and read (sorry).

But as I got older, life, such as college, jobs, and then later a girlfriend, happened, and my reading went from voracious to sporadic at best. Add in acquiring a smartphone like seven years ago (after resisting for the longest time by holding onto my flip phone), with Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, reddit, and so on at my fingertips, and the plethora of streaming channels (I currently “only” have Netflix, Amazon Prime, Peacock, and Roku, which is free) one remote click away, and my poor brain didn’t stand a chance.

I was …

  • too tired.
  • too preoccupied with having a girl in my life.
  • too focused on writing papers.
  • too needing of escapist television, movies, and pro wrestling.
  • too much of a political junkie following politics via Twitter.
  • too unable.

So I thought, and so it went for years like this. Even more recently, in 2020 when I became single, I thought I would renew my love of reading by … reading more! I started off the year well. I was reading one book per week. Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, and my brain was completely sidetracked and obsessed with following the pandemic news. I stopped reading.

However, toward the end of 2021, I circled back around to earnestly recapturing my love of reading. I began reading a book, or two, or three, a week. I haven’t stopped. More or less, I’ve kept that pace, along with the addition of embracing audiobooks more regularly, into 2022, as we approach the half-way mark of the year.

It feels so damn good.

It’s funny, when you haven’t been regularly reading, getting back into regularly reading almost is like building up an acquired taste. Like, you have to remember how to read again, and retain what you’re reading.

I’ve also always had an issue with balance. Between my job and my girlfriend at the time. Between school and my hobbies. Between X and Y, whatever X and Y happens to be at that given time. For example, last year, I was all in on FitOn and regularly exercising. This year, with being all in on reading books, my exercising has taken a hit. I find it hard to strike a balance I like. I’m an all or nothing sort of person. An obsessed with X for A length of time until I stop, and get obsessed with Y for B length of time sort of person. I think the real problem is too much algebra.

And the thing is, neither you, nor I, should feel too guilty about abandoning books for a spell! I know many of my fellow voracious book-lovers also feel such guilt and longing to become the reader again that they once were. I see it on Facebook, Twitter, reddit, etc. That social media or whatever else took a machete to their reading productivity, culling back their beautiful, towering stack of “read” books.

Because as it turns out, we, as humans, need a little bit of unfocusing in order to focus! Think about it just on the surface before I nerd out in the weeds: Even the most steadfast workaholic needs to take a moment at some point to unwind, to stop focusing. Our brains just cannot be “on” all the time.

As Srini Pillay argued in a Harvard Business Review article, too much focus can drain our energy and make us lose control.

“This energy drain can also make you more impulsive and less helpful. As a result, decisions are poorly thought-out, and you become less collaborative,” he said.

The solution is a balance (its own Herculean task for me!) between focus and unfocus. Pillay said that toggling creates resilience, enhances creativity, and allows us to make better decisions.

Unfocusing engages a brain circuit called “default mode network,” he said. Or put a cuter way by the researchers, the Do Mostly Nothing circuit. This brain circuit is not “doing nothing,” it’s actually engaging old memories, toggling the past, present and future, and playing with different ideas. To “do nothing,” or to unfocus, is to engage this part of the brain. More than our own benefit, engaging the Do Mostly Nothing circuit also helps us to tune into other people’s thinking, thus improving team understanding and cohesion, Pillay said.

Yes, I’m putting a nice sheen on not reading for my book lovers yearning for their book-reading glory days, but I think there is a clear benefit to “doing nothing” sometimes, even “not reading,” as much as it pangs us to be reminded of all the books we aren’t reading.

But, how did I get back to reading more regularly after a false start in 2020, and a rather lengthy layoff prior? I keep a book by my recliner table. So, for one, it taunts me to read it. Secondly, I do indulge my need for escapist TV or mindless Twitter scrolling, or even writing on this blog to exercise that part of my “do nothing” brain, and then after a certain amount of time, I just … stop, and pick up the book. I don’t really have a trick or secret to it other than repeatedly doing it, so that I continually look forward to reading and that feeling of getting lost in a book, and completing a book.

Unfortunately, like anything worth doing, repetition is key to building up that mental capacity to keep doing it, and want to keep doing it. And I mean, I’ve also come to realize that the FOMO thing, “fear of missing out,” is mostly not true. Granted, when a big news event is going on, like the January 6th Committee hearings, I don’t want to be missing out because I’m reading, but otherwise, I can catch back up on Twitter. It’ll be there for my scrolling, catching-up pleasure later.

Have you had this same struggle with reading, and if so, how have you (if you have!) pushed back against it to become a reader again?

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