Many people today claim they don’t have the attention span, patience, or self-discipline to read dense books and long-form content. That is because they have become too accustomed to the quick short-form hyperactive content on the internet like tweets, Instagram stories, YouTube videos, memes, and TikToks. In this post, I wrote about breaking my Twitter addiction and focusing my efforts and time on reading books. I suggested Twitter and social media are like drugs in that they change your brain chemistry. That is not hyperbole. Social media changes your brain by shortening your attention span.
On a platform like Twitter, at least you are reading, which requires active mental energy, as opposed to passively looking at pictures or watching videos on Instagram or TikTok. But the medium of Twitter presents a constant barrage of short one-to-two sentence posts. Reading 280-character-max tweets doesn’t take much concentration, focus, or mental effort like you need when reading long-form books where you must stay focused on one continuous story. The more time you spend on social media, the more your brain becomes attuned to its form of hyperactive high-dopamine short-form content. You in turn lose the ability to focus on a long book because, by comparison, it seems boring. Reading a book takes more mental effort, focus, concentration, and attention—but that extra effort can yield greater results and be more fulfilling.
Scrolling through Twitter is like reading a constant stream of random sentences from thousands of different books—or reading one book written by a schizophrenic. Some sentences may be brilliant, others duds, but it’s easier to read one great book at a time and become immersed in the material to better absorb it. Twitter is akin to reading only the famous quotes of various authors, rather than any of the complete books those quotes were pulled from. While you may get the highlights of those thinkers’ best ideas, a single quote can be taken out of context and misinterpreted, either deliberately or by accident. After all, there is a reason those authors wrote the entire book and not just that single quote. It’s the difference between surface-level knowledge and deep understanding. Social media is great at connecting people around the world, but not so great at providing context for that communication. People online often mistake satire for sincerity and vice versa. Much of the conflict on social media stems not from misinformation but miscommunication—people failing to understand the views of the other side.
Long-form content such as books is where you get the full context for condensed ideas. Many people today claim they can’t read books anymore because they “get too distracted while reading,” but that is only because they changed their brain chemistry through their overuse of the internet. On the internet, distraction is the entire game. You can read one tweet, become distracted by another tweet, or a text message, or a link to a blog post, or a cool website, or a YouTube video, which links to another website or blog or leads to another video, and you’re down an endless rabbit hole of links to other links. You might finally return to Twitter twenty minutes later (or longer) and simply read the next post in your timeline then repeat the process. Nothing is lost, no harm was done. It doesn’t matter what the previous tweet was—there is no continuity on Twitter. Distraction enhances the experience of surfing the web.
In a book, however, there is continuity. You need to stay focused because if you get distracted mid-sentence and read a text message, check your email, scan Twitter, or look up something on Wikipedia, then you try to return to that same sentence and continue right back where you left off, you won’t be able to. You’ll have lost your train of thought. If you go down an internet rabbit hole while reading a book, it takes time and effort to climb out and get back on the train. You’ll forget what happened before in the book and lose the entire rhythm of the story. You’ll likely have to go back and re-read the previous paragraph or page, then become distracted by a new text message or internet notification, get sucked down another rabbit hole, try to return to the book and re-read the same paragraph a third time, at which point you’ll think, “This is useless, I can’t do it,” and give up. You’ll just read the internet instead because it’s easier. Distraction ruins the experience of reading books.
People with internet-addled short attention spans may find themselves “reading” paragraphs or pages of a book yet not comprehending any of it—because they are not truly focused on the book. Their minds are elsewhere, likely thinking about what’s happening now on Twitter or Instagram, or maybe I have a new important email, or did I just feel my phone buzz from a new text message? No, that was just a phantom vibration—all while simultaneously reciting the words on the page of the book. But none of it is getting through because you cannot multitask while reading. Such people will get frustrated and believe they simply don’t have the attention spans to read long dense books. But that is not true. Anyone’s attention span can be expanded with practice.
