How to Deal with Distractions While Reading

All you need is a pen and paper

Ana Ávila
Aug 29 · 3 min read
Photo by Freddy Castro on Unsplash

We can (and we must) try to avoid distractions while we read. But the sad truth is we can’t eliminate them.

Dealing with external distractions is easy: from turning off notifications to locking ourselves in our bedroom and putting a DO NOT DISTURB sign at the door. Internal distractions, on the other hand, are completely unavoidable.

It happens like this:

Your phone is on airplane mode. You put on your headphones and play your favorite instrumental album on Spotify. You make yourself comfortable on your favorite couch…

Suddenly, you remember there are clothes in the washing machine that need to be dried. You think of three different things to add to your grocery list. The author recommends a book and you must add it to your reading list. You remember there’s a meeting tomorrow and you haven’t prepared for it.

Your eyes follow the words but your mind is elsewhere. You struggle with all your might to keep your focus, but your thoughts can’t be slowed down.

It’s okay. It happens to all of us. Ignoring it is not going to help.

Dealing with internal distractions can be easier than it seems. All you need is a pen and some paper.


1) Identify what’s distracting you:

There is no use in pretending that you are not worried about the thing that just popped into your mind. Even if you try to ignore it, your subconscious will hang on to it and you won’t be able to focus as you should.

2) Admit you don’t have to stop reading:

If you already tried ignoring the distraction and it didn’t work, you’re probably going to try to convince yourself that this to-do has to be dealt with right now. That’s not true.

Unless your distraction is someone chocking on a piece of chicken, you don’t have to stop reading right now. That call can wait. No one will notice if you take 20 minutes to answer that email. The world will not come to an end if you take a bit longer to put your clothes in the dryer.

Take a deep breath and remember: this can wait.

3) Write it down and let it go:

The thing that distracted you might be important, or maybe not. It doesn’t matter. You don’t have to decide that now. Once you’ve identified your distraction and admitted that it can wait, write it down on a piece of paper and continue reading.

Believe it or not, writing down your distractions will help your brain let go of them. Creating a list of the things that come to your mind while reading will give you the certainty that you won’t forget them and you’ll be able to deal with them later. Your brain will be free to continue reading.

Don’t fall into the trap of “productive distractions”. As profitable as they sound, they’re still distractions… even reading distractions: looking up an author the book recommends or the Wikipedia page of an interesting concept (let’s be honest, that’s just a rabbit hole). You can write all that down with the rest of your distractions.

There might be a word you don’t understand, but that happens rarely and you seldom need to look it up to grasp the main idea the author is expressing. In most cases, the context will provide the information you need to keep reading.

When your reading time is up, quickly review the distractions you wrote down and decide which ones are important and which ones are not. You’ll find out that many of the things that seemed interesting 10 minutes ago are not that relevant now. You might have recorded an important task to add to your to-do list. Do that. You might even have found an interesting idea to discuss with a friend. That’s great!

Take control of your reading time. Make it actual reading time, instead of a time to be dragged around by the thoughts that randomly go through your brain.

All you need is pen and paper.


A version of this article was originally published in Spanish on Medium.

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Ana Ávila

Written by

Editor. Clinical Biochemist. Writes about productivity, minimalism, and books.

The Startup

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