Have We Forgotten How to Read?

Have We Forgotten How To Read?

An interesting article found its way into my inbox today: Michael Harris, who wrote a book about the positive qualities of being alone, Solitude – has forgotten how to read.

It’s worth a few minutes of your time to read his article, but once you do I want to pose the next question.

Is forgetting how to read the only problem?

Michael quotes his contemporary, Nicholas Carr, who says we have become

“more intolerant of moments of time that pass without the arrival of new stimuli.”

This doesn’t only apply to reading (or consuming) quality, challenging content.  It applies to creating anything of substance.  It’s hard to be focused, right?

At work, I have email, two chat programs, two phones, meetings scheduled seemingly all the time, and a cubicle that anyone can walk by and attempt to strike up a conversation, work related or not.

At home, I have two kids.  Somehow they are more distracting than all the other ways I can be distracted at work.

It’s difficult to do anything but react to whatever is loudest at the time.  This is true for all of us today.

Let’s dig in on just one example.

Does the following sound like your email experience at work?

Most people receive five notifications by default when receiving an email at work using Outlook.

  1. A “chime” sound
  2. A system tray icon that looks like unopened mail
  3. The Outlook icon on the task bar of Windows changes to add an icon of unopened mail
  4. An animated pop-up on the lower right of the screen shows a preview of the incoming mail
  5. The mouse icon flickers to show an unopened mail icon for a moment

If you have connected your smartphone to the corporate network, you can add these two notifications:

  1. Your phone buzzes and shows a preview of the email on the lock screen
  2. Your smartwatch buzzes and shows you a preview on your wrist

This all happens every time someone emails you, or copies you on an email, or replied to “all” again on that email thread that just won’t die.  It is any wonder people spend all day reading emails and not getting real work done?

If reading is hard, creating is impossible.

We have trained ourselves to only take in bite-sized, frequent, and ever more salacious content.  The race to the bottom of our attention span is on every day.

As a result, we must train ourselves to consume and create the shortest snippets of information with the greatest impact, or be lost in the noise.  This is fine for making sure your email gets read by your boss, or that your text is understood by your spouse (“Yes, we are meeting at Carrabba’s.  No, not the one near the house, the one on the other side of town”).

But how can you find time to draft a proposal, develop a comprehensive project plan, write performance reviews, plan a trip with your family, or help your kids with homework?  These require time and attention, things we are bad at protecting and practicing, respectively.

There’s a whole book on this topic, which I plan to read soon and will write about: Deep Work by Cal Newport.

The takeaway

In the meantime, here are a few things I would recommend trying out in your home or work life.  If you hate the results, just go back to doing it the old way:

  1. Turn off all notifications for email at work.  All of them.  Make email a “fetch” system where you have to choose to go look at it to see if there are new ones.  Given most people at work read around 100 emails a day, this will mean that you will be 100 times less distracted than other people.  Remember: if the email is urgent, the person will just call you or instant message you.
  2. Leave your phone plugged in its charger when at home.  This will feel weird at first.  If you are worried about missing an “emergency” message or phone call, leave it plugged in nearby.  The key is that it is out of your hands.  Now you are free to create something else instead of refreshing your email or Twitter or Instagram.
  3. Set goals for the week for deliberate consuming of quality content (book chapters, course material for that skill you are trying to develop, etc.), and creating something of quality (writing a blog post, starting or finishing a project with your family, creating a work deliverable).
  4. Be proactive in your mind about directing where your attention will go, instead of letting social media or work email decide.

If this hits home for you, please share your story in the comments.

Thanks for reading!


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