I don’t know why, but my brain is constantly wandering away when I read an interesting book. Sometimes it makes me re-read paragraphs or even whole chapters over again because I completely miss the point while reading automatically with my eyes, but being somewhere else in my thoughts.
My first reaction was to shake it off and get back to the book paying closer attention to what I was just reading for past few minutes. It happened again and again throughout the years of reading and I was always annoyed at loosing time having to re-read the same text over and over again. But the feeling was so curious and so repeatable that I thought that I should start observing this behavior to try make sense of it.
As it turns out, the distractions were not the problems of the brain having hard time concentrating, but on the contrary, the process of generating new ideas. Triggered by the topic of the book or blog post, my brain was connecting prior thoughts with something new or bringing up memories that were long forgotten and never coming back in that particular context.
Basically, it’s like electric short in the brain that happens between two previously “unrelated” areas and this short builds some new bridge that allows for thoughts to travel faster between the two concepts in the future (disclosure, I’m not a neural surgeon nor I have any idea how brain actually works).
In “The Myths of Innovation”, Scott Berkun’s attributes a lot of inventions to the associative thinking that people employ connecting different things together, observations of nature, memories and so on. The shorts in my brain are much like those associations in the making.
So, getting back to the annoying distraction and the need to re-read what was just read with a blank expression on your face…
After observing it for a while I realized that getting back to reading was the worst mistake I could make – basically I was forcing myself to block the thoughts that were working hard on building that neural bridge effectively killing the associations that were being created. My desire to finish the book and to optimize reading time was prevailing over desire to get some meaning out of it completely defeating the whole purpose of reading itself.
… so I started to think of what to do instead …
There are a couple goals here – first of all is to try preserving the thought that I was previously trying to subdue. After all, I really hope those ideas are useful and not just day dreams.
Pen and paper never worked for me for some reason and I waited all this time for technology to catch up which it did bringing us mobile devices. Emails to self work very well for me and Blackberry started (literally) saving the ideas also helping with putting them into personal search engine (thanks Gmail) and effectively adding them to task list (inbox). Some people just use notes app on their smartphones and others tweet with #notetoself hash tags – whatever works best.
The second goal is to not stifle the brain activity and let it go for as long as it can naturally do so to helping those bridge-building ants in my brain create something stable and reliable and capable of transferring the thoughts between the newly connected concepts in the future.
Now, with better mobile devices with web browsers and apps, there is no need to just record your thoughts, I’m adding tasks to my issue trackers for software projects, writing blog posts, tweeting, updating my presentations and so on the go, right when I had the “blank reading” moment.
Switching from the book to working on the idea is as easy as pulling out the phone or taking iPad from my backpack (or switching the app if it’s an ebook). Luckily bookmarks were invented long time ago and there is not much to learn to be able to re-start the reading.
I urge everyone to not read a book while train ride lasts or until you go to sleep or until you reach the cover. Read it until it sparks the thought, until your brain wanders away coming up with an idea. Use reading material as a trigger for creating associations, try to catch the creative moment – don’t loose it, build on it!
This post came out pretty long, the thought is thinning and it’s time to get back to that book…