Perhaps the most valuable tool in expanding one’s attention span is mindfulness meditation. I previously wrote in detail about how and why meditation works. Essentially mindfulness meditation is a practice to sit quietly and focus on your breath. If a thought pops into your head (which it inevitably will) then you learn to ignore it and return to your breath. Meditation helps train you to become more mindful the rest of your day, so that while reading a book you’ll be able to ignore the extraneous thoughts that pop up, such as the urge to check your texts/email/Twitter/Facebook/Instagram/etc. You don’t even need to explicitly meditate to practice mindfulness. You can do it any time: while walking, driving, doing chores, or watching a movie. Simply train yourself to focus fully on the task at hand. Multitasking can be great for certain things, such as listening to a podcast while mowing the lawn, to make mindless tasks more entertaining. But if you are always multitasking, then you won’t have the attention span to single-task—to focus fully on one thing (such as reading a book) without becoming bored.
Another practice to expand your attention span is a social media detox. By unplugging from the internet and reading more long-form content, your attention span expands and focusing on books comes easier and more naturally to you. Since going through my social media detox, when I now log onto Twitter it feels overwhelming—like information overload—with all these quick-hit super-charged dopamine triggers bombarding me from all directions. It’s like walking into a casino with activity everywhere—constant bright flashing lights and sounds, all designed to draw your attention and keep you there as long as possible. Social media apps were deliberately designed to mimic the effects of casinos. Swiping down to refresh and receive new surprising content is just like pulling the lever of a slot machine. When you refresh your timeline, you never know what you’re going to get… Though like a slot machine, most of the time you are going to lose—or receive content that wasn’t worth your time. But like a casino, you’ll “win” just enough times to keep you playing.
I know you can expand your attention span because I did it myself. I used to struggle to stay focused while reading books, and I used to spend as much time on Twitter as anyone. But now, after expanding my attention span by reading less tweets and more books, I can only stay on Twitter for a limited time before feeling burned out from overstimulation. My longer attention span cannot handle the hyperactivity. I’ll feel the need to unplug and return to a book (or long blog post) where I can take my time and focus on one story/topic in depth. Reading a book is like taking a quiet walk in a forest compared to the hyperactive casino of social media.
A Brief Aside on Audiobooks
For those who have dyslexia or some other issue that may prevent them from physically reading books, you can substitute audiobooks with everything I’ve said about books. Listening to an audiobook can be just as fulfilling as reading the text—as long as you stay fully focused while listening. That can be more difficult to do than reading (at least for me) because your eyes are free to roam while listening, so you can more easily be distracted by your surroundings and feel the urge to multitask. However, the information in audiobooks (at least the ones worth “reading”) is dense, requiring your full attention. I cannot multitask while listening to audiobooks like I do with podcasts. That is why I personally like listening to audiobooks with my eyes closed. I do this first thing in the morning upon waking, when the sunlight is too irritating to open my eyes anyway. I find listening to audiobooks a good way to ease into waking before opening my eyes and starting the day. (Or to end the day, by listening to audiobooks in bed before falling asleep.)
Your information diet is like your food diet. Eating too much fast food and junk food disrupts your taste for natural healthy food. Detoxing from the junk and eating healthy rebalances your taste buds so you will enjoy natural foods like fruits, nuts, and vegetables without additives like artificial flavors and excess salt and sugar. Then when you go back and eat the junk food that you used to love, it’s often revolting. “I can’t believe I used to like eating that junk,” you’ll say, “it’s way too sweet and salty.” I successfully detoxed my food diet long before my information diet. (There is likely a relationship between the two, as the brain fog and fatigue caused by a poor diet will detract from your mental energy and ability to focus.)
Of course there are interesting and valuable things on the internet and social media, but when I find a great Twitter thread, I would prefer to read it as a blog post. Plus, after all, the best social media posts often come from people distilling the knowledge they learned from books. Books are where the deepest thinkers describe their ideas. Just as reading a book takes more mental effort than reading a tweet, writing a book takes more mental effort than writing a tweet. Writing longer-form content forces the writer to think more deeply about the subject matter.
This doesn’t mean you should give up social media or surfing the internet entirely. The internet is fantastic and you will discover things you could never find in books. But social media cannot replace books. Ideally, you want to enjoy the best of both worlds: read long old books and short new tweets. However, you cannot digest a long book if you are too addicted to the quick dopamine hits of the internet. In which case you may need to detox then reintroduce social media in small doses.