One of the questions that I get asked quite frequently is “How do you read so much, especially with your ADHD?” It’s definitely not an easy task and it took me a long time to truly focus on the things that made reading difficult, and then to find ways of remedying them as much as I could. My ADHD usually causes me to become extremely restless while reading for prolonged periods at a time, and then this would trigger episodes of anxiety, depression, and other things, all of which used to toss me into terrible reading ruts.
Because of the complex history and relationship that I share with my bibliophilic passions and having a mental condition that makes singular concentration a monstrosity of a task, I’ve avoided answering this question for as long as possible. However, after years of struggling with it, and various trial-and-error techniques, I think it’s time for me to share the methods that have consistently helped me to become such a voracious reader, even when my ADHD decides to be a complete and total bastard.
Before I dive in, however, I would like to state that just because these things worked for me, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’ll be a viable solution for everyone with similar conditions as all individuals are rather different with how their brain processes and functions work. It’s not a fool-proof, perfect concoction. Please, do keep that in mind.
Understanding My ADHD & Its Impact on Reading
There were three steps that I needed to tackle before I could craft a plan of action with respect to working with my ADHD. They were, in order, understanding my own unique brand of ADHD on an intimate level, identifying the problem areas that this condition created/exasperated with respect to reading, and accepting that reading consistently will not always be an option for me. I know it seems like a lot of work just from that alone, and honestly speaking, it can be quite a bit to take on. Even so, reading has always been my biggest form of self-care and a necessary part of my ability to deal with and process trauma, so doing the heavy lifting, as it were, was supremely significant from my perspective.
Understanding my ADHD was more a matter of research and maintaining a self-awareness of when the restlessness (an oversimplification) would start to impact my capacity for functioning normally. For example, the things I stayed alert for include if I started to feel anxious and impatient within a half an hour of starting a project or activity, the depth of my hyperactive impulses, how easily my mind would become distracted, and sometimes even if I started to forget what I was doing while in the middle of doing it. I began to keep track of all these things in a small journal. Journaling was a gigantic help to me because it gave me feedback to use in identifying potential triggers that would set off my hyperactiveness. After that, it was a matter of compiling the very specific problem areas that would arise as a result.
A couple of things that have always made reading an even more challenging activity for me, ADHD notwithstanding, include having dyslexia, which in turn made me a much slower reader than the average bookworm, and the fact that when I come across phrases or passages that I cannot understand, I must mentally translate them into Hindi or Urdu to fully comprehend what it is I’ve just read, which also adds to the sluggish consumption of books. After I initiated a way to track my hyperactivity, I recognised a connection between my original obstacles (dyslexia, translation, etc.) and my ADHD, particularly where the anxiety element of it comes into play.
After finagling all of this out, it was a matter of accepting that there were certain things about myself and my quirks with my favourite activity that I would never truly be able to change. This acceptance gig was far more laborious a task for me than it may seem in this post as I am quite a perfectionist. Not being able to iron out the traits that made me less than perfect was immensely frustrating, but I couldn’t keep wasting my energies on attempting to alter characteristics part of my mental functions that are just there and unchangeable. A big chunk of learning to accept my condition and its influences was being able to put aside a book that I was really enjoying for extended periods of time and then returning to it again once when my ability to focus was more honed or tamed. This took me the better part of year to a year and half to learn and force into a lifestyle routine. In fact, not being able to read when I truly wanted to would enflame my restlessness and my depression. That’s when I had to learn to turn to other activities to help me unwind (such as blogging, writing stories, playing super complicated video/table-top games, and more).
Once my understanding of my condition and its various leverages on my reading routines became clear, and after I had finally accepted the various intensities of those influences, I was ready to create an action plan to help me become a more consistent and regular reader. (By accepting that I need to step away from reading because of my ADHD, it actually worked to diminish the hefty pressure I was consumed with when I wasn’t able to partake in this activity. This helped me to become more open-minded and willing to experiment with different techniques as my ADHD arose and became more monstrous.)
Three Go-To Techniques for Reading with ADHD
There are three main techniques that I turn to when the restlessness starts to overcome me. One of them I always do, no matter if I need to or not because it just brings me much more joy as a voracious reader. The other two are things that I will switch around or do simultaneously depending on the extent of hyperactivity that I’m being overwhelmed with. Under extreme situations, I won’t read at all. I put all the books down and step away for a week, minimum, and then re-evaluate from there as I move forward, one day at a time.
