5 tricks to help you read when reading feels hard

5 tricks to help you read when reading feels hard

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.

5 tricks to help you read when reading feels hard

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.

5 tricks to help you read when reading feels hard

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.

5 tricks to help you read when reading feels hard

5. Experiment

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.

5 tricks to help you read when reading feels hard | Modern Mrs Darcy

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  1. Sarah Jane says:

    Whoa- first of all, how did I not know what an ASMR room is?!? Amazing. I’m missing place our north woods cabin the Hog’s Head Inn is already lowering my blood pressure. Also, I just downloaded the tree app. I loved Ann Patchett’s article about reading Kate DiCamillo so I read Edward Tulane again this weekend and A Quiet Life in the Country by Kinsey is fitting the bill do. Thanks, Anne. I sure appreciate you and books and this community. Be well.

  2. Nancy Lohr says:

    I’m still working full time (and grateful for this), so I don’t have a sudden windfall of empty hours. So I decided to shift for now to reading/re-reading some YA and middle grade novels. (I used to be a school librarian.) The books tend to be shorter than books intended for older readers, and their length lends to a tighter focus (IMO). Regardless the reason, I am enjoying this approach for now. For what it’s worth: during this time of isolation I’ve read Theodore Taylor’s Cape Hatteras trilogy (I own the set), two of Andrew Peterson’s Wingfeather Saga, “Beverly, Right Here” by Kate DiCamillo, and “A Long Walk to Water” by Linda Sue Park, and have found each lovely or refreshing or simply fun. Hurray for the Libby app.

  3. Kacie says:

    A lot of us on bookstagram are struggling with reading focus right now! I love these ideas.

    I’ll add: this is a great time for re-reads. We know what to expect from that book and the familiarity might feel comforting.

    Other genres I’m dipping into lately: graphic novels, middle grade. Also enjoying breezy romance and even murder mystery.

    Trying a series might be a good idea if you’d like to stay in one world for awhile. I’m re-reading Harry Potter right now and my mom is reading the Mitford series.

    Big hugs to all of you.

  4. Amelia says:

    Thanks for the tips! I have been working my full time job remotely at home, and I don’t have a lot of time to read before and after work. I used to go every Saturday to a coffee shop and read books while my boyfriend worked his job. I read my books mostly through ebooks now…but we recently got into visual novel videogames/point-and-click adventure games on the computer. It’s been a good alternative for reading and relaxing together!

  5. Nancy says:

    This is so great! I thought my current reading focus troubles were just me until I read through the comments of the Quick Lit post yesterday. I immediately cut myself a huge break. With the current circumstances, I’m throwing out some of my usual rules and guidelines for obtaining books. If a particular book grabs my interest and the library ebook hold is too long, for example, and it’s on an ebook deal, I splurge on buying instead. Same with listening to audiobooks—even if it is available on overdrive, to take the pressure off the timeframe, I am acquiring it by purchasing. I’ve even splurged on buying some paper copies of books I normally wouldn’t from independent bookstores as a small way to contribute if I’m able. During an already unusual time, I’m finding comfort in treating myself in these different ways. Books I’m interested in but I start and it’s not working right now, I can easily set aside since I don’t feel pressure about them expiring or whatever. I can allow myself to keep at trying different books until one does capture my attention. Thanks bookish community for helping me to feel normal!

    • Pam says:

      Same here; buying more eBooks than I would, usually. My public library has a reasonable collection of eBooks, but the hold list is often long, and turnover is S-L-O-W. I think some people don’t realize that you can return an eBook early, if you are finished with it … Plus, my library limits Libby holds to 15, while they have no limits on number of physical book holds. All this means that I turn to buying more eBooks as an alternative. First world problems! Healthy and not out of work, so I am grateful.

  6. Barb says:

    I second the motion for YA and kids books. Harry Potter, Little House, and Jean Little have been good. I’m working still and work is INSANE. I’m pretty exhausted at the end of a day so audio and lighter reads have been saving my sanity….along with the British Baking Show and knitting!

    • emily says:

      Barb, I’m your pandemic twin! YA books are a perfect fit for me at the moment (I’ve got “Brown Girl Dreaming” and “The House on Mango Street” going at the moment) and GBBS is definitely saving my life these days. Even my 3 sons (19, 16, and 12) are hooked!

