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Lets say I'm reading a text on programming language which has some example on poker. As soon as I read it, my mind drifts off about some related things around poker, like probability, last time I won, movies around it etc etc. And then I start reading about Poker on Wikipedia itself!

How does one stop this habit?

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up vote 23 down vote accepted

As an easily distracted reader, I’d be more than happy to share some of the measures I have been using. But first I believe we should go into the reading mode with a clear goal: is the reading for leisure, structural knowledge, or supplemental information? Knowing this will help us decide on the best strategy.

Leisure reading

For leisure reading I’d just suggest search away! The whole reason was just to relax anyway, and it really doesn’t quite matter what format we use, as long as the process is relaxing and/or educational.

Structural knowledge

I call reading that is needed when we are building the framework of a set of skills/knowledge “structural.” For instance, reading a biology textbook preparing for the class, doing literature review on a certain topic, etc. And I think this is also the type that relates to your question.

  1. First off, start with a clear goal: Before you read, decide how many pages you’ll read in the allotted time. I usually pick a number between 25 and 50 pages, depending on the density of the information. The reason is that most of the time we wander away because reading a text seems a much more permanent task comparing to taking a few minutes away to Google a word meaning. Thinking “It’s just going to take a few minutes,” we start the browser and unplug the time sink. By clearly defining how much to read, the task becomes more manageable and appealing than reading a whole book.

  2. Prepare a note pad for strayed thoughts. I usually a use yellow-color legal size pad to jot down any things I need to check (e.g. a new term, an extended question on an argument, etc.), strayed thoughts (e.g. remember to pay credit card statement, buy toilet paper, etc.), and take notes. We usually put down the book because there is something more fun to read/learn. This thing is enticing but may not be crucial to us, but we want to do it NOW because we know we will forget to do it. When that urge comes, I write it down on the pad, and also the corresponding page number next to it. I find it also very help to also write down why I had this association. It’s because more than 50% of the times I failed to remember why I need to check a certain item.

  3. Read the book three times. For the first run, look for crucial phrases that are likely to impair learning when we go through it in the formal reading. Jot them all down and do a run of supplemental reading (see next section) to ensure most basic phrases and concepts are covered. It is also a good time to figure out the layout of the writing.

  4. In the second time, I would read the book for real. I use two bookmarks (let’s just call them A and B) in each book. Simply speaking, bookmark A is for “reading” and bookmark B is for “note taking.” When I’m on a train, I can read fine but cannot take notes, so I’ll just use bookmark A (which is always ahead of bookmark B). In this run, I just take the key ideas, highlight/jot down major points, etc. All can be done on the same pad. And don’t forget to put down strayed thoughts or weird to-do items as well. Books have a lot of information which will definitely spark other thoughts, and strayed thoughts are bound to happen. Capture them, but no need to deal with them instantly. With it written on the paper, we can sooth the urge to know it immediately.

  5. In the third time, I read the book for note taking. Not all structural reading requires this step. But if it does, I use bookmark B to mark my progress.

  6. After steps 4 or 5 (aka when the assigned pages are done), proceed with clearing up the thoughts and to-dos on the pad.

Supplemental information

This is so far my most deadly time trap. Sometimes I started up with a task to look into, say, antibiotic resistance. And half an hour later, I’d be reading how advertisers determine soap packaging through the use of consumer focus groups. So, I made up a 1-2-3 rule to ensure this kind of out-of-my-mind experience will not happen again (or too frequently). The 1-2-3 rule stands for: 1 question, 2 levels, 3 main points. First, clearly write down what is to be searched or learned; make it specific (e.g. don’t ask “how to knit?” Instead, look for “how to cast yarn?” “How to cast off?” etc.) Second, hyperlinks can lead us to stray away very fast. I limited my clicking of hyperlink to only two degrees. For instance, a search returns a Wikipedia page (level 0), and from there I checked another external official page (level 1), and from that page I further look into some specific paper (level 2). If by this point I still haven’t answered my question, I restart and refine the search. Tips on search and Boolean operators are very useful. Lastly, I define the stopping point as when I can extract three major points/answers for the question. Sometimes, it’s just one. And sometimes, there can be many arguments/examples/explanations. In those occasions I stop when I have three. Three are enough to provide a general survey, and it’s also a good amount to use in an argument if they are well chosen.

There are times that your level 1 or level 2 searches have become so interesting that you find new question. In that case, write a new question and demote the page to level 0. But only do this search until you have answered the previous question, or have formally closed it due to it is no longer crucial or interesting. I find mind mapping very applicable for this type of exercises.

For reading I use number of pages as milestones. For browsing I use number of allotted minutes. I found 30 to 45 minutes work pretty well.

Other random tips

  1. For background reading, I also use encyclopedia in library. They are usually succinct but comprehensive. They are very good for background knowledge, vocabulary, and keywords in the topic. Plus even I stray away, I’d still be within the physical book, less likely to step into reading news or gossips or watching videos.

  2. I often use search engines that don’t track my cookies or search history. Google is a bad search engine to use because it tailors the results according to your track records and is more likely to get you appealing “baits.” An alternative could be Duck Duck Go, which does not track your searches. Specific academic database may also be a good alternative.

  3. Use blended learning. For example, instead of reading how to write a program, you may find a video or online seminar teaching programming. You may also follow a case study and incorporate hands-on experience.

  4. Document all sources, especially when looking for supplemental information. There only one thing that is worse than having to give up a quote or reference because we forget where it comes from: to find out where the quote or reference come from.

  5. No matter how the reading has evolved, just stick to the mantra: “It is okay as long as I am learning something useful.” Occasional attention meltdowns do happen; new thoughts sometimes do emerge because of random browsing.

  6. Have equal access to about 3 different published materials at the same time. Mix and mash their types and topic. E.g. a history of tea on your coffee table, a book about programming on your desk, and a fashion/lifestyle magazine in your bag—for me, the wilder the combination the better.

  7. I have started to experiment using index card as both bookmark and notes. It works well. But at the end of the day I still centralize all my materials on Evernote.

  8. Use a dictionary book rather than an online dictionary.

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Quite informative. Helped me. +1 to your answer. – Md. Mahbubur R. Aaman Apr 17 '13 at 13:44

Practice concentration/breath meditation.

There are lots of ways to do this, but the basics are as follows:

  1. Pick a rhythmic activity to concentrate upon, such as the feeling of breathe coming in and going out of your body. Or the feeling of air rushing in and out of your nose.
  2. Be attentive but gentle; if you find yourself thinking about something else (poker, the chores, the future), acknowledge those thoughts ("I am thinking this"), and then set them aside and return to focusing on the activity (breathing etc).

With practice, this will improve your concentration (and can be used in other settings as well, such as research/poker) - of course, it may not help right away, but medium to long term you will see great benefits!

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Don't read with access to the internet?!

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