Hello! I'm Kay, and, amongst other things, I'm both someone who likes reading and has ADHD. This article is designed to share some of the tips and tricks I've picked up along the way.
Not everyone with ADHD is the same, and so not everyone who has ADHD will read in the same way. This means I highly encourage you to use my advice however you want – adapt, experiment, keep what you like and scrap what doesn't work for you. All of the different headings below can be expanded or collapsed – feel free to cherry pick and skip around!
Finding a format you love
All reading is good reading. If you struggle with novels, try different formats – articles, long reads, fanfiction, webcomics, eBooks, graphic novels, short stories. Reading is reading is reading and any form of reading is enough to call yourself a reader.
Want a novel, but not all at once? The Dracula Daily model on Substack has been replicated for books like Frankenstein, Moby Dick, Pride and Prejudice allowing you to receive a whole novel in bitesize chunks.
If sitting still with a book feels impossible, you can also explore listening to your books whilst doing other things. Audiobooks are great, but you can also explore narrative podcasts (I recommend The Magnus Archives, Leviathan Chronicles, Welcome to Nightvale – check warnings and age certification as appropriate!).
Write it down!
You see a book. It looks amazing. You're definitely going to buy a copy of it later. But then, later comes. It was about werewolves, wasn't it? (It was about dragons). And the authors name began with a T (it's S). And the cover is blue (orange).
When someone tells you about a book – write it down or ask them to send you the link! Use the notes app on your phone or do what I like to do – email myself, so it's waiting for me in my inbox. Whether you use a journal, notes app, voice note, it doesn't matter: just write it down.
Reading in your own order
Depending on how you experience ADHD, and if you have other factors in the mix, you might find your eyes jump around a block of text rather than reading it in the order it's presented to you. This can mean you might speed through a fiction book or need to backtrack and reread a key plot point or line that you missed the first time.
If you find this frustrating, you can try countering it with strategies like using the top edge of a phone screen or a reading ruler. Equally, maybe you love it. Embrace it as your form of reading and let yourself bounce around!
ADHD might also mean that more visual or auditory methods of taking in a story work better for you – try comics and graphic novels with panel layouts that vary from page to page and don't present blocks of text.
Most importantly, be patient with yourself – and your brain. Most people are taught to read line by line from a very early age, and it can feel like you're doing it 'wrong' when it's not something that comes naturally to you or like a chore that you force yourself to do, which can take the joy out of reading. Your way of reading is just as natural to you as line by line is to someone else.
Let yourself give up on a book
If you're not enjoying a book, let it go, or let it rest for a couple of days and try it again. It doesn't have to be your fault, or the book's fault, or a comment on the book. You haven't failed at reading. The point is to enjoy the time you spend reading. Follow the spotlight of your attention to another book or comic.
The thing with being neurodiverse in a world that's set up for neurotypical brains by default is that there are other, more important things you might have to power through against the natural way your brain works. Save that energy for when you really need it and read for enjoyment, even if your way of reading doesn't look like anyone else's.
You don't need a personal library
You don't have to own books to be a reader. You just need to read. You don't need a #BookTok worthy packed bookshelf to be a reader. Nice if you have it. But, taken to extremes, that's called conspicuous consumption and that's a trap!
This will be very difficult sometimes. Beyond being neurodiverse in a neurotypical world, businesses actively want to sell you things and have spent decades and billions of pounds figuring out how to do it. Do your best to ignore or block tactics like 'only 2 left!' pop ups, or emails in your inbox reminding you of what's in your basket.
The problem with buying too many books, or rushing into a purchase, when you have ADHD is that once the urgency of the purchase fades, you can be left with a lingering feeling of guilt or shame. The books you were so excited for now have a bad aura which puts you off reading them and sours the whole reading experience. Consider removing Paypal or your card details from autofill, so it takes a little longer to purchase something online. This can give your brain a little bit more room to make the decision.
