Welcome to The Baffler’s agony corner, YOUR SORRY ASS, where Amber A’Lee Frost dispenses bossy, judgmental advice on how to live your life fairly, kindly, and with good humor. Send us your rants and pleas, please: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dear Your Sorry Ass,
I’m currently suffering from that miserable condition you astutely diagnosed in one of your other columns: being twenty-two. But that’s actually kind of ancillary to the problem I write to you about. Basically, I’m depressed, and I no longer find joy in once pleasurable activities. I have a giant stack of books that I very excitedly spent money on (or asked for as gifts for my birthday months ago). I have a million and one ideas for articles I’d like to write for my school’s radical left rag, or possibly for a blog I’d like to start.
I crack open one of the books and lose interest after three pages. I feel myself nursing a dwindling attention span.
But I can’t do any of it. I crack open one of the books and lose interest after three pages. I type up a title for an article, and then I close the document and go back to endlessly refreshing social media. I feel myself nursing a dwindling, ADHD-like attention span. I find myself so impatient and bored that I reflexively grab for my phone whenever my computer takes a second too long to load something. I’m kinda miserable, and I sleep all the time. And I have rather pressing personal issues—like my impending post-graduate unemployment—to deal with. But I can’t muster the energy to even go to a job search site.
I know what you’re going to say: “Yeah, you’re depressed, dumbass, go see a therapist.” But here’s the kicker: I have been. I’m now six years into a fun-filled journey through the mental health system. I’ve been hospitalized on several occasions, and I’ve taken no less than ten different antidepressant medications. (I’m on one now.) I’ve had therapists for years, but I’ve never exactly got much relief.
Obviously I’m not asking you to cure my depression, but do you have any advice for overcoming my miserable laziness so I can read a damn book? I used to read entire books in a single day; recently it took me several weeks to get through the criminally short False Choices: the Faux Feminism of Hillary Clinton (a collection that you contributed to). I really just want to read a few books, and I think it could help me make progress of some kind. Please help!
Dear Depression-Induced Illiteracy,
You’re in luck! Normally I would stay away from such a technical psychological obstacle and instead direct you to a professional who specializes in attention disorders (which I still recommend, anyway—I’ve heard good things about cognitive behavioral therapy for attention span). However, I am in fact something of an expert on this subject, if only in that ridiculous Standpoint Theory way that is only ever valid or credible when I do it. As a person who has had extreme difficulty paying attention to absolutely anything I was supposed to be paying attention to my entire life, I do have some tips.
Try to work on the thing that interests you most at the moment.
Now I have very intense periods of prolonged focus where my brain hoovers up—rapidly and with near perfect retention—all of the information about whatever is fascinating me at the moment. But not only are these jags temporary, I don’t really get to pick what I am capable of focusing on, and that is the real issue. Sometimes a burst of productivity can be directed to one project or another (and god help me if I don’t finish it before I run out of steam), but generally my heart and my brain are mostly set on one or two things at a time. If at all possible, I recommend following your interests and not fighting the current.
There’s no shame in being intellectually mercurial and self-directed! And you don’t have to keep up with what everyone else is reading. If you are reading a Marxist cultural history of Victorian anti-modernism, but you are suddenly fascinated by esoteric fermented dairy products, you can put down the No Place of Grace and instead look up everything you can find about Icelandic Skyr! The trick is not to overload your plate. Take on too much, and you will have trouble finishing things. My ideal is three books at a time, never more than two essays a day, and usually about three quarters of the Financial Times daily, with Sunday set aside for How To Spend It—you never know when you’re going to need a personal submarine. Anything under that and I get bored and hit a wall, anything over that and I lose commitment and abandon my darlings. Find your balance.
One of the most uselessly vague pieces of advice anyone ever gives on productivity is “cut down on distractions,” like that means anything. You probably already know to pick a quiet, comfortable room, turn off the TV, and play music without words. Symphonies are even too much for me, so I can only do single instrument performances—Chopin, Debussy, Bach for cello and occasionally the Erhu, that big violin thing old Chinese men sometimes play on the subway platform.
But to truly cut down on distractions, one must log off. I don’t mean log out, I mean totally removing your electronics from eyeshot and earshot, or at least closing everything and turning off notifications—this means text messaging, too. Personally, I deactivate all social media until I need it for work. When I’m done with a project and get to deactivate again, I know it will take me at least a week to get back into the habit of reading substantial stuff consistently. The rapid, bite-sized scrolling nature of social media really retrains my brain, and reading articles, books, and essays is a totally different skill.
Set a Timer
Try setting aside a predetermined amount of time that works for you, and spend it doing absolutely nothing else but reading. So I might do forty-five minutes for a novel, grab a snack, and then do a half hour for non-fiction, but I have to physically set an alarm on my phone to keep a schedule. I don’t always do this, but when I find myself reading the same page over and over again, I know I have to set an end point after which I will switch stations, otherwise I’m just banging my head against a wall.
Read things on paper whenever possible
It’s not psychosomatic—paper is a different reading experience. I get an actual paper Financial Times so I don’t mindlessly switch between tabs out of muscle memory. Sometimes when I get extremely distractible but I have to read an article from the internet, I will print that motherfucker out. Printing stuff out has been a total game changer for me.
Do nothing and think about nothing at all for a small set amount of time.
Let your brain idle—call it meditation if you need a name for it. Set a timer for ten minutes. Sit somewhere clean, comfortable, and quiet. Stare at something stationary but not unpleasant (I like my houseplants). Breathe normally, but silently count your breaths in your head. If you fuck up or lose count, it’s fine; just start over. Set a timer for ten minutes. When the timer goes off, try easing your way back into a book.
You just to try to be consistent, and don’t let yourself get too depressed or angry if you lose an afternoon to shitty TV.
It will likely take a while to retrain your brain for serious reading. And if you’re anything like me, maintaining your concentration will require constant maintenance throughout your life. There are tips, but there is no real trick to it. You just to try to be consistent, and don’t let yourself get too depressed or angry if you lose an afternoon to shitty TV when you should have been reading—the guilt will only make it harder to get back on the horse. It’s a schlepp, and no one will ever congratulate you on your ability to read like a normal person; but you can get better, and it’s genuinely rewarding to get through something that isn’t a tweet storm or a listicle.