How to read online without your attention being hijacked

Reading articles online

There’s an art to reading online.

How do you do it without getting derailed by a tsunami of ads, click-bait, notifications and hyperlinks?

Your brain is up against many carefully crafted apps and video games that are designed to steal your attention.

This article is about how you can read online without ending up places you never intended to go.

I’m going to share strategies and guiding principles that help me to stay focused when I’m reading on a screen.

Let’s face it, we all need help with this. The temptation of fun apps and websites are only a few clicks away! But you only have so much mental energy. You need to know how to harness it and direct it towards the things that really matter.

A little disclaimer!

I won’t deny it. I like being able to hold books and articles in my hands. This is why I buy a lot of books and get the Guardian weekly delivered to my door.

Being able to easily scribble down questions and draw pictures in the margins helps me to learn and understand the material.

If the information is really important and/or complex, I highly recommend printing it out. But for all other written works (e.g., blogs, emails, movies or book reviews), try implementing the following ideas and strategies.

Strategies to help you read and understand information on a screen
1. Don’t rely on willpower and discipline

Easy escapes

The human brain loves comfort. It loves the familiar.

But reading can be challenging and downright uncomfortable for the brain.

If you’re reading an article on a subject that is completely new to you and/or conflicts with your pre-existing beliefs, your brain is likely to have some kind of adverse reaction. It’s going to be like “What is this?! I don’t like this!”.

You’ll feel the urge to escape from this mental discomfort. Therein lies the problem with reading something online . . .

You have lots of easy escape routes (e.g., social media, YouTube, and Netflix). These escape routes give your brain instant relief and gratification. But they also take you further away from your goals and what you need to do (hello, life regrets!).

How do you deal with this dilemma?

Don’t give your brain any room to run. Block the escape routes.

Before you sit down to read, set yourself up for a successful online reading experience. For example, here’s what I do:

• I put my phone on silent and place it in another room
• I activate an Internet blocker app called Freedom
• I clear away any clutter on my desk (I dump it in a box)
• I switch off any distracting music that’s playing (generally anything that contains lyrics)

2. Block online ads


We all know the online world is not the real world. But there’s one irritating feature both worlds have in common: advertising.

Ads are everywhere!

The nasty thing about online ads is they are way more targeted (you can thank surveillance capitalism for that!).

Like all advertising, I see online ads as a form of mental pollution. They don’t add anything to your online reading experience, except noise, stress and visual clutter.

Online ads can easily derail your attempts to learn and grow. Plus, they can rapidly deplete your bank balance!

This is why I recommend installing an adblocker plugin to remove ads from webpages, social media and search engines.

Check out AdblockPlus. It’s free and highly effective.

3. Use Pocket for reading articles

Get Pocket

When reading an article, you want to be able to focus on just the content. Most of the time, you don’t need to see side bars, pop-up boxes and other people’s angry comments. This is online clutter that overloads your working memory and depletes your brainpower.

The good news is you can eliminate this clutter by using a free app called Pocket.

Pocket allows you to save articles in your web browser. You can then open the article up without all the other clutter that appeared on the original webpage.

When you open up an article in Pocket, you’ll see a lot of white space around the text. Your brain will say “Thanks!”. Using Pocket makes for a much nicer and easier reading experience.

4. Take notes

Take out a notepad and pen and make notes as you read. Not only is it super handy to have something to refer back to but it will help you to understand the information more easily.

5. Charge up your brain

Charge up your brain

Reading may seem like a passive and ‘easy’ activity. But don’t be fooled. Reading requires serious brainpower.

What can help to supercharge your brain to get through all those articles and chapter readings?

I find two things help a lot:

1) Healthy snacks (ideally, within arms reach)
2) Power naps

Before I get stuck into a serious reading session (anything more than 30 minutes), I will sometimes make myself a little platter with veggie sticks, a dip and crackers.

It’s like the act of preparing the platter is helping me to mentally prepare for the task ahead. I’m also combining something tasty with something that can feel hard (i.e., reading). This seems to make the task of reading a complex article a little more pleasant for my brain.

As for the power naps, I typically use these to recharge my brain after reading academic papers.

6. Read with a fresh brain

It’s hard to absorb ideas and learn skills when you’re feeling exhausted. This is why I take power naps and prioritise sleep. It’s not a smart idea to try learning anything new late at night. You’re not going to remember very much.

Hit the sack and commit to waking up early and doing a little reading first thing in the morning.

7. Set a time limit

Set a time limit for reading
Decide on how long you’re going to read for. Then set a timer and go! Give the articles your full attention for this period of time. I find 25 minutes is a good amount of time for focused reading.

After sitting and reading for 25 minutes, I like to get up, stretch and look out a window to give my eyes a rest.

Final thoughts

If you want to be able to remember what you read on a screen, you need to be able to focus your mind. You can’t be jumping around all over the Internet.

But this is not how most of us read online. We skim and scan pages, click and scroll. Like a poker machine, the Internet has trained us to be on the look out for anything that it going to light up the reward pathways of our brain.

You need to appreciate that reading a chapter isn’t going to instantly light up your brain in the same way that social media is designed to do. This is why it’s so important to set yourself up so you can read deeply and get to the end of an article. And if you made it this far, well done!