We’ve become a society of headline-reading, sub-headline glancing morons. Me included. Full stop.
We scroll. We surf. We swipe.
We skim everything and absorb nothing.
Again. Me included.
We turn on our phones. We go to Twitter or Instagram or Facebook or whatever news feed we like and we slide our thumbs up and down, occasionally pausing to pat someone on the back for a post (a like) and then we move on. Or we comment on something we haven’t even read. Or we share something we pretend that we read (don’t act like you don’t do this). Or we make a mental note to go back and read something but we never do.
And not to sound like Robin Williams at the end of Good Will Hunting but… it’s not your fault. It’s not your fault. It’s not your fault.
The reasons why you have no attention span and a weakened ability to process and read and focus are pretty simple: none of the above platforms ever want you to leave those platforms. Like casinos, they are designed to keep you playing, or in social media parlance, to keep you scrolling.
Twitter wants you to see a headline for a story on Twitter and then stay on Twitter and comment on Twitter and retweet on Twitter and really do anything other than click on the story to leave Twitter. In effect, you have to win a psychological and subconscious battle every single time you actually click on something to read…because the odds are truly stacked against you – on purpose. Things like ‘trending’ and ‘in case you missed it’ and ‘top stories’ and ‘breaking’ are all made-up things designed to give you reading FOMO, a fear of missing out to distract you from reading just one thing, and to make you feel like you’ve got to move on to read other things…which ultimately leads you to read nothing.
The end result of this is that most of us waste ten, fifteen, thirty minutes or more reading with no actual intent… We just sort of cruise our feeds and filter out the crap (which is most of it) looking for something that catches our attention just enough for us to stop cruising for a brief moment, long enough for us to decide to not read something, and then we continue cruising.
Pre-internet, many modern human beings would get a daily newspaper and open the sections that interested them with purpose. We would find the writers/stories that intrigued us and then, shockingly, we’d read those actual stories start to finish.
Over time you developed a pattern of intentional reading that allowed you to absorb the content that you wanted to with little distraction. Reading the paper was a morning ritual. It was fun.
Magazines had the same appeal on a weekly or monthly basis. I think at my peak I probably subscribed to 15 magazines… Everything from Sports Illustrated and Esquire and Wired to Men’s Fitness and Smithsonian Magazine and Entertainment Weekly. Amazingly, I read them all almost cover-to-cover over the course of a month. I never felt like it was a waste. I’d grab a copy of whatever I was in the mood for and read. Simple.
I miss those days. This piece is my effort to bring them back.
Like most of you, I hate/love Twitter. The ratio shifts from one day to the next but by and large, I still find it useful and enjoyable and if you can avoid (mostly) the things that particularly bug you, it’s a great resource and source of entertainment, comedy, news and a way to find new stories, people, etc…
LinkedIn certainly has its place; Facebook increasingly less so, unless you’re talking about keeping up with family and friends and stuff; Instagram is still a good time.
So how do we get out of the vicious vortex of unintentional reading in a digital society designed to thwart intention and kill attention spans?
I have some thoughts.
Take as much of your reading offline as you can.
I’ve already done several posts about returning to print books and I’ve slowly started to do the same with magazines and I think the experience is still excellent. After years of getting zero magazines, I recently re-subscribed to Esquire and Wired and thus far it’s been great. No distracting ads. No video pre-rolls or pop-ups playing on the side or above what I’m reading. No ‘click here to keep reading’ nonsense – just good writing, laid out really well on a piece of paper. Sick idea, I know. I’ll probably be subscribing to more magazines soon.
Subscribe to the online websites that you frequent that have a paid/add free version. First, this supports the number one most important thing: the ability of a publication to afford to pay solid writers. And second, the paid versions of sites are often far less cluttered than the free version…and sites that are subscription-only typically have an excellent, completely clean reading environment. I have been a subscriber to The Athletic basically since it launched. I subscribe to the Boston Globe. And I just subscribed to a cool, new movie site with really unique writers/takes called Rebeller.
Join a few newsletters in your area of interest. These could be daily, weekly or monthly, but a strong newsletter offers cool information, easily laid out, straight to your inbox. A good newsletter might be the only piece of e-mail you enjoy opening all day or week. And if you’re curious, yes, I have a weekly newsletter and yes, you should definitely join thousands of readers here.
Don’t start your day by opening your phone/tablet/laptop on a social media platform. That’s the first step towards getting sucked into the quicksand of unintentional reading. On a daily basis you’re much better off thinking about what you want to read and going directly to those sites, rather than just absent-mindedly heading to Twitter or Facebook or wherever.
I’ve got a decent routine now that kind of mimics my daily reading habits two decades ago with newspapers. I start with my online sports sections (Boston Globe, The Athletic, ESPN.com, NBA.com, etc…) then I move to entertainment (Wired.com, The Ringer, Rebeller, etc…) then business/media (Variety, Forbes, WSJ, etc…) then a quick glance at whatever news site pops in my head first to make sure the world is not ending that day.
Take 90% of the time you spend on social media or online and….
Read more books.
This is never a bad idea. Here’s my strategy to easily read a book every ten days.
And that’s it… Hopefully you intentionally read this entire piece and you are smarter for having done so (or at least will be in the future).
I appreciate your time. You’re a hall of famer in my book.
Jon Finkel is the award-winning author of The Life of Dad, Jocks In Chief, The Athlete, Heart Over Height,“Mean” Joe Greene , The ‘Greatest Stars of the NBA’ Series and other books about sports, fatherhood, fitness and more. His work has been endorsed by Spike Lee, Tony Dungy, Jerry Jones, Mark Cuban and Chef Robert Irvine. He is the co-host of the Life of Dad Show podcast and Lunch Break Facebook Live Show, and he’s written for GQ, Men’s Health, Yahoo! Sports, The New York Times and dozens of other national publications. He is also an avid speaker.