Are We Losing Our Ability to Read in the Digital Age?

by

iPad
One of my favorite hobbies is reading. I love when I can’t put a book down and have to force myself to stop reading, otherwise sleep or productivity the following day will be compromised. The problem? This only occurs with fiction. I need to be gripped by a story, characters, and conflict. I also need to read in a medium that offers no distractions (an actual book or non-tablet style e-reader). Over the last few years, I have increasingly found reading most non-fiction articles and books a challenge. There are very few non-fiction authors that can weave information into a compelling story. I find myself reading and re-reading paragraphs and wishing I could just get the key messages in bullet points. I also find that the mediums I read non-fiction material on (typically a tablet or computer) offer too many distractions. As someone that has relied on reading as a means to expand intellectually, my inability to focus on and retain non-fiction material had me concerned. Was my reading ability being impacted by my daily ingestion of sound bite style writing and electronic delivery?

Twenty plus years ago, before the surge of the Internet, PowerPoint, and mobile devices, we read mostly in linear ways with paper, paragraphs, and actual pages to turn. There may have been some imagery with the text, but we didn’t have hyperlinks, advertisements, and imbedded video to distract us. We also did not have a tool like a mouse to encourage non-linear reading and to allow us to scan and scroll the text. This scanning and scrolling approach to reading is sometimes referred to as “shallow” or “fragmented” reading. With descriptors like that, how can we possibly concentrate and make the connections needed to process the information? Patrick Kingsley of the Guardian described the situation perfectly, “We have become very good at collecting a wide range of factual titbits, we are also gradually forgetting how to sit back, contemplate, and relate all these facts to each other.”

In 2008, a study conducted by the University College London found, “It is clear that users are not reading online in the traditional sense; indeed there are signs that new forms of “reading” are emerging as users “power browse” horizontally through titles, content pages, and abstracts, going for quick wins. It almost seems that they go online to avoid reading in the traditional sense.” Additionally, a 2012 study of Israeli engineering students measured comprehension while reading the same text on-screen versus in print. The students, raised in a digital world, believed their retention would be higher after reading on screen. That was not the case! Their comprehension and learning were improved when they read on paper.

So, how can we combat this? One suggestion is slow reading. There is an actual “slow reading” movement focused on “the intentional reduction in the speed of reading, carried out to increase comprehension…” One blogger in the movement took the straight-forward approach of simply getting a physical book, setting up a distraction-free reading environment, approaching the material in scheduled small chunks, and even repeating the process in the end. A couple weeks into the structured approach, she started to feel rewired and had greater ease remaining focused and retaining what she had read. I would take this one step further and try to discuss what I had read with someone, whether or not they had read the material. That extra step would force my brain to recall key elements of the text plus organize and relate the information verbally.

I have also approached improving reading comprehension through a neuroplasticity/“brain training” application called Elevate that strives to improve how you speak, listen, write and read. The games are pretty similar to reading comprehension testing from your younger days where you are presented with text and asked questions to verify retention. While these games only last a few minutes (and are the opposite of a slow reading approach), I am hoping my targeted exercises/games are doing more for me than playing Candy Crush.

While working on this blog, I have become very aware of how I read and digest information. I now catch myself when I am skimming and when I begin to let things like a new email notification lead me away. The awareness alone has helped me pause and intentionally refocus on what I am reading. I have also broken down and purchased an actual non-fiction book…the first in a long time. I want to try the slow reading approach and see if I can begin to get back the enjoyment and benefits I experienced before.

Have your reading style and abilities changed over the years? Do you have any suggestions to improve focus and retention? I’d love to know!

READ MORE

Shifting Perspectives: 3 Learnings From a 3-Day Training

Shifting Perspectives: 3 Learnings From a 3-Day Training

About a week ago, I completed the second live (virtual) training in the process of becoming a Certified Professional Coach through iPEC. Once again, my mind was blown! It reinforced for me that virtual workshops can, and do, work, and, in a lot of ways, I prefer them...

read more
Finding My Work-Life Balance

Finding My Work-Life Balance

In my previous post, I told the story of how I got back into consulting after becoming a mom. All of the diverse experiences I had during that journey have helped me to find my work-life balance by… Defining Boundaries “Go home,” my first boss said 12 years back —...

read more
How I Got Back to Work After Being a Full-Time Mom

How I Got Back to Work After Being a Full-Time Mom

I Landed My Dream Job Throwback to 2014, I had completed my MBA, landed my dream job as a consultant, and was hoping that my new consulting career would exponentially ramp up my career growth for the next 5 years. This would position me to take on critical decision...

read more
Self-Awareness is Key to Belonging

Self-Awareness is Key to Belonging

In August of this year, as part of our annual company meeting, our team at Thought Ensemble participated in the foundational session of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) training led by Dr. Nika White, IOM, CDE (she/her/hers). One of the most meaningful moments...

read more
Finding Your Organization’s Magic Pixie Dust

Finding Your Organization’s Magic Pixie Dust

It is often said that organizational culture is like a fog — it is all around us; it impacts our ability to see, to move quickly, and to deliver; but we cannot quite put our finger on it. Indeed, some organizations see their culture as a byproduct of operations,...

read more
We’ve Refreshed Our Brand!

We’ve Refreshed Our Brand!

Why have we refreshed our brand, you ask? Well, as we have grown and matured as an organization, we felt that our previous brand elements no longer represented us as well as they could. You see, we founded Thought Ensemble back in 2008 to help companies better compete...

read more
Thought Ensemble’s Purpose — Inspired in 2020

Thought Ensemble’s Purpose — Inspired in 2020

I recently wrote about how company purpose is being tested and inspired by all the events of 2020. This topic is very real for us at Thought Ensemble. We’ve been thinking a lot about what really matters as we’ve navigated the...

read more
How 2020 Is Testing and Inspiring Corporate Purpose

How 2020 Is Testing and Inspiring Corporate Purpose

In August 2019, the Business Roundtable rewrote their statement of corporate purpose. I followed this with significant interest being that I have never forgotten the debates about corporate purpose in business school almost two decades ago. We were taught that the...

read more
Why Purpose-Driven Organizations May Struggle With Change

Why Purpose-Driven Organizations May Struggle With Change

I love working with companies who really want to make a difference, beyond just making money for their shareholders. I mean, making money is fun and all, but it is even more rewarding to join in on a just cause. Plus, as this HBR article explains, companies who have...

read more