Applying Cal Newport’s Deep Work methods to Reading More and Better

Applying Cal Newport’s Deep Work methods to Reading More and Better

November 29, 2020

How to make reading books more productive.

Photo by Davide Cantelli on Unsplash

It is pretty easy at this point to give two excuses for people who don’t have time to read. Oh, I have too much work, dude! I am just drained. Second. Oh, I just don’t have to stamina to concentrate for such a long time.

Now, obviously, there are some real problems with our lifestyle. Human bodies are not made for sitting on a chair for 8 hours a day and stare at 3 different sources of light. Your laptop, your phone, your TV. (and your smartwatch? Too many screens! Aahhhh!) Now, being a human myself, I have had the same experiences and the same excuses. I have been on the hunt for solutions on Medium and Youtube like how we always do. But then Youtube wants me to watch the highlights of the football game that happened last week, or a book rant review which is always entertaining, to be fair.

But yeah, finding a solution for concentration on a platform designed to distract you were not the right solution. And then I found Deep Work by Cal Newport. Sitting in my Kindle library, lonely, and untouched. I guess I have had the same thoughts a couple of years ago too. But this time I am committed to making the change. On how I approach my work, my concentration, and my constant learning. And I could not have asked for a better solution than Deep Work.

Importance of Context

The author Cal Newport is a computer scientist and understands the knowledge workers inside out. If you are not a knowledge worker who sits in front of a few screens and works on email all the time, then this book may not be for you. I mean I am sure doctors are not checking their phones during, or checking their Apple Watches for their steps goal during surgery. Of course, it doesn’t mean that they cannot get a lot out of this book. Especially the section about planning your leisure time and surrendering social media may be super helpful for those people.

Now, let’s get into it.

The Prodigal Myth

There are far more successful people in any field of work or skill development than there are prodigies. But we do have an obsession with the prodigy stories. The difference between those successful people and the unsuccessful ones obviously has a relation with the number of hours of practice. Someone who reads 3 hours a day is going to read more books than someone who reads 3 hours a week.

But according to Cal Newport, the number of hours matter less than the quality of the hours. Someone reading 3 hours a day without ever looking at their phone or other devices during the time and staying in an extended state of concentration is going to not only read more books than an average reader, but will also be able to retain more in their memory of what they read.

Myelin is a layer of fatty tissue that grows around neurons, acting like an insulator that allows the cells to fire faster and cleaner.

This layer grows thicker the more the neurons start performing the same action again and again in an extended state. If you read more, without getting distracted by fancy shiny objects, your neurons will keep firing in the same sequence for an extended time period and that would increase Myelin tissue around your neurons, and consequently making you better at the activity.

Cal Newport insists that we forget that any kind of physical or mental prowess eventually comes down to the firing of the right neurons.

Checking your phone, again and again, is a huge problem and it breaks down the neural processes that are so vital in getting the most out of the reading experience.

Residual Attention

when you switch from some Task A to another Task B, your attention doesn’t immediately follow — a residue of your attention remains stuck thinking about the original task. This residue gets especially thick if your work on Task A was unbounded and of low intensity before you switched, but even if you finish Task A before moving on, your attention remains divided for a while.

Photo by Natasha Brazil on Unsplash

This was one of the biggest revelations for me personally. I had never thought about residual attention before reading Deep Work.

Before this, I used to read in short spurts in between work, after a meal, after watching something. I did notice that the switch wasn’t smooth and I wouldn’t have the same kind of retention as an extended read that I usually get in the night. I would sometimes have to go through the chapters again to get the context and that eats up from my dedicated reading time.

This revelation has made me switch from my reading spurts to dedicated reading slots. I have also created buffers between my works tasks any reading tasks so the residual attention smoothens out and I start afresh.

Process vs Inspiration

If we go by /r/52book on Reddit, there are at least 125 thousand people around the world who want to read a book a week. It is not the most ambitious goal when it comes to reading but it has become a daunting one with the presence of so many entertainment venues.

But every first of January, people are inspired to start reading more. We all have those friends. We also have been in that position once upon a time. And inspiration is good. It is the jumpstart that ignites the engine in you. But without proper machinery to maintain the fire within, your car will eventually break down. And you will be dejected until the next inspiration.

There is a popular notion that artists work from inspiration — that there is some strike or bolt or bubbling up of creative mojo from who knows where … but I hope [my work] makes clear that waiting for inspiration to strike is a terrible, terrible plan. In fact, perhaps the single best piece of advice I can offer to anyone trying to do creative work is to ignore inspiration.

Photo by Bobby Johnson on Unsplash

The above quote is not directly applicable to reading but it does have a message about mood and excitement. If you keep waiting for the mood to read, you will never be able to finish a book. Sometimes, habit formation is more important than your mood.

For me, I have built a simple process but it is a process indeed. Everything I am done with the chores of the day. I write in my daily journal about the tasks I completed. Ticking all the checkboxes that I was supposed to do. After all of this, there will be one checkbox remaining. It yells, “Read!” So I follow. I make my bed, get my book or my Kindle dim down to the right lights, and start until I start drifting off. Then in the morning I check the box and feel really satisfied.

Productive Idleness

Idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence or a vice; it is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body, and deprived of it we suffer a mental affliction as disfiguring as rickets … it is, paradoxically, necessary to getting any work done.

You might, of course, argue that perhaps being outside watching a sunset puts people in a good mood, and being in a good mood is what really helps performance on these tasks. But in a sadistic twist, the researchers debunked that hypothesis by repeating the experiment in the harsh Ann Arbor winter. Walking outside in brutal cold conditions didn’t put the subjects in a good mood, but they still ended up doing better on concentration tasks.

Photo by Jake Hills on Unsplash

Now, I don’t need to add more to this. These two quotes are self-sufficient. In fact, just thinking about a sunset while taking that walk puts me in a good mood.

Planning your Leisure Time

“he persists in looking upon those hours from ten to six as ‘the day,’ to which the ten hours preceding them and the six hours following them are nothing but a prologue and epilogue.” This is an attitude that Bennett condemns as “utterly illogical and unhealthy.”

Photo by Zach Betten on Unsplash

This is probably the best quote from the book. Cal Newport has encapsulated every excuse we or our friends have made about reading. Do we not have a third of the day to do more? Why do we make it a prologue and epilogue?

Yes, some people may not have the luxury of a third of the day for leisure. But it is still a significant portion of the day. But we do not notice it due to our lack of a plan for leisure. Leisure doesn’t have to be disciplined. But it also shouldn’t be directionless.

Put more thought into your leisure time. In other words, this strategy suggests that when it comes to your relaxation, don’t default to whatever catches your attention at the moment, but instead dedicate some advance thinking to the question of how you want to spend your “day within a day.”

That sets me up well for my own quote of the article. Spend your “day within a day” in a “world within a book!” Pretty good, right?

Think Deeper

There is one real important step left and that is something you do after you read. Reflect! I don’t think there is anything better to do than think about what you just read, maybe make a few notes for yourself. Books should not be a slog. Never! It should be a journey.

Photo by Artem Verbo on Unsplash

The only way you could truly enjoy a book is the take a step back and reflect. Think about what you just read. Experience your emotions of the chapters you just finished. Hear the hooves of the horse, and taste the salt on the ocean air. Reflect and live the words!

Cal Newport’s Deep Work has not only helped me create a process for reading but working even more efficiently to give me more time to truly indulge myself with good books.

Tell me your Deep Reading processes, here or anywhere else (at) gauravshetty4. I would love to improve more and do what we all love, read!


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