  7. Kim says:

    Deep breathing while standing up and doing some sunflowers is a big help to regaining concentration. Sunflowers are putting your hands to the heavens and then scooping your hands down to the earth in a somewhat circular motion and back up again about 10-20 time. It is revitalizing! Also, standing up, breathing deeply a few tines while bending backwards a bit with your hands at your lower back is also energizing to promote focus! Blessings to all as they pursue reading adventures!!

  8. Lynda says:

    Thank you so much…I have struggled to focus on books as we deal with this pandemic. I put aside the new Hilary Mantle, a book I have been eagerly anticipating for years. I found the story…for now…to be too dark and too demanding. I picked up an Agatha Christie and then a Pico Iyer…both great diversions. I will return to THE LIGHT AND THE MIRROR with much anticipation, hopefully soon. But for now, well written lighter and shorter reads are top of the pile.

  9. Paula says:

    I too, have been majorly struggling in my reading life. One thing that worked for me this week to help maintain my focus was to listen to an audio book while simultaneously following along in the paper copy.

  10. Cora says:

    I love these strategies! When I’m having a tough time getting started, I set a timer for 10 minutes on my phone and set it to airplane mode/do not disturb. Then, I tell myself that for the next 10 minutes I’m going to read and do nothing else. Once the timer goes off, either I’ve read 10 minutes that I wouldn’t have read otherwise, or I’m so into the book that I keep reading (which usually happens)!

  11. Hayley says:

    Two other things that are helping me personally: short story collections and books I had already started! I really like the idea of short story collections but often don’t read them after buying them. But short stories are perfect for my level of concentration right at the moment! I also have the tendency to be a mood reader and start books and set them aside but going back to some of those has been a great choice right now! I have a fairly decent memory so I don’t have to reread the parts I’ve read and I can just jump in and I feel so accomplished when I finish them!

  12. Pam says:

    Love the ASMR idea! Clicked on the above link and ended up at a black screen? But a quick internet search led me to more info and links to YouTube videos. They look great.

    Another idea, similar to this: DVDs such as “Sunrise Earth – American Sunrises” by Discovery. Natural settings, with limited movement – “a tranquil, visually stunning journey into the landscape itself”. Videos include Moose in the Morning, Yellowstone Geysers, & Vermont Balloons. In my DVD collection; I think I’ll pop a disc in my DVD player this morning! People may be able to find something similar on a streaming service or YouTube.

  13. Jennifer T says:

    Thank you Anne as always. Feel like you are working quite a bit, but on my end I am devouring/ loving everything you send out (and in turn not working like I should be.) Even though so many great books are listed on your blog I blank out on names when I want to order/read something new. Writing them down in my reading log helps keep the titles at hand (ThriftBooks is a great source for low priced second hand books with libraries now closed- a new find I’m grateful for!)
    Just read 84 Charing Cross rd as you have recommended. I literally told my kids if I could, I would roll in this book ( we have a dog so they know that is an expression of intense joy.) That was an ultimate cozy, beautiful, lovely, quick read. I had also just finished the Maytrees by AD so perhaps some of the joy came from that being over. Yikes, I was not a fan. Will give Pilgrim at TC benefit of the doubt as you recommend that, perhaps that is her better work. Or most likely it’s me and I may not be into that style of writing. Reading now, On Rue Tatin- living and cooking in a French town. It is a great cooking lit book, excellent charming escape read.Think I will also pick up a Jan Karon, did not finish the series but I have never read anything so cozy, lovely, uplifting and warm and fuzzy as her books. Jan Karon’s writing is a balm for the soul. Mitford take me away…

  14. Laura says:

    Reading poetry had been helpful lately. In hard times, I generally find it to be a solace even though I don’t often read it in everyday life. Also, getting outdoors and reading stories to my kids has been a good way to change it up. I re-listened to the first Harry Potter, which is available for immediate download on Overdrive, Hoopla, and Audible now. I’m not a huge Potterhead, but it was perfect for right now.

  15. Erica says:

    The first few weeks of this social distancing hit me pretty hard. Because I was no longer able to go to work or to church, my depression came back with a vengeance. I’m very introverted but I realized how much that little bit of social interaction every week helped keep me stable. I struggled with reading and even with watching favorite TV shows or movies. One thing that helped me keep reading was fanfiction! It has all the familiar elements of my favorite fandoms but with different stories to change things up. And of course, when all else fails, I just re-read a Jane Austen novel for the millionth time. Once I started feeling up to it I forced myself to start organizing, and once I got started I couldn’t stop. I’ve found I need a neat environment much more than I did when I was younger, and the organizing has helped me feel more focused as well.

