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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  • 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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