How to Read Five Books Per Month & Become a Serious Reader: Tips from Deep Work Author Cal Newport

If those who have read Cal New­port’s Deep Work: Rules for Focused Suc­cess in a Dis­tract­ed World — and even more so, those who’ve been mean­ing to read it — share any one desire, it’s sure­ly the desire to read more books. And for those who have read­ing habits sim­i­lar to New­port’s, it would­n’t actu­al­ly have been a Her­culean task to read more than 400 books over the past sev­en years since Deep Work’s pub­li­ca­tion in 2016. For­mi­da­ble though that total num­ber may sound, it would only require read­ing about five books per month, and in the video above, a clip from his pod­cast Deep Ques­tions, New­port explains his strate­gies for doing just that.

First, New­port rec­om­mends choos­ing “more inter­est­ing books”: that is to say, fol­low your own inter­ests instead of ask­ing, “What book is going to impress oth­er peo­ple if they heard I read it?” Read a wide vari­ety of books, chang­ing up the genre, sub­ject, and even for­mat — paper ver­sus audio, for exam­ple — every time. (For my part, I’d also rec­om­mend read­ing across sev­er­al lan­guages, match­ing the ambi­tions of your select­ed books to your skill lev­el in each one.)

Then, sched­ule reg­u­lar read­ing ses­sions: “Very few peo­ple tack­le phys­i­cal exer­cise with the mind­set of, ‘If I have time and I’m in the mood, I’ll do it.’ As we know from long expe­ri­ence, that means you will do exact­ly zero hours of exer­cise. The same is true for read­ing.”

This hard­ly means you just have to grit your teeth and read. You can “put rit­u­als around read­ing that make it more enjoy­able”: New­port spends his Fri­day nights in his study with a book and a glass of bour­bon, and in the sum­mer­time reads on his out­door couch with a cup of cof­fee. Also sat­is­fy­ing is mak­ing the “clos­ing push,” the final binge when “you’re at that last hun­dred pages, you have some momen­tum, you’ve been work­ing on this book for a while, you can see the fin­ish line.” But none of these strate­gies can have much of an effect if you don’t “take every­thing inter­est­ing off your phone.” Unlike most mil­len­ni­als, New­port has nev­er par­tic­i­pat­ed in social media, with the pos­i­tive side effect that read­ing books has become “my default activ­i­ty when I don’t have some­thing else to do.”

If you’d like to know more about how New­port, who’s also a father and a pro­fes­sor of com­put­er sci­ence, fits read­ing into his life, have a look at his dis­cus­sion of how to become a seri­ous read­er. This involves build­ing a “train­ing regime,” begin­ning with short spurts of whichev­er books you hap­pen to find most excit­ing and work­ing your way up to longer ses­sions with more com­plex read­ing mate­r­i­al. He also has a video of advice for becom­ing a dis­ci­plined per­son in gen­er­al, in which he employs his own spe­cial­ized con­cepts, like iden­ti­fy­ing “deep life buck­ets” and, from them, draw­ing “key­stone habits.” But as with so much in life, being dis­ci­plined in prac­tice is a mat­ter of iden­ti­ty. If you first “con­vince your­self that you are a dis­ci­plined per­son,” you’ll feel a con­stant, moti­vat­ing need to live up to that label. In order to read more, then, declare your­self a read­er: not just one who reads a lot, ide­al­ly, but one who reads well.

Relat­ed con­tent:

The Case for Delet­ing Your Social Media Accounts & Doing Valu­able “Deep Work” Instead, Accord­ing to Com­put­er Sci­en­tist Cal New­port

How to Read Many More Books in a Year: Watch a Short Doc­u­men­tary Fea­tur­ing Some of the World’s Most Beau­ti­ful Book­stores

Carl Sagan on the Impor­tance of Choos­ing Wise­ly What You Read (Even If You Read a Book a Week)

Joseph Brodsky’s List of 83 Books You Should Read to Have an Intel­li­gent Con­ver­sa­tion

7 Tips for Read­ing More Books in a Year

800 Free eBooks for iPad, Kin­dle & Oth­er Devices

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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Comments (3)
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  • knomad says:

    It’s not how many you read, its how well you read.

  • RM says:

    One thing I recent­ly removed from my phone (Android) is the Google News feed and Cal is right, my phone became instant­ly bor­ing.

  • S says:

    It feels a bit beneath the usu­al qual­i­ty of Open Cul­ture to rec­om­mend a self-help book. I agree with kno­mad here too — the prob­lem with com­mu­ni­ties like Book­Tok and GoodReads is their man­ic empha­sis on quan­ti­ty at what­ev­er cost, and a com­plete dis­re­gard of qual­i­ty (else be labeled an elit­ist, etc.). This is how you get peo­ple proud­ly tout­ing the 300 vol­umes of YA were­bear erot­i­ca they read last year as some totem of intel­lec­tu­al accom­plish­ment. This isn’t nec­es­sar­i­ly what New­port is encour­ag­ing peo­ple to do, but in a world where “emp­ty” read­ing for the sheer sake of a high book count is already the norm, I don’t know how much we need­ed some­one fur­ther rein­forc­ing the idea that rack­ing up num­bers is the pri­ma­ry goal when it comes to read­ing. What you read mat­ters far more than how quick­ly you do it.

    There is also just some­thing dis­taste­ful about the naked instru­men­tal­iza­tion of read­ing we see from these self-improve­ment gurus: they seem always to be miss­ing the point. While it is true that read­ing can be “good” for you, it shouldn’t be treat­ed with the same nose-hold­ing as eat­ing your veg­gies. Read­ing is enjoy­able and ful­fill­ing in and of itself; it doesn’t need a jus­ti­fi­ca­tion beyond that.

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