The first facet, the one I’m always practising, is to be keenly aware of my moods with respect to genres. If I am craving a science-fiction novel, for example, and I pick up historical fiction, this is guaranteed to trigger terrible bouts of ADHD and über frustrating ruts. In situations where I have no mood for anything in particular, I do some trial-and-error. I’ll pick up a horror, scan the snippet and read the first two pages. If that doesn’t click, then I’ll pick up fantasy or something else, and repeat this process until I get a match. I have over 1,500+ unread books in my personal library, so I’m usually guaranteed to scrounge up something or other.
The second component is reading multiple books at a time. Last year, I wrote a discussion post on the joys of monogamous reading, and how much sticking to one book at a time had aided in making me re-discover my bibliophilic passions. While this is still my preferred method to tackle stories, sometimes it just won’t cut it. I’ll be reading Shadows of the Empire one moment, and then about fifteen to twenty minutes later, I’ll feel like my entire body is itching for something different. Regardless of whether I’m enjoying the narrative or not. At this point, I’ll pick up a different novel, usually in a different genre as well unless my brain is lusting after something very specific.
As I am composing this post, I can safely admit that I have been dealing with a lot of ADHD issues these past two weeks. The world is on fire (literally and figuratively) and my brain can’t keep a single thought straight for longer than fifteen minutes. Because of that, I am reading six books at the moment: one cosy mystery, one satirical pulp fantasy, two horror novels, one science-fiction, and one non-fiction title. I make sure to read from at least three of them every day, typically while I’m in bed trying to get relaxed enough to fall asleep without medicinal assistance. A few months ago, I was only reading one book at a time. It still amazes me how my conditions can completely change the dynamics of how my brain works on such an impulsive scale.
The last bit is one that I save for a last resort type of situation and that is reading more than format. I like physical books, with a preference for paperbacks because it fits in my book bag without much trouble. But regardless of whether it’s a hardback, trade paperback, or mass market, physical books are my favourite. I love to feel the textures of the pages and smell the ink that is used. If it’s an older book or one that has been sitting on the shelf, then there is a muskiness there that is as comforting as it can be slightly repugnant. Nevertheless, staring at the same crème coloured backdrop with very similar font styles in the blackest of inks can become wholly distracting for my brain and it allows me to utterly check out of whatever the hell I’m reading. I hate it.
When this happens, it becomes imperative for me to switch up formats. I start by changing to graphic novels if I’m reading a regular novel. When that doesn’t work, then I shift to digital content on my iPad/iPhone/PC. I have the Libby app, which allows me to check out e-books from my local library system (as well as audiobooks) that I then read on my tablet or phone. Plus, I also have a membership to Kindle Unlimited (and 300+ Kindle e-books) that I can read on essentially any device that fits my fancy (mobile or desktop devices usually). The only reason that digital books aren’t a regular part of my reading repertoire (aside from my love of old tomes) is because it can hurt my eyes and unbearable trigger migraines if I stare at the screen for too long. I have the brightness turned down and utilise Dark Mode across all my devices (including Windows) as a precaution, but this doesn’t always fight the discomfort. Of the six books that I’m currently reading, half of them are e-books. If e-books don’t help, then my last resort is audiobooks.
Audiobooks are a strange breed for me because while I absolutely adore the concept of being able to read or listen to a book while I’m working, jogging, or doing any number of other activities that require the use of my hands, it can wreak havoc with my ADHD. Most of the time, it’s extremely challenging for me to be able to focus on what I’m listening to, and my brain will start wandering, which then makes me agonisingly restless and impatient. If I’m listening to audiobooks with rain sounds on in the background, or some sort of cinematic music, then I have a better time focusing. This is why it’s generally a last resort before I just stop reading entirely for a short while.
A few things that I do that I didn’t describe in more detail that assist in my rabid consumption of tomes include taking a book with me everywhere (those three to four pages here and there can really add up!), always listen to something in the background that my brain can concentrate on sporadically if I start to lose attention to le books, and reading out loud to my sleeping cats in order to take it outside of my brain so to speak. If none of the other shtick I mentioned helps out, try these little titbits. They have a remarkable effectiveness from time-to-time.
Overall, my journey to voracious reading with ADHD has been a long, windy little pest of an experience, and truth be told, it’s sort of an ever-evolving adventure as I grow older and develop new quirks that either help or hold hostage my mental focus and functionality. The best part about deciphering how everything works and how to cope and co-exist with it is that it has taught me an abundance of patience, open-mindedness, and the willingness to try to understand the things that either frustrate me or make me afraid and uncomfortable, all elements that I can take outside of this specific experience to help nurture me in the everyday shenanigans of life. Hopefully, this long ass prattling can be of some assistance you too.