Reading is my favorite introverted coping strategy and form of stress relief, but it’s not always easy to concentrate on the page when I’m stressed or distracted. I want to get lost in a good book. But when I’m feeling anxious, I need a little extra help to focus.
If reading has been tough for you lately, you’re not alone. Several of my book-loving friends have mentioned how hard it is to read more than a few pages these days. We’re stressed, and our brains are struggling to keep up with change, uncertainty, and even grief.
If reading is simply not working for you right now—don’t pressure yourself. A dose of comfort-watching can work wonders, and your TBR stack will wait. But if you want to be reading, your fellow readers are here to help with some tips to help you stay present in the story.
Today, I’m sharing five tricks I’ve stumbled upon or learned from you that help me focus on the page and find comfort in reading even when my brain feels too busy. If you’re looking for ways to nudge your brain back into reading mode, these suggestions are worth a try.
1. Follow your mood
I’ve been tearing through light and breezy contemporary reads lately while my highly-anticipated literary fiction books sit unread. I know that if I force myself to read something darker, my brain is likely to stray from the page. Sticking with feel-good fiction works for me, but if historical nonfiction or true crime work for you, then go with it.
If you’re feeling stalled in your current read, let go of what you think you should be reading and follow your mood instead. I promise, the 600-page literary classic on your nightstand can wait.
In addition to letting your mood dictate your reading choices, set a book aside for the time being if it’s not grabbing your attention. I tend to give a book about 40 pages before quitting, but these days, if a book isn’t feeling right within the first 20 (or, let’s be honest, sometimes it’s only 10), it goes on a pile to come back to later.
2. Set the scene
Simple, quick changes to my physical environment work wonders for my headspace. When the sun warms up our patio, I love to take my book outside. It feels like a treat to read outdoors. If I have some extra time on a weekend afternoon, I light a favorite candle, pour a steaming cup of hot tea, and grab my favorite throw blanket to create a cozy reading atmosphere.
If you don’t have time to sit and sip tea for an hour, you can still grab a few moments of bookish calm throughout your day. Make your bed first thing in the morning so that when you go to bed that night, it feels fresh and inviting for ten minutes of reading.
Turn on an ASMR room as background noise while your kids complete schoolwork during the day. If it helps them focus, it will help you sneak five pages in while they learn. (Sometimes I pop in some headphones with library background noise so I can focus!
Over time, simple habits like a freshly made bed, the smell of your new candle, or a whistling kettle will signal to your mind that it’s time to relax, settle in, and read.
3. Mind your phone
My phone can be a helpful tool or a major hindrance to my reading life, depending on the day. I currently have all notifications turned off, so my life isn’t interrupted by constant buzzing. Without the urge to reach for my phone every other minute, I accomplish tasks with far more efficiency—leaving me with more time to read at the end of the day.
Over the last few weeks, however, I’ve found myself scrolling the news far too often. I needed more drastic measures to get back on track. Enter the Forest App. This simple app acts as both a timer and avoidance technique. You set the timer, and a little tree grows in the app as long as you stay off of your phone. It might seem silly, but it’s surprisingly helpful.
If you need even more help to stay away from your device, enlist the help of a family member. Have them hide your phone or lock it in a drawer while you open a brand new book. Before you know it, you’ll be lost in the world of your story and won’t even miss scrolling Instagram.
4. Work your muscles
Just like lifting weights at the gym builds muscle over time, using your brain in new ways builds concentration and focus. Jigsaw puzzles are my preferred brain workout. They’re incredibly meditative, and while I do sometimes listen to a podcast or audiobook while working a puzzle, I find that silent puzzling helps me clear my mind. If puzzles aren’t your thing, try board games, word searches, or crossword puzzles.
When I’m really stuck in my head, I need to get moving—literally. I need to walk, stretch, or fidget to release nervous energy and recalibrate. Enter audiobooks. When I feel restless and can’t sit down to read a book, I grab my headphones and take Daisy for a walk around the block while listening to my audiobook.
You don’t need to take up running, or even leave the house, in order to find your focus. There are countless things to do while listening to an audiobook. Knit, paint, fold laundry, pet your dog. Physical movement helps channel stress into something productive, and audiobooks totally count as reading.
Even though initially lighthearted, easy-breezy contemporary fiction felt like all I could handle right now, I decided to try a literary escape to a whole different time and place, and picked up a literary Civil War-era novel the other night. I was surprised at how quickly the very different world sucked me in and felt like a nice change of pace.
Following my whim led to picking up more historical fiction, which has been a satisfying addition to my readerly rotation. If your go-to genre doesn’t seem to be working for you right now, try experimenting with something new—a new setting, genre, or author. Read a few pages of every book on your nightstand until one sticks; you might be surprised by what catches your attention. Now is a great time to wander way off the beaten path. If it doesn’t work for you, no harm done, you can always come back to your comfort zone.
I hope that these tips and tricks work well for you and bring some joy back into your reading life. Try one at a time and log what works or what doesn’t work in your reading journal. Framing it like an experiment means there’s no such thing as failure. It works, or it doesn’t, and you can keep experimenting until you find the perfect routine for you.
Have you found any tricks to help you focus on reading lately? Drop them in the comments below, and I’d love to hear which books are grabbing your attention, too!
P.S: If you’re struggling to focus on reading, you might be struggling with new work-from-home routines, too. Here are 10 tips to help you stay present and productive. If you’re craving more comfort reading, here are 25 books to read when it feels like the world is falling apart.