How To

Tips to Stay Focused While Reading

Elise Moser

Staff Writer

Elise works with kids and teens at a public library, where her speciality is finding awesome book recommendations for customers. She has a degree in journalism and is a certified early childhood educator. When she’s not reading, Elise enjoys watching baseball, running, board games, and playing the flute. She lives in the St. Louis area with her partner Allen and their three cats.

Spending most of our days at home seems like a dream to a devoted reader. But many bookish people, myself included, are finding it hard to stay focused while reading. There are so many distractions with constant news updates, policy changes, and trying to keep in touch with our friends and families.

Like people everywhere, these times are extremely uncertain for me. I work at a public library, and where I live, the library has been closed for weeks. Library employees are at home socially distancing. Even as the news changes every five minutes, I am looking forward to tackling my rather ambitious 2020 TBR pile.

For the first two weeks of social distancing, I only finished one book. I could not pry myself away from my phone. I was constantly scrolling Twitter to see how my state was addressing the coronavirus pandemic. It was time for some serious intervention to get myself away from the news and back to my books.

Reading is a great stress-reliever, but what about those times when you can’t concentrate on your book? I often use tools and tricks to keep myself focused on my reading instead of on my phone. Here are some of the things that work for me:

Use a Timer

I like to utilize the pomodoro method, which is a time management strategy that incorporates breaks into your daily tasks. The default settings are 25 minutes of focus with 5 minute breaks. After you complete four rounds of focus sessions, you have a longer break of 10 minutes. This really works for me when I’m having a hard time focusing on reading, because it allows me to indulge in the distractions I can’t seem to avoid for a short time during my breaks.

Whether or not you use the pomodoro method, setting a timer and using that time to read without distraction can be helpful. I can put my other thoughts aside when I know that the timer will go off eventually.

Physically Remove Distractions

It may seem like a no-brainer, but sometimes we all need permission to unplug. This is especially important during social distancing when so much of our lives are happening online. Put your phone, tablet, or laptop in another room, and walk away. Or, if you’re like me and you use your phone for audio while you read, put it on airplane mode and put it out of arm’s reach. If possible, read in a room without a television.

Play Music or Sound—the Right Kind

Audio is a great tool to help you stay focused while reading. I have a really hard time reading when there is talking going on around me, whether that’s in the staff lounge at work or in the living room with the TV on. So when I sit down to read, I always put music or background noise on. If I’m home alone, I just use a bluetooth speaker, but if I’m in public or my partner is watching TV, I’ll use noise-canceling headphones.

One of my favorite music apps is Focus @ Will. It’s a paid subscription service with curated music channels that are researched-backed to improve focus. I’ve used this service for years, and it helped me get through my graduate work, as well as countless books. Another great service is the Calm app, which has an amazing collection of “soundscapes” like rain, a train ride, and even a washing machine. There are also tons of great options for background noise on YouTube, and those are free.

Try Mood Reading

I’m a big mood reader. I’m much more likely to finish a book if I pick it up on my own accord, instead of being “forced” to read it in any way. Reading what I’m most excited for in the moment helps me stay focused. I try to make TBR lists for the season, but I inevitably stray from it when I’m suddenly in the mood for a cozy mystery or a book I just discovered.

In preparation for social distancing, I collected a big pile of books from my library so I would have lots of choices. I also put holds on a lot of ebooks at once, so I’ll have a lot available to me when I need to choose my next read. Use this time as an opportunity to check out as many ebooks as you’d like, or even buy yourself some of your most-anticipated books of the year.

Tune Into Audiobooks

If you’ve never tried audiobooks before, now is a great time to start. If the stress of social isolation has your mind wandering, turn on an audiobook and do something physical. You can listen while you clean your home, or go for a solo walk. Audiobooks allow you to move your body and engage in mindless tasks while still reading. They can be a great option for those times when focusing on a physical book is difficult.


This might be controversial in the bookish world, but when I started giving myself permission to quit reading books I wasn’t enjoying, my reading volume actually increased quite a bit. For many years, I would slog through a book I didn’t like. I read more slowly, less often, and got distracted easily. When I’m reading a book I enjoy, I’m much more apt to devote my attention to it. So if you’re finding yourself in a reading slump, it may be time to mark your current read as “did-not-finish” and find something new.

Hopefully these tips will help you stay focused on your book and not on your phone. Now more than ever, we can all use an escape to a fictional world.