How Reading Books Helps Your Brain Recharge
It may seem counterintuitive, but absorbing information through old-fashioned books gives your brain a break.
Imagine being the founder of not one but two companies dedicated to books and not finding the time to read any. That’s the situation that Hugh McGuire, founder of LibriVox and Pressbooks, found himself in a few years ago. Like many of us, he was battling an onslaught of digital information, and his beloved paperbacks were collecting dust. After a while, though, he realized he sorely missed the quiet time he used to spend with a book in hand. He also realized that he was tired all the time, and struggling to focus in every area of life.
Writing for Harvard Business Review, he explained:
“I was distracted when at work, distracted when with family and friends, constantly tired, irritable, and always swimming against a wash of ambient stress induced by my constant itch for digital information. My stress had an electronic feel to it, as if it was made up of the very bits and bytes on my screens.”
He found that a slower form of information, books, was the antidote to his information overload. So he made them part of his routine again. According to McGuire, “Reading books again has given me more time to reflect, to think, and has increased both my focus and the creative mental space to solve work problems.”
As any entrepreneur will tell you, problem-solving is critical for launching or running a business. But so is giving our busy brains a rest, and books help with that too. According to neuroscientist Daniel Levitin, focused reading uses about 42 calories per hour, whereas absorbing new information (e.g., scanning Twitter or the news headlines) burns around 65 calories per hour.
Research has found that reading novels improves our brain functions on a variety of levels, including the ability to put yourself in another person’s shoes and flex your imagination. It also boosts our innovative thinking skills. Take it from Elon Musk, arguably one of the most innovative minds of our time. He's said that growing up, he spent more than 10 hours a day pouring through science fiction novels. In today’s rapidly changing world, innovation is necessary for any business to stay competitive.
Reading is the best, not to mention the easiest, way to shore up our creative thinking and give our brains a break from digital overload — which, according to a 2019 Workplace Productivity Report, more than half of the workforce experiences. With that in mind, here are some strategies for making quality reading time a part of your daily routine.
1. Stash your devices
It seems simple, but detaching from our phones and tablets is often easier said than done. New information — like the ping of a new DM or refreshing our Twitter feed — triggers the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine in our brains.
On top of that, our devices are designed to be addictive: Just ask a slew of former Silicon Valley big wigs, like Google’s former in-house ethicist, Tristan Harris, who have become whistleblowers for the addictive and unhealthy nature of our phones. Even the guy who literally wrote the book on getting people addicted — Nir Eyal, author of “Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products” — has done a 180°. More recently, he wrote a book with the opposite sentiment of his former title: “Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life.” It's a guide to freeing people from the pull of their devices.
Say what you will about Eyal’s flip-flopping, his book includes smart tips for maintaining your attention: like don’t hang out on Slack, limit meetings to just one laptop, and keep your phone on silent. I like to go one step further by putting my phone completely out of sight — in a drawer or even another room — when I need uninterrupted focus time.
It’s impossible to concentrate and fully immerse yourself in a book when you’re constantly checking your messages. So stick with the old adage: out of sight, out of mind.
2. If you don't have hours, read in short intervals
As CEO of my online form company, I don’t have uninterrupted hours each day to dedicate to reading. But as Wharton professor Adam Grant writes, “Leaders who don’t have time to read are leaders who don’t make time to learn.”
If the most successful entrepreneurs manage to find the time, I can, too. Sometimes, that means being a little thrifty: like reading in short bursts throughout the day — on the way to work or waiting in line at the coffee shop. Or, instead of zoning out with Netflix before bed, try squeezing in a few chapters.
What’s more, research has found that we retain more information when we learn in short, spaced-out intervals, rather than trying to cram it all in at once.
If you’re struggling to concentrate or just having an off-day, the Pomodoro Technique can be highly effective. It entails setting a timer for 25 minutes, committing to concentrating during that time period, then giving yourself five minutes to do anything — grab a snack, take a quick stroll or something else non-work-related. Once you’ve completed four “pomodoros,” you can give yourself a longer break.
Even if you only do one or two pomodoros, you’ll be surprised at how the time flies.
3. Choose your material thoughtfully
It’s no surprise that if you choose something you genuinely enjoy, you’ll be more likely to follow through with it. Plus, fully immersing yourself in one captivating book will give you so much more than speeding through a dozen books while your mind wanders elsewhere. Only when we’re fully absorbed can we reach that priceless state of flow: the “optimal state of consciousness where we feel our best and perform our best.”
Colleagues often tell me that it’s too difficult or time-consuming to find great books. True enough, there are thousands of titles to choose from. That’s why I recommend delegating the legwork. See who your favorite authors or experts are reading. You can puruse Adam Grant’s favorite leadership books or author Steven Pinker’s ten titles he’d take to a desert island. I also like using What Should I Read Next, a website that uses a huge database to offer recommendations based on books you’ve already enjoyed.
Simply put: For productive, intelligent leaders, reading books is literally the oldest trick in the book. It gives your brain a chance to recharge and absorb new information, and there's no hacking your way out that.