How Do I Read Without Falling Asleep?

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This is an essay by Brandon Monk.

“Habit makes everything look bland; it is sleep-inducing. Jumping to a different perspective is a way of waking oneself up again.” Bakewell, Sarah. How to Live, Or, a Life of Montaigne : in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer. New York: Other, 2010. Loc 3254

We’re all tired. We spend the day in meetings, on email, and on phone calls. They collectively generate fatigue faster than a wind turbine in Abilene, Texas generates electricity. We need tactics to defeat fatigue as it fights against our mind and tries to prevent us from reading. Here are three suggestions:

Tip 1: Ask questions as you read.

Carry on a conversation with your book. When a new character is introduced, ask, who are they? What’s the book about as a whole? What message is the author writing to convey? What are the main ideas or arguments? Is the book true? What’s the book’s importance? These questions apply to everything you read. Reading is a conversation between you and the book. You probably don’t typically fall asleep mid-conversation unless you are narcoleptic. Approach the book in conversation instead of trying to upload it to your mind.

Practice: Pick a book and reread 10 pages. Read as slowly as you can tolerate. Take two minutes and think about the questions the book raises.

Tip 2: Read with a pencil in your hand.

Marking a book creates dialogue between yourself and the author. If you can imagine a mark, you can use it. There are no hard and fast rules. Highlight, make a vertical line at the margin to mark a block of text, make a star or asterisk (use this on the books top ten statements), number sequential points in the margin, write the number of other pages where the author makes the same point (cf – page # where same idea is discussed to mean compare to or refer to), circle key words or phrases, write in the margin or in any blank space you can find to record your own thoughts or otherwise take notes, and take notes in the front or end of the book after a complete reading to take ownership of your reading (simple as an outline or as complicated as your argument against the author’s position) (Adler and Van Doren loc 859).

Make the notes work for you. Develop your own system. Apply active reading and you won’t fall asleep. If you do, you risk  jabbing a pencil in your eye.

Practice: Find a pencil on amazon.com, at a local store, or in a utility drawer. Ensure it makes a fine line. You have selected your reading pencil. Keep it with your books and with you whenever you read any way other than superficially. Pick a book and read 10 pages. Write in the margin any question raised while reading and try to underline any line that interests or impacts you. For now, don’t worry about why the portion you underline sticks out to you.

Tip 3: Tackle books beyond you.

To stay awake while you read you need encouragement. Challenge is a form of encouragement if you can avoid frustration. The more you tackle books beyond your current reading ability the more you learn about life. The ultimate goal is pleasure, but books please by helping you realize something new. Challenge yourself and concentrate

When I suggest a challenge I don’t mean immediately jump into the most difficult book you can imagine. Look at reading like a ladder. Climb the first rung before you progress to the top. There is no shame in reading something you understand most of with a little effort.

Practice: Is the book you’re reading challenging you? What would be a step up in difficulty, one rung up the ladder?

Do you have any tips for avoiding sleep while you read?

Bonus Advice: I’ve been surprised by how popular this archived post continues to be so I want to add a few more things to tips, some of which have been suggested in the comments as well.

(1) Read standing up. You could create a makeshift standing desk. Google “Standing Desk.”
(2) Read out loud. Find a place where you can verbalize the text without embarrassment. Buy a cheap recording device or use your phone to record yourself and then you can listen to the audio before bed.
(3) Read on a treadmill or stationary bike. Read while you exercise.
(4) Read for short bursts and sprint (run outside or in place for a short time) in between.
(5) Read with others. Find a study partner and take turns reading back and forth to one another. Make a pact to poke the partner if they doze off.

See these two posts about reading with a partner or loved one: Reading and Writing in Relationships: How Partners Encourage Learning and Enjoyment ; How Reading Can Improve Your Love Life; Why Reading Should be a Shared Activity.

(6) If you try all these and fail I recommend you seek the help of a trained medical professional. You may have a treatable medical condition.

Photo by Paul Jarvis.

Comments

  1. Amie says

    I’m not sure if you understand the problem. I graduated from college, and I am active on the internet. I’ve been falling asleep reading books for a long time, including while I was in college. I do not fall asleep reading news articles or blogs online. It’s not a matter of boredom or reading books beneath me or above me. There is so much I want to read, and I am not exhausted from work or school or stress. (I’m unemployed, not my choice.) I’m thinking I need some device to tap me intermittently and at different intensities to keep me awake.

    • Rufus says

      The worse thing is reading while laying in bed. Your eyes are constantly moving left to right which makes your eyelids appear heavy and since your body is already in a resting position, you tend to just fall asleep. I usually read sitting upright at my desk or standing up. Also, reading at a library or any other reasonable public place (like a park) helps also.

  2. Read.Learn.Write says

    Maybe you could read standing up or read out loud. I would expect that everyone’s situation is a little different, but maybe that would work for you. I’ve even heard of people reading on a treadmill or stationary bike at home or at a gym.

    (I feel a bit like Dr. Seuss here, have you tried it on a plane or on a train…)

    Maybe try reading for short bursts and then going outside and walking or even sprinting yourself awake.

  3. says

    Hey, I just stumbled across this and thought I’d add a counterpoint:

    I often read to relax enough to sleep. That means I’m training my mind and body to associate reading with relaxation and sleep, instead of with relaxed focus and attention. So really, it’s not surprising that I sometimes doze off while I’m studying a textbook!

    I suppose the solution is to stop reading while I’m lying in bed or lounging on the sofa. But it’s such a favourite activity of mine that I don’t think I will stop – I’ll just have to try some of your tips when I need to stay alert!

    • Read.Learn.Write says

      Yeah that’s a valid point. I listen to audiobooks to fall asleep at night so I know what you mean.

      I think there are times when I read to relax, too, but this falling asleep while reading has never been a problem for me. In fact, I find the opposite is my problem. I tend to read too late some nights and refuse to put the book down when I should.

      I guess we just have to be careful, or at least aware of what we’re training our bodies to do.

      Thanks for the comment.

  4. says

    Hi. Very good and practical points here. And oh, I like your bonus advice.
    Some other things I’d like to add:
    1) Don’t read on your bed, find a better place somewhere.
    2) Here’s what I find helpful: I write down what I read (too much work??). It is extremely effective in my case because I find it harder to fall asleep while I write (:D)

  5. Crystal Mascoll says

    I don’t fall asleep when I’m reading recreationally. I only fall asleep when I’m reading a textbook or notes for school. So what is my problem?

    • says

      My best guess is that the textbooks you’re reading are boring. With that said, I know you have to get through them anyway. Try some of the tips above for help such as:

      (1) Read standing up. You could create a makeshift standing desk. Google “Standing Desk.”
      (2) Read out loud. Find a place where you can verbalize the text without embarrassment. Buy a cheap recording device or use your phone to record yourself and then you can listen to the audio before bed.
      (3) Read on a treadmill or stationary bike. Read while you exercise.
      (4) Read for short bursts and sprint (run outside or in place for a short time) in between.
      (5) Read with others. Find a study partner and take turns reading back and forth to one another. Make a pact to poke the partner if they doze off.

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