It may seem coun­ter­in­tu­itive, but absorb­ing infor­ma­tion through old-fash­ioned books gives your brain a break.


6 min read

Opin­ions expressed by Entre­pre­neur con­trib­u­tors are their own.


Imag­ine being the founder of not one but two com­pa­nies ded­i­cat­ed to books and not find­ing the time to read any. That’s the sit­u­a­tion that Hugh McGuire, founder of Lib­riVox and Press­books, found him­self in a few years ago. Like many of us, he was bat­tling an onslaught of dig­i­tal infor­ma­tion, and his beloved paper­backs were col­lect­ing dust. After a while, though, he real­ized he sore­ly missed the qui­et time he used to spend with a book in hand. He also real­ized that he was tired all the time, and strug­gling to focus in every area of life. 

Writ­ing for Har­vard Busi­ness Review, he explained:

“I was dis­tract­ed when at work, dis­tract­ed when with fam­i­ly and friends, con­stant­ly tired, irri­ta­ble, and always swim­ming against a wash of ambi­ent stress induced by my con­stant itch for dig­i­tal infor­ma­tion. My stress had an elec­tron­ic feel to it, as if it was made up of the very bits and bytes on my screens.”

He found that a slow­er form of infor­ma­tion, books, was the anti­dote to his infor­ma­tion over­load. So he made them part of his rou­tine again. Accord­ing to McGuire, “Read­ing books again has giv­en me more time to reflect, to think, and has increased both my focus and the cre­ative men­tal space to solve work prob­lems.”

As any entre­pre­neur will tell you, prob­lem-solv­ing is crit­i­cal for launch­ing or run­ning a busi­ness. But so is giv­ing our busy brains a rest, and books help with that too. Accord­ing to neu­ro­sci­en­tist Daniel Lev­itin, focused read­ing uses about 42 calo­ries per hour, where­as absorb­ing new infor­ma­tion (e.g., scan­ning Twit­ter or the news head­lines) burns around 65 calo­ries per hour.

Research has found that read­ing nov­els improves our brain func­tions on a vari­ety of lev­els, includ­ing the abil­i­ty to put your­self in anoth­er person’s shoes and flex your imag­i­na­tion. It also boosts our inno­v­a­tive think­ing skills. Take it from Elon Musk, arguably one of the most inno­v­a­tive minds of our time. He’s said that grow­ing up, he spent more than 10 hours a day pour­ing through sci­ence fic­tion nov­els. In today’s rapid­ly chang­ing world, inno­va­tion is nec­es­sary for any busi­ness to stay com­pet­i­tive.

Read­ing is the best, not to men­tion the eas­i­est, way to shore up our cre­ative think­ing and give our brains a break from dig­i­tal over­load — which, accord­ing to a 2019 Work­place Pro­duc­tiv­i­ty Report, more than half of the work­force expe­ri­ences. With that in mind, here are some strate­gies for mak­ing qual­i­ty read­ing time a part of your dai­ly rou­tine.

1. Stash your devices

It seems sim­ple, but detach­ing from our phones and tablets is often eas­i­er said than done. New infor­ma­tion — like the ping of a new DM or refresh­ing our Twit­ter feed — trig­gers the release of the neu­ro­trans­mit­ter dopamine in our brains.

On top of that, our devices are designed to be addic­tive: Just ask a slew of for­mer Sil­i­con Val­ley big wigs, like Google’s for­mer in-house ethi­cist, Tris­tan Har­ris, who have become whistle­blow­ers for the addic­tive and unhealthy nature of our phones. Even the guy who lit­er­al­ly wrote the book on get­ting peo­ple addict­ed — Nir Eyal, author of “Hooked: How to Build Habit-Form­ing Prod­ucts” — has done a 180°. More recent­ly, he wrote a book with the oppo­site sen­ti­ment of his for­mer title: “Indis­tractable: How to Con­trol Your Atten­tion and Choose Your Life.” It’s a guide to free­ing peo­ple from the pull of their devices.

Say what you will about Eyal’s flip-flop­ping, his book includes smart tips for main­tain­ing your atten­tion: like don’t hang out on Slack, lim­it meet­ings to just one lap­top, and keep your phone on silent. I like to go one step fur­ther by putting my phone com­plete­ly out of sight — in a draw­er or even anoth­er room — when I need unin­ter­rupt­ed focus time.

It’s impos­si­ble to con­cen­trate and ful­ly immerse your­self in a book when you’re con­stant­ly check­ing your mes­sages. So stick with the old adage: out of sight, out of mind.

Relat­ed: Low Pro­duc­tiv­i­ty? You May Need a Dig­i­tal Detox.

2. If you don’t have hours, read in short intervals

As CEO of my online form com­pa­ny, I don’t have unin­ter­rupt­ed hours each day to ded­i­cate to read­ing. But as Whar­ton pro­fes­sor Adam Grant writes, “Lead­ers who don’t have time to read are lead­ers who don’t make time to learn.”

If the most suc­cess­ful entre­pre­neurs man­age to find the time, I can, too. Some­times, that means being a lit­tle thrifty: like read­ing in short bursts through­out the day — on the way to work or wait­ing in line at the cof­fee shop. Or, instead of zon­ing out with Net­flix before bed, try squeez­ing in a few chap­ters.

What’s more, research has found that we retain more infor­ma­tion when we learn in short, spaced-out inter­vals, rather than try­ing to cram it all in at once.

If you’re strug­gling to con­cen­trate or just hav­ing an off-day, the Pomodoro Tech­nique can be high­ly effec­tive. It entails set­ting a timer for 25 min­utes, com­mit­ting to con­cen­trat­ing dur­ing that time peri­od, then giv­ing your­self five min­utes to do any­thing — grab a snack, take a quick stroll or some­thing else non-work-relat­ed. Once you’ve com­plet­ed four “pomodor­os,” you can give your­self a longer break.

Even if you only do one or two pomodor­os, you’ll be sur­prised at how the time flies.

Relat­ed: Read­ing One Book a Week Won’t Make You Suc­cess­ful

3. Choose your material thoughtfully

It’s no sur­prise that if you choose some­thing you gen­uine­ly enjoy, you’ll be more like­ly to fol­low through with it. Plus, ful­ly immers­ing your­self in one cap­ti­vat­ing book will give you so much more than speed­ing through a dozen books while your mind wan­ders else­where. Only when we’re ful­ly absorbed can we reach that price­less state of flow: the “opti­mal state of con­scious­ness where we feel our best and per­form our best.”

Col­leagues often tell me that it’s too dif­fi­cult or time-con­sum­ing to find great books. True enough, there are thou­sands of titles to choose from. That’s why I rec­om­mend del­e­gat­ing the leg­work. See who your favorite authors or experts are read­ing. You can puruse Adam Grant’s favorite lead­er­ship books or author Steven Pinker’s ten titles he’d take to a desert island. I also like using What Should I Read Next, a web­site that uses a huge data­base to offer rec­om­men­da­tions based on books you’ve already enjoyed.

Sim­ply put: For pro­duc­tive, intel­li­gent lead­ers, read­ing books is lit­er­al­ly the old­est trick in the book. It gives your brain a chance to recharge and absorb new infor­ma­tion, and there’s no hack­ing your way out that.

Relat­ed: How Do Your Read­ing Habits Com­pare to Elon Musk’s, Mark …

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