On Concentration and Reading Practice

I’ve been busy with being part of a new research project, as well as starting with my studies. I have to gather some more ECTS points to do my PhD. Luckily, these days, I can do that during my studies. It also means that I have to read a lot. I’ve been diagnosed with a mild ADHD (and a resulting anxiety), which helped me contextualize certain problems I had during my Master’s studies.

In the following, I’d love to hold on to some thoughts on how I deal with having problems concentrating and being easily distracted and having to read complex material. Maybe it might help somebody else when dealing with similar issues. That said, in the end you’ve got to find what works for you.


I have two main issues when reading material for studies or work:

  1. Problems reading
  2. Problems recalling

During reading

Although the following graphic illustrates something else, this is an accurate (…) depiction of how reading feels at times. My eyes start to speed up, and in a frantic and chaotic manner jump all over the text. It’s tough to build up a coherent understanding of the text when this happens.

Illustration of search paths in visual and semantic spaces

Another problem is that my thoughts wander off pretty quickly after a few sentences or paragraphs. Sometimes I catch myself how I was reading several sentences and have no actual recollection of doing so. Instead, a few moments ago, I was forking of in my mind and following my own thread. Finally, sometimes the reading feels like such a burden that I can’t even start, no matter how much I try. When I’m blocked like this, I experience it quite physical, having a bodily aversion to the chores ahead. I usually end up doing something else instead, like cleaning. If I nonetheless try to read a paragraph, it feels violent.

I can’t say that I found strategies to combat these problems, but over the last few years I was able to practice some stuff. Some notes on that:

  1. Generally taking care of yourself. It helps, really. Don’t drink too much coffee. Sleep according to your needs. Eat regularly and healthy. Don’t even try to be productive before you didn’t attend to yourself.
  2. Shouldn’t need any mentioning, but here we go: All notifications off! Smartphone out of reach. Music only if it helps you stay focused. Take a few deep breath, and dive into the text. By the way, breathing helps me a lot. Sometimes I get really stressed by fearing I’m loosing it during reading, a quick break and some deep breathing is great.
  3. Some days are different from others. Sometimes nothing helps and it’s best not to force it. I usually try to have an overview of how much reading I can and have to do until the deadline. I also try to do my reading-chores as soon as possible. Usually, the reading takes longer than expected, or it doesn’t work out at all. Like this, I can postpone reading into later slots, without breaking out into anxiety.
  4. Chunks. To stay on track with what I’m currently reading, I try to chunk up the texts into what works for me at that particular moment. I have a look at the length and intensity of the paper or chapter, estimate total reading time and break it down to how many paragraphs, pages or minutes I can read at a time. Sometimes that’s just 5–10 minutes or a page or a few paragraphs before having to have a quick break. Fuck pomodoro, 25 minutes is far too long to stay concentrated.
  5. Making notes during reading. This one is super important for me personally, since it also helps with the second problem, recalling what I read. I only read digital. Analogue, as in on paper, would be more pleasant, but I can’t find a workflow that works for me. Making notes during reading helps me chunk up the reading as well as stay present, as in, not wandering off in my mind. I do annotations, but they usually don’t help me that much. I have to rephrase and contextualize what I’m reading. In this process, Zotero helps me a lot. I wrote about my setup in Research and writing workflow. The inbuilt editor enables me to pull annotations from the text and then write my own thoughts.
  6. There is a generall approach for reading scientific papers and book chapters, as outlined by the National University Library. In skimming you just read the most important parts of a text first. I usually do that with longer texts, by going over every paragraph and read the first and/or last sentence. I have problems keeping the whole text present, so skimming helps me getting a general comprehension of it. It also puts me at easy, because I might lose some details, but I nonetheless know what the text generally wanted to transport.

Recalling what I read

General rule of thumb: If I didn’t write it down, chances are it’s lost to serendipity. Which would be OK if I didn’t need to recall purposely. But, no…

  1. Making notes during reading. I try to make notes in a way, so they rephrase what I’m reading in a more condensed way. I try to make notes that contain more of my own thoughts than annotations I copied. With scientific papers, I often copy parts of the abstract or introduction and the conclusion. They usually contain the most important parts of a paper. The stuff in between is if you want to understand the theory, practice or process of how they arrived at the conclusion.
  2. Glossaries. If I’m working within a larger context, such as a research project or a seminar, I maintain a glossary. In almost every text I read, I encounter key terms or difficult concepts. Those go at the bottom of my reading note and then straight into my Personal Knowledge Management systems, which are usually a kind of wiki. Have a look at the glossary for my dissertation. It contains terms I encountered, some of them expanded, some not.
  3. Second round! The second round is probably the most important step to prepare my notes for reading. In one form or another, I need to revisit what I’ve read. Glossaries are one way to do that, journals another. Sometimes, a concept is so important, that I create a page/note just for that. You see that with the glossary terms I expanded upon. Just go over the reading notes, see if something deserves its own note, and try to briefly summarize the most important aspects of what you’ve read.
  4. Linking. The second round enables me to weave everything into a tight web of knowledge. I use Obsidian as my Zettelkasten software. The application allows me to import my reading notes from Zotero and hypothes.is. When doing a new entry in my Zettelkasten, I can then link to the document holding my reading notes. So, a journal entry might mention some reading notes as sources, and lets me link to newly expanded terms in the glossary.
  5. Practice. I suck at this, but that leaves room for improvement. My notes and wikis these days look and feel much better than what I produced before. Nobody, least me, is born to do this. It’s important to keep in mind that reading and writing are things that we can learn, but have to practice to do so.

The end product is super condensed, but it enables me to follow the breadcrumbs:

It sounds like a lot of work, but the second round and the linking don’t take up much time, compared to the reading part… and it’s definitely worth it for me. Now, writing is a whole other story.

Want to comment this or add some experiences and tipps of your own? Write me a adrian@thgie.ch.