I have this recurring dream where I step into an extensive library brimming with books — books up to the ceiling and spread across mahogany shelves.
Books with different colored spines and in every nook imaginable.
Here, I have all the time in the world to sit among the voices of great philosophers and novelists. I can access the wisdom of the past and see into the future.
Then, inevitably, I wake up.
And you guessed it — instead of reaching for the hardcover on my nightstand, I’m back to staring into my phone at 5:00 a.m., checking notifications.
If you’re anything like me (and the majority of people), you only have a finite amount of productive hours each day. And this precious time is likely being hijacked by constant digital overload: email, social media, YouTube, podcasts, etc.
As Hugh McGuire notes in Harvard Business Review, we are inundated with “unlimited sources of delight at the touch of a finger.”
“I was distracted when at work, distracted when with family and friends, constantly tired, irritable, and always swimming against a wash of ambient stress induced by my constant itch for digital information. My stress had an electronic feel to it, as if it was made up of the very bits and bytes on my screens. And I was exhausted.”
The problem is, all of this distraction leaves little room to be pulled and engrossed by a book’s influence.
I, too, have been guilty of neglecting my book pile in favor of scrolling through my newsfeed or checking emails long into the night.
Don’t get me wrong — I love staying informed about world and industry events. But quickly skimming through an article isn’t the same as immersing yourself in a new topic or being transported by a fascinating story.
I wasn’t taking anything in.
And like McGuire, I was finding it nearly impossible to focus.
Digital overload leads to energy drain
We are defined by the information we consume. The way we understand others and our place in the world comes down to what we allow in our minds.
But if the only way we ingest new data is by speeding through online content, we’re not giving ourselves the time to gain new insight through conscious deliberation. We’re diluting our ability to learn and only absorbing information superficially.
In other words, we’re like slap-happy monkeys looking for our next dopamine hit.
I get it. Browsing is seductive. Yet all of this constant skimming and jumping from one hyperlink to the next costs us energy. According to a 2019 Workplace Productivity Report, more than half of office professionals are suffering from digital overload.
In other words, screen fatigue isn’t only real, it’s burning us out.
Reclaim your focus by unplugging
“All men contain several men inside them, and most of us bounce from one self to another without ever knowing who we are.” — Paul Auster
Reading should be a slow, immersive experience that expands how we think and should lead to introspection. But the only way to achieve this is by carving out the room for it in our lives.
If we want to sharpen our attention and access the focus needed for critical thinking, we have to disconnect and prioritize the slowness books offer over screens — at least for strategic blocks of time.
I can vouch for this. Reading books has always been one of my greatest pleasures. So when I started to find myself feeling tired and depleted by the end of the day, I vowed to make changes. As I slowly built my company Jotform, I took a book with me everywhere; on the subway, while waiting in line for coffee, before falling asleep — I’d pore over pages.
But I didn’t stop there.
I made it a point to unplug more often and build in systems that allowed me to read more books. Taking steps to manage when and how often I accessed digital information has been the key to slowing down and reclaiming my focus over the years.
The three following strategies have made the greatest impact on my reading habits.
Three ways to make more time for reading
1. Put your devices away
This is a lot easier said than done. Smartphones are built to be addictive — like those vinegar chips you can’t put down. But it’s been proven that keeping your phone nearby reduces your ability to think.
Meaning: You can’t maintain the sustained attention you need for book immersion when you’re constantly checking your DMs. Because of this, I’ve made it a point to leave my smartphone in another room when I get home for the evening.
2. Use focused bursts of time
Don’t try to delve into a book after coming out of an energy-draining meeting. Use your peak hours (when you feel your best) to read for thirty minutes at least 3 times a week. Instead of checking out the latest show on Netflix, try heading to bed early and reading a few chapters before falling asleep.
3. Choose quality over quantity
The point of reading more isn’t about reading all the books. It’s about reading thoughtfully and curating a selection that opens your mind to the world.
As I’ve written before, going deep into one subject that fascinates you will do far more than spreading yourself over 100 boring titles that make no sense to you and your life.
Simply put: enjoying what you read is what will push you to make the time.
What’s most important? Your thirst for knowledge and love of learning. Perhaps Jorge Luis Borges said it best:
“I have always imagined that paradise will be a kind of library.”