Unfortunately I am not a specialist in Cognitive Science I am just a regular CS student who has big interest in cognitive science.

I want to share with you some interesting observation I am sure all of us familiar with it, however I wonder whether there are some researches about this observation.

As a student I have to do some kind of activities all the time it can be reading papers, solving exercises, talking with classmates, thinking about problem in research. The problem is I find all these activities very different in terms of engagement.

Let us consider solving exercises. This is an activity with a high level of engagement. When you do this you are very concentrated, I noticed that all my mental force are concentrated on this activity. I don't pay attention what happens around. I do hear and see people. However I don't pay attention to them, and I cannot control this state it happens unintentionally/ I wish I could go in this flow when I want, but I cannot. However I know what to do in order to get into this flow, just calm sit down get some exercises and try to solve it.

On the other hand reading papers has less engagement. I usually I set a goal to every day to read a paper (among all other tasks I plan to do every day) even when I don't need to read (of course there are days when I have to spend all day reading papers). The problem is when reading papers I need really quiet place, I get easily annoyed by talking people around me, the best place I found so far is library, but what really makes me crazy is not only people can shatter your peace but my mind doesn't want to concentrate on reading. I very often found myself daydreaming about something when reading paper in this case I have to reread few last paragraphs, just because my mind didn't get them.

(Some thought about academical writings)I thought, what the reason of this problem, maybe we can start to write papers in different way, let say papers without obvious conclusion and result such that to cause you to think about it to derive the conclusion by yourself, maybe the best way to write two version of papers one is open ended and the second with results.

So far, I use the following technique to be concentrated when reading papers, before reading try do something with high engagement, solving exercise, programming a while and them start reading the paper.


  • What are effective strategies for increasing concentration and motivation when doing seemingly passive activities such as reading journal articles?
  • $\begingroup$ It is an interesting situation. Your initial question needed clarification regarding (a) what was the question; (b) how could it be framed in a general way. I have given it a little edit so that there is a clear question. Feel free to edit further if your question is different or you have additional related questions. $\endgroup$ Aug 22, 2013 at 7:27
  • $\begingroup$ @JeromyAnglim This is better suited to [productivity.se]. In fact, I think this has been answered there before. $\endgroup$
    – asheeshr
    Aug 22, 2013 at 10:47
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @AsheeshR if the OP would like to request a migration, I'm happy to do that. However, I imagine on cogsci you are likely to get a different kind of answer than on personal productivity. In particular, I think answers on cogsci would be more research based and grounded in psychological theory. However, if you know of any specific equivalent questions on personal productivity it might be worth posting them here. $\endgroup$ Aug 22, 2013 at 10:51

3 Answers 3


All truly great thoughts are conceived while walking.
                         ~ Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols

Movement promotes cognitive performance. Either take breaks and exercise, as you already do, or set up your reading in a way that allows you to move while you read:

  • take your book or paper in your hand and walk around in your room or garden while you read, or take it to the park; here is a how-to, if you need one: http://www.wikihow.com/Read-While-Walking, and you can find a lot of essays on "Reading while Walking" through Google
  • some books are available as audiobooks and easy to walk or exercise to
  • buy or build a standing desk and stand while you read or type; even though you don't move around much, your posture is more healthy and you need more muscle to stand than slouch, so you are in fact active in a less obvious way
  • sit on a big exercise ball; similar to standing, this induces you to move around a bit more and use more of your musculature; but keep your regular chair and move back to once you get tired, because slouching on an exercise ball is even worse for your back than on a chair with a supporting back
  • knead something with your hands; there are special balls and other objects for this, like therapy putty, hand exercise kits etc.
  • chew gum; see Does chewing gum mentally help basketball players make foul shots?

Some of my emotional unrest while reading and writing day in, day out comes from the fact that reading and writing are lonely, unsocial activities. Being a person who feels most alive when interacting with others, I simply cannot bring myself to work at home or alone in an office. I find working in the university library to be a partial solution for my need for human company.

The quiet atmosphere doesn't distract me, the other people working there even amplify my own motivation, indeed the relaxed and quiet movements of those taking a break or picking up books gives me enough necessary distraction from my own wandering thoughts to remain focussed on my reading (similarly, I'm unable to sleep in a quiet room, I need the window open and outside sounds to listen to, for my mind to stop circling the same thoughts for many sleepless hours).

