To read efficiently you have to engage your brain on what you are reading. You cannot read well if your mind wanders off to other things. If you are involved in a serious emotional problem or going through a nerve-shattering period of indecision, it is quite possible that you won’t be an efficient reader. The reason is one we have all heard a thousand times - “I can’t keep my mind on my work”. Most people, however, are not so tormented by personal problems that they cannot read well if they set their minds to it. Unless your situation is distracting in some unusual way, you can learn to concentrate on your reading as well as the best.
You will already probably know when you read intensively you read efficiently. The act of reading occupies skilful readers completely. They simply do not allow themselves to be distracted by outside influences. Even if you do not consider yourself such a reader now, it is probable that if you plan to do some serious reading you arrange a suitable place where you will not be bothered or interrupted too frequently. Even if you are just reading for pleasure you generally attempt to keep distracting influences to a minimum. In short, you know that good concentration depends on your ability to control and direct your attention.
If you try to listen to the radio at the same time as you are reading, you are going to find it difficult to give satisfactory attention to your reading. Although some investigations have shown that workers on an assembly line can sometimes increase their output if they listen to music while they work, other investigators have shown that the real reason workers produce more is because they know they are in an experiment and the experiment gives them incentive. It is true that you can read and listen to music, but you make it more difficult to concentrate by doing so. Even if people could condition themselves to reading in an artillery barrage, they ought not choose willingly that atmosphere. Certainly inefficient readers fight against themselves when they try to read and listen to the news. Since they cannot give full attention to either activity, neither do they derive full enjoyment from either. Readers whose attention is divided cannot read at their efficient best.
As you have already noted, you can probably concentrate well enough if you seek an environment that gives you half a chance. Of course, all background noise cannot be eliminated when you read. There is bound to be some. Both Thomas Carlyle and Marcel Proust tried unsuccessfully to insulate themselves from the noise and confusion of the outside world by writing in a cork-lined chamber. It is enough to try to eliminate as many really distracting influences as possible. If you can learn to lose yourself in the printed page you will not be bothered by minor distractions. Watch twelve year old children read a comic book if you want to see an example of intensive reading. No minor distractions trouble them! Try to get their attention. They will hear you only when they are finished. They are quite literally “out of their world”. You could drop a bomb, and they would emerge from the debris with the paper still before them - reading intensively. Their taste in reading matter may not be the best, but their ability to concentrate is worth trying to imitate.
Some people find that they cannot pay attention and have a tendency to daydream when they have gone through three or four pages without remembering a word. One cure for this is to stop reading and deliberately seek some distraction, then return to what you were reading with renewed attention. Get up and walk around, get a coffee, draw a picture, count your pocket change - anything. Then pick up the document again and take up from where you left off. No-one can tell you exactly what to do if your mind wanders when you read, because to some degree this problem is an individual one which you must work out for yourself. The important thing is to do something about it, not just tell yourself, as so many people do: “I can’t concentrate”.
Perhaps the best general advice is: Do not mix play and work. When it is time to work, work hard. Apply yourself to your task and keep going as long as you can give the job full attention. You should be able to read for at least an hour or two without interruption. When you begin to feel that you are not getting as much out of your reading as you ought to, rest for a while. But if there is more work remaining to be done, make the rest period short. It is surprising how quickly you can refresh your mind by turning to something entirely different for a few minutes. It does not take long to get your mind out of a rut, and when you return to the report or book, you will be alert and ready to go at it with a mind refreshed.
If this suggestion does not solve your problem, there is another thing you can do. Form the habit of reading in the same place each time you read. Make this place, wherever it may be, in the office or at the desk in your study, a place for “concentrated” reading. Write your reports and fill out your crossword puzzles somewhere else. After you have tried this for a week or two, you will find that your habits will begin to work for you, which does not mean of course, that they will take over the whole process. There is still the matter of will power.
One of the principal things to remember about concentration is that you yourself must be willing to exercise the self-discipline necessary to control your reading habits. While it is true that a favourable environment is a great help, the main thing is this: condition yourself to read intensively.