Mind & Body

Why can’t I finish a goddamn book these days??

When I was a child, I devoured books. The MS Read-a-thon was my favourite time of year. But now into adulthood, I’m struggling to concentrate, so I reached out to a psychologist to find out why.

It’s a Sunday. I’ve just poured myself a cup of coffee and am settling down into my favourite reading chair in my apartment with a copy of The Vanishing Half, a critically lauded novel by author Brit Bennett. I’m transported to 1968 Mallard, Louisiana with poetic and evocative language.

But it’s probably the fourth, maybe even fifth, book I’ve picked up over the last couple of months and I haven’t been able to finish any of them. They just sit there on my bookshelf, bookmarks sticking out, taunting me and gathering dust. I’m frustrated.

Why is this happening to me?

It goes beyond not just connecting with the material, says psychologist Nancy Sokarno.

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“From a psychological perspective, we’re dealing with dwindling attention spans thanks to social media and 24/7 news cycles, so sitting down and finishing a book can be a mammoth task for some adults,” she explains. COVID could be a major culprit, too.

“We’re experiencing a pandemic, which could also be having a psychological impact on our ability to finish a book, notably because many of us are feeling uncertain and anxious.”

She continues: “We’re in a situation that we cannot control and one which we do not know when–and how–it will end. Therefore, we’re constantly seeking out information to try to resolve this uncertainty, causing many people to have trouble concentrating.”

If you find yourself lamenting for your ability to churn through books as a child, there’s a reason you might be having trouble now. It sounds cliché, but it’s true that life, when you were younger, was simpler back then. Fewer responsibilities, fewer priorities; you get the idea.

What happens to the mind when we read?

Reading offers the brain a myriad of health benefits, from boosting memory, increasing vocabulary and focus, as well as reducing stress.

“When we read, our brain becomes full of stimuli that can help to reduce stress, improve sleep quality and memory,” says Sokarno.

“What’s more is that over time, reading will lead to greater intelligence. From a mental health perspective, reading has been shown to put our brains into a state similar to meditation which invariably can give us the same benefits of meditation, ranging from relaxation through to lowered stress levels.”

Get motivated again

There are a few simple things you can do to get back into reading, says Sokarno, like allowing yourself time to completely switch off. Put the phone on aeroplane mode for an hour and get used to that feeling of not knowing what’s happening in the world, minute by minute.

“Try to eliminate any distractions and give yourself the time to focus solely on the book,” she says.

Try to tap into your mood, too, as that can influence what reading material will resonate with you at that moment.

“If you’re mood has been low, perhaps try to look for an uplifting book that has an inspirational storyline or happy ending. If you’ve been in a good mood, you might be in a better headspace to tackle a dark book and see it with a fresh perspective,” she says.

If you think of yourself as just too busy, carve out some time in your calendar as you would your workout or meditation. Because reading is definitely a kind of self-care.

“Most of us are so busy day to day that we put reading on the back burner and prioritise other tasks,” says Sokarno. “Make reading a priority again and don’t feel guilty about it.”

Nancy Sokarno is a psychologist at Lysn, a digital mental health company with world-class wellbeing technology which helps people find their best-fit professional psychologist while being able to access online tools to improve their mental health.