This Trick Will Help You Get More Out of the Books You Read

A children’s book author explains how reading with an “invisible finger” taught her to absorb information more mindfully.


Reading is incredibly beneficial for your brain — but doing it slowly and mindfully gives those benefits a major boost. In a recent TED Talk, author Jacqueline Woodson outlines her own slow reading trick: “As a child, I knew that stories were meant to be savored… that stories wanted to be slow… I learned to imagine an invisible finger taking me from word to word.”

As it turns out, there’s science behind Woodson’s reading trick. Studies show that incorporating up to 30 minutes of uninterrupted slow reading in your day can improve cognitive abilities  —  while other research shows that quickly reading articles online encourages us to skip important details, and skim over content that would otherwise be meaningful to us if we slowed down to read mindfully. In a world that urges us to scroll past the details, “slow reading” has become a strategy that allows us to slow down, and to read more mindfully. “As technology moves us faster and faster through time and space, it seems to feel like ‘story’ is getting pushed out of the narrative,” Woodson notes. “The world is getting noisier… but books are meant to be read slowly, to be savored.” 

If you need some help slowing down and getting more from the words you’re reading, here are a few tips to try.

Block out enough time

Oftentimes, you may find yourself zooming through pages of your book simply because you don’t give yourself enough time to take your time, Larry Rosen, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus at California State University and co-author of The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World, tells Thrive. “Research has shown that individuals read for three to six minutes before they get distracted,” he explains. “Regardless of how smart you are, this is not enough time to process information, extract the pertinent ideas, and integrate them into other information stored in your brain.” Rosen says giving yourself enough time to read mindfully and thoroughly is the first step in absorbing the words you’re reading, and avoid the “continuous partial attention” we often give to the stories in front of us. (Experts recommend approximately 30 minutes each day, but Rosen says the exact amount will vary per person.)

Set 15-minute alarms

If you’re used to skimming quick news stories on your phone, it might feel overwhelming to sit down with a book and really take your time. If you’re finding it difficult to slow down, Rosen suggests setting alarms in 15-minute intervals, so you can better focus on reading for time-limited periods. He says that doing so can help you gradually work your way up to reading each page more mindfully, and worry less about the time that’s passing. “Set the do not disturb on your phone for 15 minutes to start,” he suggests. “ And then increase that slowly to at least 40-60 minutes.” That step-by-step increase will “train your brain to focus” in a new way, and shift your previous “Pavlovian responding” habits to create new ones. 

Make your reading area phone-free

We know from research that technology has changed the way we interact with our environment, and has made focused information consumption increasingly difficult with all of our in-pocket distractions. According to Rosen, these distractions can hold us back from getting the most out of what we read.  “In our research we find that the biggest culprit in distraction is technology… and the smartphone in particular,” he explains. To avoid temptation, try removing all unneeded devices and programs from your reading area, which will make your space more conducive to mindful reading, he says. And if you really want to check your phone, don’t completely deprive yourself — or you’ll end up getting more distracted. Instead, “Try silencing your phone and allowing yourself a one-minute break after a ‘do not disturb’ period,” he urges. Doing so can improve your “focus and attention, sleep, mental health, and communication.”

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