Your local library is also a great resource. Libraries are free, and you can loan several books at a time, meaning you can give a book a try – and move onto something else if you don’t like it – without having to purchase loads of books. It takes a lot of guilt away from giving up on a book when you didn't spend any money on it! Also, if you loan eBooks or audiobooks online they are automatically returned. In other words – you can't forget to do it!
Similarly, it can be tempting to seek a perfect 'system' to read – to throw yourself into book cataloguing, rearranging your books, creating lists or spreadsheets. But often this system doesn't work and just takes away time from actually reading. Try adopting new systems slowly. Add a couple of books to your to read list. Don't rush out to buy an ornate expensive journal but start by taking notes on your phone. Find what suits you and your energy and time to maintain it!
Getting (too) lost in a book!
What happens when you do find the 700-page book that's got you gripped, or the webcomic with eight years of a back catalogue, or the 200k word-long fanfiction story? You still have a body to live in and maintain and a life to lead! That's going to be hard to remember and probably annoying.
We've all done it. You hyperfocus for ten hours, crash, wonder why you're dehydrated and have a million unread messages in the group chat.
This relates to another known effect of ADHD called 'time blindness', which is exactly what it sounds like: our perception of time is weaker. One thing you can do is set alarms or ask someone to prompt you. Read for thirty minutes, then let your alarm remind you need to drink some water or make some dinner.
What does a stock photo of a neurotypical person paying attention look like? You probably picture someone curled up and lost in a book – still, quiet. A window seat might be involved, they might be on their own.
You don't have to read like that, if it's not comfortable for you, and what you look like when you pay attention might be completely different. Experiment with background noise – things like lo-fi, coffee shop soundscapes and movement (audiobooks!). You also don't have to read on your own.
Body doubling is when you and someone else work on separate things in the same place (online or in person) and keep each other accountable. It can also be easier to concentrate when you can see someone else concentrating. It doesn't work for everyone, but you could try reading in short intervals with a friend, taking breaks every 20-30min to check in.
Make screens work for you
Your device can be your best friend. Playing around with your settings can make reading a lot more comfortable. Look out for:
Visual settings – make font bigger or smaller, spaced out or tighter together, in light or dark mode
Try changing the text so it continuously flows, instead of turning like a page. This allows you to use the top edge of your screen as a focus (and helps stop your eyes jumping around)
Use the reader mode on your browser or see if you can download what you're reading as a plain document – this can help minimize distraction
Try and keep your clock or timer visible – this will stop you falling victim to time blindness!
Embrace what only you can do
Embrace what only you can do
ADHD has many downsides that can be disabling, painful and frustrating. Headaches, sleep problems, executive dysfunction, short term memory issues, focus issues, rejection sensitivity and stigma are all very real, and this section isn't meant to take away from the reality of living with them.
But ADHD also allows you to connect separate things that other people wouldn't put together and see patterns that other people might not notice because stuff bounces around your brain in a way that is different from other people.
This is great fun with books. You might notice themes and parallels that the author set up deliberately (or not!).
You might notice influences on the book from TV and film etc. that send you off in a direction you didn't expect or lead you to something else you like.
You might be inspired to write or draw or make something creative and brilliant of your own by an idea in a book.
Reading for pleasure is a set of activities that we hope you will find relaxing and fun, not a moral responsibility. It's something we hope you find a place in your life for, throughout your whole life. Like all lifelong relationships, that means it will fluctuate in closeness.
Reading will be there for you later, if you need it to be. If you only have half an hour on your phone on the bus once a week right now and you choose to spend it with a public library eBook or article, that's grand. It's great that you're doing that. Carry on.
Author Kayleigh Bohan
Kayleigh Bohan (they/them) is Operations Project Manager at Scottish Book Trust. Kayleigh formerly ran the Arts Alive and Live Literature programmes, and has a background in bookselling, libraries and community festivals.Read all articles by Kayleigh