Why Can't You Concentrate When You're Reading?

Why can't you concentrate when you're reading? What's behind these difficulties and how can you prevent them? Find out here.
Why Can't You Concentrate When You're Reading?
Laura Ruiz Mitjana

Written and verified by the psychologist Laura Ruiz Mitjana.

Last update: 21 September, 2022

You start to read but find it difficult, and get easily distracted. Furthermore, you can’t retain the information and lose the thread of what you’re reading. Why does this happen? Why can’t you concentrate?

We’re going to talk about the most common causes of this phenomenon, and also offer some ideas to help you concentrate when you’re reading.

Concentration

According to Schmid and Peper (1991), concentration ‘is a learned skill of reacting passively or not being distracted by irrelevant stimuli’. It also implies the ability to be fully in the here and now.

You need to concentrate to learn, study, read, and carry out many other activities in your day-to-day. Although, of course, depending on the activity, you might need a lesser or greater level of concentration.

Woman trying to calm down
A lack of concentration when reading can be due to it not being enough of a habit.

Why you can’t concentrate when reading

Difficulties in concentrating on reading usually have their origin in one of the circumstances or actions described below.

1. Lack of habit

If you’re not in the habit of reading, you might find it difficult to concentrate. Remember that sustained attention (concentration) is also trained, After all, your brain is like a muscle, and different cognitive abilities, such as concentration, are ‘located’ within this muscle.

If you neglect them, they won’t be at the level you’d like. Therefore, if you want to improve your concentration on reading, read. Try doing a little a day, with the kind of reading material that’s of real interest to you, gradually increasing your reading time.

“Concentration can be cultivated. One can learn to exercise willpower, discipline one’s body, and train one’s mind.”

-Anil Ambani-

2. Numerous distractors

Netflix, HBO, Prime… With the amount of quality audiovisual content you have within your reach, it’s understandable that you’ve become accustomed to resorting to its consumption when you want to escape from reality. However, this often means that reading gets neglected.

This is related to our previous point. If you want to train your attention span, you must make reading a habit. Try to keep away from any kind of screen if you intend to spend some time reading. Remember that the notifications on your cell phones are there to capture your attention. Once you start looking at them, it’s difficult to stop.

“To acquire the habit of reading is to construct for yourself a refuge from almost all the miseries of life.”

-Somerset Maugham-

3. Worries

Although you probably often don’t realize it, your daily worries and concerns are always there in your mind, ready to sneak in as soon as they find a crack. In fact, these intrusive thoughts are another reason why you’re unable to concentrate when reading.

Attention is a skill that requires focus. In addition, continued reading requires a conscious decision on your part with which you assume the direction of that focus. Once you’ve started reading, if the text is interesting, this control relaxes. That’s because it’s the stimulus itself that captures your attention, compared to other alternatives in your environment.

4. Lack of motivation

Lack of motivation also explains why you have a hard time concentrating when reading. Perhaps the book you’re trying to read (or the magazine, text, etc.) doesn’t really interest you. This might be the case if it’s a study book, for example.

Also, if it’s something that you’ve been told that you ‘must read’, it’ll make it difficult for you to concentrate. Indeed, everything you see as a chore becomes, naturally, more difficult.

Bored woman with a book on her head
Excessive worry and lack of motivation are other reasons why it’s hard to concentrate when reading.

5. Tiredness

Tiredness also interferes with your concentration when you read. If you’re tired, your mental faculties aren’t at full capacity. This is completely normal. Consequently, you should ensure you’re well rested and recharged whenever you read (or when you do any activity that requires sustained attention ).

6. Age, stress, and intense emotions

We can’t get away from the fact that, as we age, our cognitive abilities, such as the ability to focus while reading, decline.

This is confirmed in a study (2018) conducted by the University of Southern California (USA), published in Nature Human Behaviour. It suggests that, with age, we become more easily distracted, especially in stressful situations or when there are intense emotions involved.

Aging, stress, and intense emotions make it difficult to concentrate.

In addition, according to the authors of the study, a loss of concentration has its explanation in an extremely small region of the brain, called the locus coeruleus.

7. Suffering from a disorder

You might be thinking that none of the above reasons apply to you so why do you have trouble concentrating when reading? In fact, there could be another explanation. If you’re suffering from a disorder such as depression, anxiety, or ADHD (attention deficit disorder), your ability to concentrate may be affected. 

7. 1. Depression

In the case of depression, a lack of concentration is one of the symptoms of depressive pseudodementia. These are cognitive failures associated with depression, which can be confused with dementia.

According to Cózar et al., in a 2011 article, depressive pseudodementia ” usually presents with a subjective perception of significant memory loss and cognitive failures that do not necessarily correspond to the results of the cognitive evaluation, which can demonstrate the presence of mild or moderate failures“. Thus, attention difficulties can be symptoms of depressive pseudodementia.

7. 2. Anxiety

When you suffer from anxiety, it’s really difficult to maintain your attentional focus. Numerous studies, such as one conducted by Benedito and colleagues (1992) relate anxiety to lack of concentration.

7. 3. ADHD

The DSM V includes difficulties in directing and consciously maintaining attention among the core symptoms of ADHD.

How to improve your concentration when reading

Finally, we’re going to give you some strategies to help you improve your concentration when reading.

  • Reduce distracting stimuli.
  • Instead of watching TV, read a book.
  • Select a suitable and quiet environment, where you feel comfortable.
  • Take care of your posture; you must be comfortable.
  • Don’t ‘force’ yourself to read. That’ll only make you hate it. Find small moments in the day to read, and gradually increase them.
  • Be encouraged by the progress you make.
  • Limit your time of concentration. Remember that, as a rule, your mind can only concentrate for around 45 minutes. Then, it must rest.

Perhaps the most important key is that you spend some time choosing a book that you think will really interest you. After all, reading shouldn’t be a chore, it’s something to be enjoyed.

If it’s a book you’re going to read, take a look at the summary first. Alternatively, read the first few paragraphs. This will tell you if you like the writer’s style or not.

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  • G. Cózar Santiago, P. Molero Santos, S. Yurrita Montesinos e I. Civeira Marín. (2011). Protocolo diagnóstico del paciente depresivo. Departamento de Psiquiatría. Clínica Universidad de Navarra. Pamplona. Navarra. España. Medicine, 10(84), 5707-85.
  • Lee, TH., Greening, S.G., Ueno, T. et al. (2018). Arousal increases neural gain via the locus coeruleus–noradrenaline system in younger adults but not in older adults. Nat Hum Behav, 2, 356–366. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41562-018-0344-1
  • Schmid, A; Peper, E. (1991). Técnicas para el entrenamiento de la concentración. En J.M. Williams: Psicología Aplicada al Deporte, Madrid: Biblioteca Nueva.