Training my brain to win by slowing down

Rachel Extance
Oct 11, 2019 · 5 min read
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Photo by Copper and Wild on Unsplash

One of my favourite Instagram accounts is by a woman who shares pictures of books with beautiful bindings. Sometimes they are by classic authors like Jane Austen, other times new stories. The covers are always scroll-stoppingly beautiful.

They are accompanied by her talking about what she is reading at the moment. I am envious of someone having so much free time to read books. I wonder how she does it. One day, I asked how much time she spends reading each day.

“One hour,” she replied.

An hour? That’s all? It doesn’t seem much.

I read a lot. Newspaper articles, published online, blog posts, Medium articles. I enjoy The Conversation. But I read physical books less. I have several on the go at once but fail to make progress.

As a child, I read constantly. Reading was the family hobby. When we went on holidays, we would pack the book box. A green canvas-covered box, constructed with poles, which had originally been bought to hold fishing equipment during my brother’s brief interest in the sport. Its altered use was far more enjoyable. We would each choose several books we wanted to read during the summer.

When I was 17, for instance, I read One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, The Bell Jar (both set texts for my English class), and Scoop, while sitting outside our caravan in the warm sunshine of the Pyrenees. It was glorious.

A photo of the books White Teeth and Scoop on my dining room table
A photo of the books White Teeth and Scoop on my dining room table

I still have fond memories of the weekends I spent reading the His Dark Materials trilogy, only stopping to get food from the kitchen, and the time I could not put down White Teeth. At this time I also began studying for my OU degree, which involved long hours of reading books and enjoying researching secondary sources.

But gradually, my leisure time seems to have become more fragmented. I have less time to read. Or is it that I have less concentration? Time passes quickly, in a whirl of… what exactly?

A few days ago I was given a copy of Lifescale: how to live a more creative, productive, and happy life by Brian Solis. It had been on my ‘to read’ list for a while and it was at risk of staying there (owning a book does not necessarily mean I will get around to reading it). However, reading for an hour a day is now a goal and what better way to start than with a book that promised to tell me how to break free from distractions? I set the Forest App timer on my phone and settled down.

It contains a series of revelations including how constantly switching attention through multi-tasking depletes neural resources. We don’t have time to take in complex information fully, feel stressed, and take longer to do things.

By running to keep up and trying to do everything at once, we fail to do anything effectively. Our over-whelmed brains try to find a way out. They are easily distracted.

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A friend recently wrote about digital decluttering. I thought she meant getting to Inbox Zero but she had higher goals than that. She was deliberately reducing the amount of digital information she is bombarded with.

Solis writes: “When you open your favorite app, check your email, and endlessly scroll or swipe, you’re subconsciously trying to ‘win’ something.”

Our brain likes to feel rewarded. I’m trying to reward mine by giving it a rest and reading more. I want to retrain it, make it remember how good it feels to enjoy being lost in a book. I don’t remember ever wanting to do anything else when I picked up a book. I didn’t feel like I was concentrating or that I needed distracting. Now my brain seems to want to be distracted constantly.

Got a task to do? I’ll just check my email first.

Going to look something up? Oh, I wonder what’s happening in the news?

Answering a message? Nip around and check for any messages that might be lurking on other platforms.

STOP!

Since I started reading Lifescale I have been much more aware of how often I reach for my phone. Commercial breaks, waiting for a page to load on my laptop, a pause between tasks… Solis writes that our brain likes being able to just use auto-pilot. Our phones are perfect for this. They keep us occupied without any need to think at all. How often, when you have to complete a job, do you let yourself be distracted?

I feel like I’m in one of those old-fashioned cartoons where the lead character has to keep hold of a pet. Every time they think they have it, the animal gets free, only to be hoiked back by its owner. My brain needs to sit and think. Not get lost in the endless scroll.

Solis begins his book with this process of awakening. Like all bad habits, it’s going to take some time to break, but being aware that I’m doing it will help. I use the Forest App more. Creating distraction-free time.

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Choosing to read a book is a deliberate effort to remind my brain of a life it once had. A means of enjoyment it found rewarding. Not only the joy of exploring a new story or learning about a topic but also the win of finishing a book (though sometimes it can feel like a bereavement and I want to jump back in again.)

I’m also choosing to read one book at a time. Some people suggest having more than one on the go at once (don’t fancy learning about x, enjoy following the adventures of y). However, one of the other habits I want to train myself out of is multitasking. I’m not saying that multi-tasking is always bad. Sometimes you have to juggle several things at once. But it does impact your mental load. Part of this practice is about getting my brain to stop having several things going on at once so it struggles to switch off. I want to focus on getting one book finished before moving on to the next. I’m doing the same at work. Taking one project at a time.

Lifescale is extremely readable. I’ve read a book this week. It made me think and reassess how I spend my time and notice distractions. Now to choose what I’m going to read next…

The Startup

Thanks to Leanne Gordon and Courtney Cerniglia

Rachel Extance

Written by

I love talking about ideas and stories. I’m a business storytelling coach, writer, editor and journalist. When not writing, I’m chasing my 2 kids around.

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +773K people. Follow to join our community.

Rachel Extance

Written by

I love talking about ideas and stories. I’m a business storytelling coach, writer, editor and journalist. When not writing, I’m chasing my 2 kids around.

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +773K people. Follow to join our community.

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