And of course you can talk and smile to the other people to the degree that you find comfortable. I often chose a place at an occupied table when I take a break in the cafeteria, smile at people that I meet on my way to the restroom, help those who look lost. At home I would eat alone and look at the wall even when I don't work.

I also like to have the window open and children playing outside. What you like, you'll surely know yourself.

  • $\begingroup$ Yes, this is spot on with my own anecdotal experience. I am often seen walking around reading. Just a small caveat, make sure you watch for trees, other people, stairs, shadows... $\endgroup$
    – user3554
    Aug 23, 2013 at 22:19

Increasing Concentration

A method that is geared espeacially towards reading scientific texts is SQ3R. SQ3R is short for survey, question, read, recite and review. So instead of "just reading" a text, one is supposed to

  • survey it first to grasp the basic outline by reading the abstract, introduction or table of contents
  • formulate questions as to what it is that one learns from the text

After these two steps you start "really reading" the text, which is the 3R- part of the method. After reading a passage, pause and summarize what you have learned. You can be critical and evaluate the things with respect to a certain criteria (e.g.: how much evidence does the author provide?).

Maybe you don't even have to take this method too literally. You might want to switch the order of the steps a little, or only do some of the things mentioned. Thinking about my way of reading papers, I often do some of the things, but not all of them. But that is of course just my personal experience.

Increasing Motivation

This is maybe the harder part of your question. Goal Setting Theory (Locke & Latham, 2002) might work. According to the theory, setting a specific and challenging goal leads to better performance than a vage and easy goal. In addition, setting a proximal learning goals is recommended, when "the knowledge or skill for attaining a goal is unknown" (Latham & Locke, 2007, p.293). This could be appropriate for a student reading papers, as he is probably not already familiar with the material. Setting a proximal goal also goes well with the notion of reading only a small protion of the text and then summarizing it (the 3R- part from above) as opposed to a more distal goal like: "I want to understand this paper". Using Goal Setting Theory amounts to a form of extrinisc motivation. It does not necessarily get you into a flow. So maybe this is not what you wanted when you asked the question. But after all, having to read a lot of papers as a student is an externally prescribed task.

Latham, G. P., & Locke, E. A. (2007). New developments in and directions for goal-setting research. European Psychologist, 12(4), 290-300. PDF
Locke, E. A., & Latham, G. P. (2002). Building a practically useful theory of goal setting and task motivation: A 35-year odyssey. American psychologist, 57(9), 705. HTML

  • $\begingroup$ I was asked to teach the SQ3R method as the first topic in my first assignment as a TA to intro psychology. Seeing it mentioned again takes me back... $\endgroup$ Jun 17, 2014 at 18:00

A.I.R. == Attention. Interest. Repetition.

A.I.R. is a mnemonic for a technique. If the subject is dryasdust but you need to get over the 'getting-started-hump' or you have a busy schedule using A.I.R. in 5 to 20 minute bursts adds up quickly. The 'trick' is for those 5 minutes you force yourself to be interested in the subject at hand. Like an actor you just pretend. The mind soon follows the behavior. Once you start to unlock the 'secrets' of the subject with enforced interest, motivation usually takes care of itself.

Attention is similar in that it is much easier to concentrate if you know in advance you only have to expend the effort for a short period of time. No dread, no crushing burdens on limited time and resources. Of course, attention benefits from practice and controlling disruptions, but again, the short bursts really help overcome many of the mental roadblocks.

Repetition is the key to building strong memories and linking the learned concepts in useful ways in thought to your expanding knowledge base. A.I.R. pretty much made sure I always at least muddled through coursework I had little aptitude for and that really reduced my stress. As a student, when it got really busy I would just keep a short list of A.I.R. subjects on a post-it note. That way I was less likely to miss the opportunities that occur frequently throughout everyday for quick A.I.R sessions. A.I.R. is about being efficient. Stuck in traffic? waiting in line? empty time slot between obligations? waiting for service? on the can? ...? The brain, speaking from my experience only of course, burns copious amounts of glucose in a day and it seems to get better MPG (Miles Per Glucose) in short bursts with frequent short pitstops. The difference on the outcome for exams was always noticeable if A.I.R. was used for the days or weeks beforehand. For me the A.I.R. technique has been useful over the years for rapidly evaluating new areas of potential interest. An occasional A.I.R. session on old subjects never hurts. Just remember A.I.R.

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    $\begingroup$ Thanks for your answer! Could you add a reference perhaps? $\endgroup$
    – AliceD
    May 4, 2015 at 23:40

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