mnmlist: undistracted reading

Reading happens to be one of my favorite things in the world. I know, I’m not alone — a few others seem to enjoy it as well. But the reader these days faces interesting challenges: there’s more to read than ever, in so many different forms, coming at you every day, and a million distractions from the act of reading (many of them in the form of other reading).

The types of reading seem to grow all the time: from traditional paper books, newspapers and magazines to blog posts, online news articles, forums, Tweets, Facebook updates, emails, email newsletters, and much more. Each of these types of reading presents an ever-growing and often overwhelming reading list that we must keep up with: an email inbox, an RSS reader with the latest blog posts, various news websites, a long list of status updates and forum posts, and so on.

Keeping up with these lists becomes near impossible, a full-time job. My solution is to give up on keeping up — it’s a self-invented need, not a real one — and to pare down as much as possible. So I pare my list of blogs to the essential, I barely do email, I have only a few friends on Twitter and Facebook. So I’m not the most up-to-date guy, and so I don’t make everyone happy by being their online friend … life seems to go on.

Even with a pared-down reading list, reading can still be a challenge: how do you read without distractions? It’s incredibly difficult, as each reading form pulls us away from the others, and alerts and updates are coming in all the time, not to mention other forms of communication like phones, IM, and (gasp) real people trying to get our attention.

Here’s how I find undistracted reading:

1. Books. My favorite type of reading is the novel. I rarely read non-fiction books, even though I’m a non-fiction author myself. And while the iPad and Kindle each present lovely ways of reading books, they also each contain various distractions. And so I still love the paper book, for its simplicity and lack of other things to do while you’re reading it. Close the computer, turn off the phones, find a quiet spot, and just read. Try to do it in large chunks, like 30 minutes or an hour or more, and you can get lost in another world. Simply beautiful.

2. Blog posts. I love to read blogs, though I keep up with fewer these days than I did a few years ago. I’ve pared my reading list down and use Google Reader to quickly get through the list each day. When I find a post I want to read in full, without distractions, I open it in a new browser window — not a browser tab, but a window, so no other tabs show — and use the Readability bookmarklet or similar to focus only on the text. Then I read without switching to anything else until I’m done.

Here on mnmlist, and there on Zen Habits, I’ve already pared my posts down to just the text. I’ve done the work for you, for undistracted reading. On other blogs, you have to do some work — install the Readability bookmarklet, hit a button when you want to read an article without distractions. It’s OK. A little hard work never killed anyone, except my Uncle Murray but I think it was more his complaining about hard work that did it.

3. Focused browsing. If you open a bunch of tabs, keep things focused by using a little service I discovered called Instapaper (I don’t think anyone else knows about this, so feel free to leave 5 cents on your way out for the tip). Instapaper all your open tabs for reading later, then read one at a time when you have some undistracted reading time.

4. Email, Twitter, Facebook. Basically, open these as little as possible. They lead to distractions for other reading, for work, etc. Open them for 5 minutes, do a quick scan, post an update or reply if necessary, then get out. Only open one at a time, do them with focus, and close the tab. Give yourself some time to do this on a regular basis — 5 minutes at the top of each hour, or at 9 a.m. and 3 p.m., or whatever works for you.

5. News articles. I don’t read a lot of news sites. They tend to lead to lots of distractions. But when I do, I open a few of the articles that look interesting, scan them, and Instapaper the ones that I want to read later. Then I’ll plow through Instapaper with some undistracted reading, when I have time.