Have the attention span of a goldfish? Here’s how to read long things (including books & papers)

Or how Pocket saved my brain from turning to mush.

Many people find that the internet has made it hard to read long articles, papers, or books.

It’s especially hard to stay focussed on an internet-connected device, but even sitting around at home you risk picking up your phone and losing concentration.

I am one of these broken people. Rather than change my nature, which is hard, I’ve instead found a simple technical workaround.

My solution has been to switch everything substantial to audio, and get through articles, books and papers one after another while walking around outside. This way I can:

  1. work through material quickly, by speeding it up to the maximum rate I can absorb;
  2. mostly avoid distractions;
  3. get exercise, light and sun where I’d otherwise be stuck sitting indoors, and;
  4. avoid the RSI, hand, or neck pain that comes from using a phone/laptop for long periods.

This is obviously easy for popular books which are available on Audible (no referral links here — I don’t need to make an extra $2 a month). Get a plan for 24 books a year and each will cost under $10. An absolute bargain.

What about everything else?

Online articles (the easy one)

I use an app called Pocket. It absorbs articles, stores them in your phone, and can read them out to you.

Why Pocket? It’s a well-designed, free app, and after a recent update offers an impressively natural reading voice, using Amazon Polly.

It also handles punctuation, math or footnotes much better than text-to-voice services used to.

For online articles this is straightforward — you install their extension for Chrome and then just click the ‘Save to Pocket’ icon to send it to your phone. (Firefox has Pocket support built right in.)

Then, bring the article up in the app on your phone, click the headset icon to listen, and use the +/- symbols to speed it up or down. More instructions here.

An alternative article saver is Instapaper, but they charge for text-to-voice.

Books that aren’t on Audible

This is common for older or more academic books, and is a touch trickier. You need to:

  1. Get an e-book version of the book. Sometimes you can buy these from the publisher, which you should do if you can. If not, there’s a website that allows you to download an e-book version of almost any title for free.
  2. Convert that e-book to a .txt file using this website (easy), or PanDoc (a bit technical).
  3. Create a new Google Document.
  4. Copy in up to 24,200 words of the book at a time — any longer than that and Pocket will disable text-to-voice. This is roughly a 1h 45m increment. Give it a title like [Book name part 1].
  5. Go to File → ‘Publish to the web’, and publish the Google Doc so that Pocket can see it.
  6. Load up the newly published page and click ‘Save to Pocket’ using that Pocket extension.
  7. Bring up the article on your phone. Now Pocket can read it to you just like any other article.
  8. Un-publish the Google Doc.
  9. Go back to step 3 and create a second and third Doc, if your book is longer than 24,200 words long.

Does this sound like a pain in the ass? I understand, but once you’re used to it, this whole process will take only 2-5 minutes each time. I do this about once a week when I need to check out a more obscure book.

Compared to the time taken up by listening itself, we’re talking about a tolerable 3–5% overhead. For me the alternative was just not ‘reading’ any books I couldn’t get on Audible, which was worse.

Academic papers

Listening to an academic paper in Pocket

Sometimes you can find an academic paper published as a normal web page. If it doesn’t require a sign-in you can just click ‘Save to Pocket’ like any normal article and you’re done.

If it requires a special library subscription, the Pocket service probably won’t be able to see the article, so you may need to copy the text into a Google Doc and ‘publish’ it, as described for books above.

(By the way, did you know there’s a website that can give you any academic paper for free?)

All too often though, papers are only available as PDFs. How do we extract just the text, so that we can publish it is a Google Doc?

One option is to copy and paste it out. However, often the footnotes and other formatting quirks require you to do this page by page, column by column, or even paragraph by paragraph. That is a real pain.

Here are some other options I’ve seen suggested:

  • Open the PDF in Microsoft Word and try to copy it out.
  • Try pdf2doc.com or pdf2go.com
  • Use Adobe Reader to export it to doc, docx, or rtf — this feature will require a $2/month subscription to use though.
  • Using the Linux command line:
    Use the command pdftotext from the poppler-utils package
    pdftotext input.pdf output.txt
  • Use Calibre ebook software to convert it to a text format (free), or PDFpenpro for MacOS (not free).
  • If your PDF is a scanned image rather than text, you would need to use an OCR service, though honestly that’s rarely worth the time cost.

None of these will handle every PDF perfectly — you’ll often get weird characters, formatting, spacing, and so on. (Fortunately though formatting and spacing don’t affect how it’s read out.)

If you’re much faster listening than reading like me, this will be a time saver, even if you have to clean up the text a bit as you copy and paste it out.

It would be good if we could spread the word that every published report should come in a plain text version, as well as a clunky PDF.

What to listen on

If you’re spending hours a day listening to things like me, you may as well get a pair of noise-cancelling Bluetooth headphones. Better audio quality and less background noise will allow you to listen to things at a higher speed. Going wireless will limit how much you have to stop and start as you move around. Just be careful to turn off noise-cancelling when cars are around as it’s a safety hazard.

Recommendations here.

Bottom line

Now go out for a walk in the beautiful sunshine and blast through all your articles/papers/books one after another, while they have your full attention.

The technology available for the above has improved a great deal over the last few years — Pocket only got good for reading articles in the last 12 months — and I expect it to keep getting better in future.

I hope this helps, and let me know if you’ve found any better options!

I research the world’s most pressing problems and how to solve them at 80000hours.org. More about me: robwiblin.com.