Reading digital textbooks

7 Ways to Stay Focused While Reading Digital Textbooks - 5 min read

I’m a full–time student, which means I spend a whole lot of time in lecture halls and at home with my textbooks. However, unlike most of my classmates, I don’t have any physical textbooks. Mine are all digital.

I’m sometimes asked why that is, and I usually answer “Well, give me one good reason why they shouldn’t be?”. The responses I get are typically something vague like “Oh, I just prefer to have it in my hands to fully focus” and “Well…it’s just so easy to get distracted on the computer”. This one guy in my class said he couldn’t possibly stare at his screen for more than five hours in a row because his eyes would get tired. First off, let’s not kid ourselves. When exactly was the last time you studied for five hours straight? And secondly, where are those tired eyes when you sit up all night on your Fortnite gaming binges?

I find it funny that people my age who, for the most part, have left their lives completely up to technology, seem to want to keep certain parts of their lives in the past. I mean, most of these people would probably suffer some kind of panic attack if they forgot to bring their phone to the bathroom, yet they insist on carrying around their own weight in textbooks everywhere they go.

Apparently, there are a lot of people having a hard time adapting to digital textbooks who could use some help staying focused while reading on their computer. So I’ve decided to make sort of a “digital textbook how-to”, guiding my fellow students into the light.

1. First off, change your environment


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One of the main issues that seems to keep coming up is having to study the same place as you relax with your laptop. Perhaps it’s not such a great idea to sit at the same desk where you have your PS4-setup, empty coke cans, Magic The Gathering collection, and actually expect to blast through your digital textbooks.

Research suggests that changing your environment can be one of the best things you can do to maintain your focus. So grab your laptop and head on over to your university library, coffee shop or whatever. Leave your Doritos and bad habits at the door and take a step forward towards a more structured and productive way of studying.

 2. But realize that not everything has to perfect…


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Sometimes, you don’t necessarily need to go to your favorite Starbucks at the other end of town if you just need to read a couple of pages on research methodologies.

You have to be mindful of not tricking yourself into connecting all sorts of behaviors with your study habits if those behaviors get in your way. Many of us like to have a good cup of coffee with studying—and that’s fine. But then you suddenly also want a cookie with that coffee, and of course, you obviously don’t want to be studying while eating—you’re not an animal. So you’ll just watch a quick video on YouTube while you snack before starting. And before you know it, you’re 6 hours into a Netflix binge and there’s no turning back.

Make sure to change your environment so that it minimizes distractions. But, don’t spend too much time on it either or you could end up in an unproductive spiral.

3. Help yourself stay focused


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Alright, so we’re all set up and ready to study —oh one sec, just got a message… where was I? Staying focused is no easy feat, especially with all the work that goes into avoiding productivity drains.

One of the main complaints I’ve heard is that it’s “impossible” to stay away from certain sites. And there’s some truth to it. Social media is built to pull your away from all that boring work, but the answer isn’t that you need superhuman anti-procrastination skills. What you do need to get focused is to use  one of the hundreds of apps made for exactly that purpose.

I personally use Cold Turkey (free desktop app) to stay focused while reading my digital textbooks. It basically blocks certain sites for a specific time window. After you’ve activated it, there’s no way to access your sites until the timer is done.

4. Don’t forget your phone


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Blocking sites on your computer is only half the battle. Don’t forget to block your phone as well. Of course, you could just turn it off, but I like to have it on in case of emergencies. You know, like if my mom forgets her Gmail password again.

My favorite app is called Zero Willpower (iOS. €2.29), which allows you to block distracting apps for a certain period of time. For a free alternative on iOS, check out, Freedom – Reduce Distractions.  Android users can try App Block instead.

5. Add some background sound


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There are tons of playlist you can find on Spotify and YouTube—oh wait, we blocked YouTube. Nevermind. My go-to music is not actually even music. I prefer the sounds of nature to be completely relaxed and focused on my digital textbooks. I would recommend Rainymood for anyone, who like me, loves the “hygge” of a cup of coffee and rain falling on the window.

If chill nature sounds aren’t your cup of tea, try Brain.fm. It has a huge variety of music designed to enhance focus, relaxation, and meditation.

6. Try the Pomodoro technique

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Okay, so now everything is sorted, you’re in the right environment, you’ve taken care of your distractions, and you got some nice soothing music in the background. So the main question is, how can you maintain your focus while working?

The Pomodoro Technique is a time management philosophy that maximizes focus and creative freshness. It was named after the tomato-shaped timer that inventor Francesco Cirillo used for time tracking while he was a university student.

It’s easy to follow this technique. Basically every 25 minutes of work (called one “Pomodoro”), you take a break for five minutes and write down an “X” for every time that you had an urge to procrastinate or work on something else. After 100 minutes of work time, you take a longer break of 15-20 minutes. 

You can use tomato-timer.com to structure your pomodoros. Or well, just a stopwatch—I’ll admit, it’s really not that complicated.

I used this technique while writing this article, and it definitely does keep you on your task since you are on a timer. However, sometimes I felt that I wanted to keep working after the 25 minutes and I was sort of pushed out of my zone. However, maybe that’s the purpose. It makes sure that you are not in the zone for too long and end up with mental fatigue. I did manage to write the first draft of this article in record time.

7. Use the benefits of digital

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When people shake their head at digital textbooks, it is often because they’re used to some ancient Adobe program opening up a PDF composed of pixelated scans from your, let’s just say “technically challenged” teacher.

That has nothing to do with an actual digital textbook. Even those pirated PDFs are a poor example of the full potential that a digital textbook can have combined with an effective reader.

A good digital textbook allows you to easily browse through chapters, search for keywords or phrases, and even references. Some readers, like Lix, even allow you to highlight and write easily accessible notes in the book. If you’re using Lix, where you can have all your books on one platform, search makes finding what you need so much easier, saving you time and effort.

Choosing digital textbooks over hardcover has made my student life a lot easier. I get to leave my heavy textbooks and notes behind and it’s tough to argue with the environmental benefits of going digital. Of course, as with any new habit, it might take some getting used to the switch, but it’s definitely worth the effort. 

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