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How reading books helps your brain recharge

March 28, 2020

It might sound counterproductive, but absorbing information through traditional books gives your brain a break.

7 min read

The opinions expressed by collaborators are personal.

How reading books helps your brain rechargeHow reading books helps your brain recharge

Imagine being the founder not of one, but of two companies dedicated to books, and not having time to read any. That's the situation Hugh McGuire, founder of LibriVox and Pressbooks , was in a few years ago. Like many of us, he was battling an avalanche of digital information, and his beloved books were gathering dust. However, after a while he realized that he missed the time that he used to spend with a book in his hand, calm. He also found that he was tired all the time and struggling to focus on all areas of his life.

Writing for the Harvard Business Review , he explained:

“I was distracted when I was at work, when I was with my family and friends … Constantly tired, irritable, and always going against the tide of stress induced by my constant need for digital information. My stress had an electronic feel, like it was made up of the same bits and bytes on my screens. ”

He discovered that a calmer form of information was the antidote to his digital overload: books . So he included them back into his routine. According to McGuire, “Reading books again has given me more time to reflect and think, and it has increased both my concentration and my creative mental space for problem solving.”

As many entrepreneurs will tell you, effective problem solving is essential to launch or run a business. But it is also important to give our tired brains time to rest, and reading can also help you with this. According to neuroscientist Daniel Levitin , careful reading consumes about 42 calories per hour, while recording new information (such as the one you record while watching Twitter) consumes about 65 calories per hour.

Research has shown that reading novels improves the functionality of our brains on several levels, including the ability to put ourselves in each other's shoes and to exercise our imaginations. It also improves our innovation skills. Let's take Elon Musk, one of the most innovative minds of our time, as an example. He has said that as he grew up he spent more than 10 hours a day reading science fiction novels. For a business to be competitive in our ever-changing world, innovation is needed.

Reading is the best, as well as the easiest, way to shore up our creative thinking and give our brains a break from digital overload – something that, according to a 2019 productivity report , more than half of the workforce experiences . With this in mind, here are some strategies to include quality reading in your daily routine.

1. Save your devices

It sounds simple, but taking off from our phones and tablets is easier on paper than in practice. New information , like a Twitter notification, triggers the release of dopamine in our brains.

Plus, our devices are designed to be addictive – it's a matter of asking any of the greats in Silicon Valley, like Tristan Harris , a former Google aesthetician, who has become whistleblowers of the addictive and unhealthy nature of our phones. Even Nir Eyal, the guy who wrote a book on how to literally make people addicted ( Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products ), has taken a 180 degree turn. More recently, he wrote a book opposite of its first title: Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life , a guide to freeing people from their devices.

You can have your say on Eyal's ambiguity, but his book includes tips for taking care of your attention such as: not spending all your time on Slack, limiting your meetings to one computer, and setting your phone to silent. And I would like to go further by adding that when you need to focus on something, leave your cell phone away from you where you cannot see it, in a drawer or in another room.

It is impossible to focus and really get into a book when you are constantly checking your messages. So stick with the old saying: if you don't see, you don't think.

2. If you don't have hours, read at short intervals

As CEO of my digital company, I don't have whole hours a day to spend reading. But as Professor Adam Grant wrote: “Leaders who don't have time to read are leaders who don't have time to learn.”

If the most successful entrepreneurs manage to make time, you can too. Sometimes that means being a little thrifty: like reading for short periods throughout the day, on the way to work or while waiting for your coffee. Or, instead of spending hours switching to Netflix before bed, you could try reading a few chapters.

And what's better, research has found that we retain more information when we learn at short, spaced intervals, rather than trying to learn it all at once.

If you are struggling to focus or just have a bad day, the Pomodoro Technique can be highly effective. It involves setting your stopwatch to 25 minutes, committing to staying focused during that time, and then giving yourself five minutes to do anything else: eat a snack, go for a walk, or whatever has nothing to do with work. Once you have completed four “pomodoro” periods, you can take a longer break.

Even if you only manage to do one or two periods, you will be amazed at how quickly time passes.

3. Choose your material carefully

We are not surprised that if you choose something that you really enjoy, it will be easier for you to want to continue reading. Plus, fully immersing yourself in a captivating book will give you much more satisfaction than speeding through a dozen books as your mind wanders elsewhere. Only when we are fully immersed do we achieve this valuable state of flux : the “optimal state of consciousness where we feel better and perform at our best.”

My colleagues often tell me that it is very difficult to find good books. There are certainly hundreds of titles to choose from. That's why I recommend delegating that work: find what your favorite authors or experts are reading. I also like to use the What Should I Read Next site , which uses a large database to make recommendations based on books you've already liked.

Put simply: Reading books is the oldest trick to being smart, productive leaders. It gives your brain a chance to reload and absorb new information, and there are no shortcuts to that.

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