    I think my brain is finally adjusting. I was able to get back to watching the Netflix shows I had been wanting to watch for a while and I’ve gotten my reading verve back. I’m going to pick up my book about Benjamin Franklin and George Washington again, for the first time in over a month. I think the sunny weather lately has been helping too. At the very least I can open some curtains and let some light in while I read!

  16. Mary Beth says:

    I hardly have any attention span for books with a compelling plot or mystery element that would normally have me tearing through the pages. I find I get agitated when I try to read them, so I have turned the complete opposite direction and am currently making my way through the introduction to Emily Wilson’s translation of The Odyssey. For some reason it is perfect for right now. I look forward to it enough that I want to open my book every night, but it doesn’t wind my already aggravated nervous system up so that I can’t concentrate. I keep being surprised how much it is working for me.

  17. Nancy Rapp says:

    I am thinking this might be the time to read A Gentleman in Moscow. Wasn’t he under house arrest?
    Also Books a Million kept adding more books to my order and it wouldn’t stop so I gave up trying to order your book.
    Thanks for all your wonderful work! You are an inspiration!
    Nancy Rapp

    • Lorraine says:

      I am doing a buddy read of G’man in Moscow right now and it’s perfect for these times. I chose it because if his confinement situation and we’re just loving it. So well written and transportive.

  18. Michaela says:

    I also find that going back and re-reading an old favorite can really help me get out of a book slump! It’s comforting, familiar, and fun.

  19. Dana says:

    I have several…ahem.. unread books that I “had” to have for Christmas, but I just can’t seem to reach for them right now. I went for about a week not reading anything and then decided I needed something familiar. I am re-reading the entire Harry Potter series for the ??th time and loving them all over again. Some other YA and middle grade books have helped, too. I just finished Here in The Real World by Sara Pennypacker. It was just what I needed to read and I highly recommend it. It’s perfect for tweens, but adults will love it as well. Very short chapters, so it wouldmake a great family re-aloud.

  20. Kate says:

    I’m reading Into the Raging Sea by Rachel Slade about the sinking of El Faro in 2015. It makes me grateful to be safe in my house instead of trying to navigate a container ship through a hurricane!

  21. Jaime C says:

    Most of my reading was getting done via audiobook on my commute to and from work… So now that my commute is gone I find myself having to reacclimate to reading paper books. Which sounds weird now that I said that out loud! Heavier topics or more intricate storylines haven’t been working for me yet but I am finding success with some YA and romance novels (highly recommend the Winston Brothers series by Penny Reid). But what’s really drawing me in are non-fiction/memoirs that are about different types of adventures…like To Shake the Sleeping Self by Jedidiah Jenkins – it’s his memoir of riding his bicycle from Oregon all the way to Patagonia! I’ve also been meaning to read Southbound by the Barefoot Sisters which is their story about hiking South on the Appalachian Trail!

  22. debra diamond says:

    Inability to concentrate and anxiety (among other symptoms) are signs of trauma. While suggesting these alternative strategies are meant with good intentions, there are strategies used by therapists and professionals for trauma that are more broad reaching and are going to be needed to address system wide trauma now showing up in the population.

  23. Lauren Horn says:

    This isn’t exactly a reading/book suggestion, although it’s something I enjoy while reading too, try listening to Classical music. There’s a reason it has persisted all these years, it can be calming or stirring, no matter what level of anxiety you have it there is something to ease your soul. Many years ago I learned that Pachelbel’s canon in D has the correct tempo to slow the beating of your heart and ease anxiety. If I have trouble sleeping I “play” it in my head and it helps! Levenger had a set “Classic Music for the Reader” that I bought and still love. It has become familiar enough to help me maintain focus when I play it while reading! I hope this helps!

  24. Jill Wilder says:

    I’m so glad to read this today. I’ve been struggling with a regular book that I’ve really wanted to read. I thought it was just me. Even yesterday, I returned an audio that I had wanted to read for awhile. I’ll try it again another time. Just keep breathing and read the books that speak to you.

  25. Kim says:

    It’s so great to know I’m not alone in my lack of focus on reading these days. I’m flying through audio books while working full time and have two kiddos e-learning, and a husband who unfortunately lost his job a couple weeks ago due to Covid-19. (Writing all that made me realize it’s no wonder I can’t focus on reading!). I am making my way through American Dirt on my nightstand, which is so heavy for me right now, but yet I can’t seem to set it down, being over 50% of the way through. *sigh* Be well.

