I spared myself 400 hours of screen time … and got to read 52 books

My head was so full it felt like my brain was about to blow a fuse.

I had developed the attention span of a goldfish and the vacant stare to match.

Books, so much more rewarding than endless scrolling.

Always scrolling, swiping, searching for something more.

I used to curl up with a book on a Sunday afternoon and lose myself for hours.

Now, I struggled to read anything longer than a Twitter thread on the diplomatic implications of Donald Trump’s latest spelling mistake.

As a writer, it felt shameful to admit that my love of books had been hijacked by a brain that simply could not sit still.

But my phone was like a poker machine, drawing me in with its beeps and trills and flashing lights.

Somewhere along the way, the art of reading was lost down a rabbit hole of graphic ear wax removal videos on Facebook, epic Netflix binges, and listicles of "34 celebrities who share the same face".

I wanted to fall in love with books again. The smell of crisp, clean pages. The privileged feeling of cradling someone else’s thoughts in your bare hands. An exquisitely imagined world of endless possibilities.

More than anything, I wanted to slow down the chatter in my head. The frenzied anxiety of digital overload had left me longing for quiet and the ability to focus on one thing at a time.

So at the start of this year I committed to restoring books to the place they had occupied in my life before the internet broke my brain.

My goal was 52 books. One for every week of the year. It seemed like an impossible task.

But this week, I will proudly chalk up book number 52, a fortnight ahead of schedule.

It’s a year in which I’ve spent considerably less time looking at my phone or binge watching TV shows, as I reacquainted myself with the joy of long-form storytelling.

A 400-page book will take the average person around eight hours to read. By those calculations, that’s 416 hours that I have not been online – or 17.3 days of blissful digital detox.

Making the space to read was a challenge but here’s how I did it.

Firstly, I had to be disciplined, treating my mind with its compulsive need to trawl the internet, like a misbehaving child who needs boundaries.

It took perseverance to concentrate on the words on the page and ignore the niggling voice that whispered, "I wonder what’s happening on Instagram?"

Reading for an hour or two at a time without distraction was something I hadn’t done in years and it was scary how much my mind protested.

In his book, The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains In A High-Tech World, Dr Larry Rosen – one of the world’s leading experts on our obsessive use of technology – says that our caveman brains are simply not equipped to deal with life in the modern age.

If we want to spend less time online, we have to train ourselves to stop craving the digital dopamine hit.

Rosen says that the more we practise spending time away from our devices, the calmer and more focused we become as it “teaches your brain not to release chemicals that aren’t good for you”.

And this is what I found. Again and again, I had to gently bring myself back to the page, resisting the urge to reach for that screen. But slowly, the craving subsided.

Although, my brain, so conditioned to the intoxicating blue light of my devices, took a while to get re-accustomed to the static nature of books.

One evening, I sat open-mouthed in horror when I realised I had just tried to swipe the page of an historical novel rather than turn it.

Sometimes, if I didn’t trust myself, I had to literally put my phone out of reach – on silent in a locked drawer in another room.

I took inspiration from Nikki Gemmell, who describes in her beautiful book, On Quiet, how investing in a safe to lock away her family’s devices for long periods had opened up a space for deep reflection.

“A quiet invades our world, and it is as wondrous as a house under a flight path where all the planes have disappeared,” she wrote.

For me, finding that quiet meant quarantining time in my diary just to read. A non-negotiable date with only me and my book.

And it meant actively choosing to read at times when I ordinarily would reach for my phone.

I read on the tram, at the park, in bed at night and on lunch breaks.

And when I couldn’t read, I listened. Five of my 52 books were audiobooks.

It was a far more productive start to my day while getting dressed than the angry talkback radio shows that had previously been my morning staple.

A big part of reaching my goal was learning to let go of the guilt.

In an age when we’re so over-scheduled we won’t commit to an article unless it carries a “two-minute read” disclaimer at the top, it can feel self indulgent to spend an entire Saturday wrapped up in a blanket devouring a novel.

But by rekindling my love affair with books I created a sacred space where I can press pause and find inspiration, knowledge, reflection and escape.

In a frenetic modern world, reading for the sake of reading is not selfish. It is a potent and nourishing way to slow down and just be.

Jill Stark is a journalist and author of Happy Never After: Why The Happiness Fairytale Is Driving Us Mad.

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