At the best of times I am a self-interrupter, but during the pandemic my distracted urges developed to Olympic level. I was quite the athlete, reader. For some reason I wasn’t able to stay on task for more than 10 minutes before I needed to check out, lap the room, look at my phone, pat a dog, check the news on my laptop, cry, and/or go and make a cup of tea.
It’s a pretty pesky compulsion, this self-interrupting. It was robbing me of contentment and sabotaging that all-important, creative life affirming flow and basically getting in the way of nice times.
But worry not, pals, because I stumbled upon a fix. As my distracted faffing about was reaching new levels of time-wasting, I began reading a helpful book ahead of a lecture I planned to take.
You might be thinking it was a book called How to Stop Looking at Your Phone or possibly Surefire Ways to Stop Distracting Your Good Self or Concentrate, You Nuff-Nuff but you would be wrong. (Good guesses, though! Go you!) The book was … The Voyage Out by Virginia Woolf, a story about a bumpy trip across the ocean to a tropical hamlet … and what unfolds amidst the palm trees and swirling sea.
This book is not about concentration, but it requires concentration. The language is transporting or complicated or surprisingly relatable. The characters and societal norms quite tricky to work out. The narrative thread, structure and settings are complex and curious – to me, at least! I’m still learning about classic and modernist literature. There are lots of settings to imagine, lots of rooms to pretend you’re in, lost of measured conversations, lots of walks. (Like … so many walks!!! So good.)
As I began reading it I found that there was no use skimming delightedly and excitedly through. Mucking in and digging down was the best approach. Every page was a new adventure, a new challenge. A very close read was the only solution.
Savouring a chapter or two a day became a favourite ritual as I tucked in to find out what was going to happen to Rachel or Mrs Ambrose or Terrence and checked out of the daily COVID-19 count.
I read at the kitchen table, out of reach of my phone and computer with a little pile of page flags by my side so I could mark the sentences I loved the most. Sometimes I put a bit of Bossa nova on in the background to make the reading feel even more of a treat. Sometimes I read in the bath on my Kindle, making notes with the drag of a finger as I went. Or I’d read in bed, before I went to sleep. (READ TO SLEEP, guys!) Sighing with satisfaction as I finished each chapter, I’d almost always flip back to the most excellent sentences, just to ensure they were tucked securely somewhere in my brain or marked with a little coloured strip.
The Voyage Out soon began to spill into other areas of my life. I could feel the concentration exercises I was performing while reading it, improving my concentration elsewhere. Was I imagining it, I wondered? (I’m a ridiculous optimist and cheer-spiracy theorist!) It seems I wasn’t. Research confirms that fiction or challenging literature can boost creativity, nurture social skills and improve focus. I’m not making this up!
The Voyage Out really did what the package said. It steered me out of those distracted days and deposited me back into the world of immersive reading … and a much calmer, more creative life.
If you’re finding you’re the most distracted person in the history of distracted people during these hard times, perhaps a close read of a perplexing or classic novel is exactly what you need?
Further reading and tools
Moment app – reduce your phone screen time and those distracted pick-ups by keeping track of them. I’m aiming for 30 minutes a day phone screen time and 20 pickups.
3 October 2020 – Love Your Bookshop Day