  26. Angela in NC says:

    I have been having much more luck with fun romance reads, than with anything heavy and substantive. Also, I often put my phone in another room so I am not tempted to pick it up and start scrolling. I do leave the ringer on, though, in case one of my adult children calls.

  27. Jessa Fox says:

    What Civil War book did you read? I didn’t see any historical fiction in your quick lit but it sounds like just what I need right now.

  28. Nanette Stearns says:

    Re-reading has been helping me, especially books I know I’ll love. I also was waiting for a new book in the Julia Spencer-Fleming series (Hid from Our Eyes) and really loved revisiting those characters. I also picked up another book in Estelle Ryan’s Genevieve Lenard series – having familiar characters to spend time with made a real difference. I’m not reading anything too heavy these days. I’ve heard of ASMR but hadn’t thought of it as a background for reading. Thanks for the ideas.

    • Jackie L says:

      Picking up a book in a series that I enjoy is one of my favorite strategies when I’m struggling to focus on reading. The feeling of visiting old friends really helps when I need that sort of comfort. I think it will help even more right now because we’re not able to visit real friends or family during this crisis.

  29. Noga (pronounced like "yoga"), Jerusalem says:

    I am leaning towards food-related memoirs these days (Life From Scratch by Sasha Martin, for example. Save Me the Plums. An Everlasting Meal.) , and also cookbooks in which the recipes come with a good text. The combination of the coziness that comes with food & coziness plus having a real person “share” her real story with you is comforting for me at this time.

  30. Marty says:

    There are lots of good suggestions and insights here. One thing – which isn’t reading – but which I think has a similar role. And that is just talking to friends. Some of mine are are relatively new, others I’ve known for many years, and from many places. I don’t necessarily pick up the phone, but I check in online. A few are very close friends. But in this strange world, it has been even more helpful.

  31. I’m so glad I’m not the only one turning to uplifting and feel-good reads at the moment! I’ve forced myself through a few very heavy literary fiction reads of late, and I feel like I can’t properly appreciate their brilliance because emotionally I just don’t have the bandwidth. Comfort reads for the win (for the moment)!

  32. Nancy Ball says:

    I go through times when I start a book, then start another, then start an audiobook and I can’t seem to hook into any one. And it gets to be a pattern. This time, I found a lovely little book, easy to read, that drives out clutter in the mind. Its The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elisabeth Tova Bailey. It’s an unlikely book about a middle aged woman who’s temporarily bedridden in recuperation. She’s been given a pet snail. It’s very readable and at the same time quiet and meditative. Great for getting the reading focus back again!

  33. Carmel says:

    It might seem counter intuitive but the only books that catch me right now are post apocalyptic in nature. I think I like them because things seem to work out in the end. Or maybe it feels like research. Im not sure but I recently read A Beginning At The End and also Moon of The Crusted Snow and was able to enjoy them. Before I settled on these I picked up and put down so many books I think I’ll like at a different time.

  34. Denise says:

    I thought I was losing my mind because I have started 3 books and finished none. Even my family thinks it’s strange that I don’t have my face in a book. I’ll try some of these tips and hope I can learn to calm my mind. Thanks for posting.

  35. Abi says:

    Thanks for the great tips! I just discovered an ASMR room for the Ravenclaw common room – I’m in love! I’ve found that a good mystery almost always gets me out of a reading rut. And I actually just finished writing a review on one of my all-time favorite mystery books, The Dry by Jane Harper. If you’re interested in my review, you can take a look at it by visiting http://www.themamabookbear.com/review-of-the-dry-by-jane-harper. Let me know what you think (of the book and my review)!

  36. Katie says:

    This is a timely post! In March I hit a reading slump with two bleh books I read at the same time (one physical, one audio). They’re both loved/much talked about books, so I had that disappointment as well. And then… I got the coronavirus and basically did nothing for over two weeks. I’m trying to get back into reading now, but it’s hard. For almost 3 years I’ve been in the habit of waking up early (before 6am) to read before going in to work. Even on weekends! And now I’m lucky to roll out of bed before 7, so working on getting back into that routine. I did turn to some Agatha Christies and a favorite cozy series to get me excited again, and I think it helped. And oh my poor bookstagram. It has been so neglected…

  37. Krys says:

    Great suggestions! I’ve been having some trouble getting back into reading. I just don’t know what I want to read and now a boat-load of e-requests are coming in from the library and I’ve become overwhelmed and swamped lol

    K

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