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Deep Work by Cal Newport: How University and JC Students Can Get Better Grades by Studying Less

In the first part of this article, we explored some of the key concepts from Cal Newport's bestselling book, Deep Work. In this second part, let us delve deeper into a practical guide for Junior College and University students in Singapore on how they can study deeply to maximise results and minimise time spent working.

Before we outline some key strategies you need to follow to embed deep study into your daily schedule (click here to read more about the importance of good habits), let us explore why it is important for you to make systemic changes in your lifestyle in order for deep study to fully work.

You have a limited reserve of willpower, which depletes as you use more of it.

In a world where social media, TV shows, and music are ever-present distractions, you will constantly be fighting against the urge of checking your phone or getting a snack or doing anything other than the difficult task before you (studying deeply). While the benefits of deep study may motivate you to fight off these urges for some time, eventually, you will use up your reserve of willpower, succumbing to temptations.

JC students struggle with personal issues distracting them from work

Moreover, as we understand from James Clear's book, Atomic Habits, it is important to make lasting changes to set systems rather than goals, ensuring long term success. This is because, when you are feeling low and struggling with other things, the systems you have established for deep study will allow you to continue producing elite work even when motivation inevitably runs dry.

Let us explore these four rules one by one:

Rule #1: Work Deeply

There are many different ways of approaching deep study and integrating it into your daily schedule, but it is extremely important to pick a way that best matches your specific circumstances.

Below are some approaches:

  • Monastic Philosophy involves radically cutting back on and minimizing any shallow study. This works great for those who have one specific focus and wish to achieve that goal with exceptional performance. An example could be a certain college entrance exam. However, this would involve eliminating all shallow activities from your life - perhaps by deleting social media accounts.

  • Bimodal Philosophy involves dividing your time into sizable chunks of deep study, leaving the rest of your day open to more shallow tasks and other activities like being socially engaged. A core belief of this philosophy is that work cannot be done at one's best level all the time. This is why one can maximise their quality of performance during specified periods followed by rest during shallow work to rejuvenate.

  • Rhythmic Philosophy involves generating your own rhythm for consistently engaging in deep study. A rhythm could be repeating the deep study session every day, every other day, or a set number of times per week. This could be done through scheduling deep study sessions in your daily/weekly to-do lists or through setting a "starting time" at which you must sit at your desk to engage in deep study for an uninterrupted period of time.

  • Journalistic Philosophy involves fitting deep study into your schedule whenever you can. As soon as you see an hour or longer of "free" time in your schedule - which presumably involves many other activities such as school classes and extracurricular practices - you sit and at once begin to engage in deep study. However, beware: this type of deep study practice requires a lot of self-efficacy and a deep conviction to follow your dreams.

Now if none of these suits you, don't worry - you can create your own philosophy! Consider the following questions to make your own special ritual:

  1. Where will you study? For how long?

  2. How will you work once you start? What rules do you want to establish? For example, no internet access while doing practice exams or no social media is allowed during the process of writing your research papers.

  3. How will you support yourself during this process? For example, do you have nutritious snacks within your reach? Are you taking enough breaks to stretch and walk around? Do you need the help of a qualified private home tutor?

For more information on how internal and external factors can influence your work, watch our YouTube video linked below!

Some other helpful tips to consider are:

  • Make what Newport calls "a grand gesture" in which you commit to something publically or with a deep cost so that you have more motivation to follow through on your commitment!

  • Alternatively, you may choose to collaborate with others so as to not isolate yourself during periods of deep study. Perhaps alternating between focused independent study and collaborative discussions will keep your mind engaged with your course material for far longer than multiple hours long solo study sessions.

  • Follow the 4 Disciplines of Execution: prioritise your goals and only work hard on those things that matter the most to you. Spend more time on working with your strengths and how you can leverage them to make the biggest impact on your output. Have a clear scoreboard that measures your progress, so you know where you stand at any given moment in relation to your larger goal. Create accountability for yourself by collaborating with a deep study buddy or ask for the help of your parents to remind you to stay focused.

  • And now, perhaps counterintuitively, give yourself breaks and time to be lazy. You cannot aim to achieve your academic dreams by burning the midnight oil forever. Get a good sleep and focus on your health and wellbeing to be able to produce at your best.

Rule #2: Embrace Boredom

Newport suggests that

"instead of scheduling occasional breaks from distractions so you can focus, you should schedule occasional breaks from focus to give in to distraction".

Junior College student in Singapore scrolling on her phone

Now while embracing boredom is excellent advice to those who are following through on their deep study commitments, it does not work for those who just want to procrastinate! Hence, a great way to embrace this is not by giving in to your social media or TV show cravings but instead having clear online and offline blocks of time throughout your day.

The reason why deep study can help give you many hours of free time for other activities is that your excellent performance on learning outcomes is not dependent on the number of hours studying but the intensity at which you can focus and learn.

Newport also suggests incorporating productive meditations into your routine: a time during which you may be occupied physically but not mentally. Examples include walking, jogging, and showering, where while your body is engaged in a particular task, your attention can be focused on a particular subject or problem you are trying to solve.

Rule #3: Quit Social Media

Perhaps this is the hardest rule to follow, but the idea of an "internet sabbatical" or "social media detox" has become more and more prevalent in mainstream discourse. The problem with this thinking is imposing a false dichotomy: giving you only one of two options, which as Newport puts it, are "too crude to be useful". So what is the alternative?

third option: accepting that these tools are not inherently evil, and that some of them might be quite vital to your success and happiness, but at the same time also accepting that the threshold for allowing a site regular access to your time and attention should be more stringent.

Take a moment to reflect, with complete honesty, what draws you to social media or other internet sites? Are you seeking momentary entertainment to escape other aspects of your life? Are you using it to pass time and actively escape "boredom"? Is it peer pressure and FOMO?

Now Newport distinguishes between the "any-benefit" approach in which one convinces oneself that any tool, app or site that offers any possible benefit is worth using, because you may miss out on that benefit if you don't.

In contrast, consider the "craftsman approach" in which you identify the core factors that determine success and happiness in your professional and personal life, and only choose tools whose positive impacts on these factors substantially outweigh its costs.

social media apps

You may have heard of the 80/20 rule which proposes that 80% of a given effect is due to 20% of the work. Similarly, when choosing which social media tools you would like to continue using, you can think about which life activities overall have the biggest impact on your goals. This will help you better value the limited time you have in a day and stop you from indulging yourself in escapism through social media for hours on end for the lack of a better (easier) activity.

If you need extra help to understand which applications you should quit, do it systematically.

Begin by taking a temporary 30-day hiatus from the service. At the end of the period, ask yourself the following two questions:

  1. Would the last thirty days have been notably better if I had been able to use this service?

  2. Did people care that I wasn't using this service?

If you answer "no" to both, quit the service permanently. If your answers are more ambiguous, try to limit the time of use if you choose to continue using the service.

Rule #4: Drain the Shallows

Regardless of the number of hours you may seem to be working, real deep study happens in a very small fraction of this time. But it is possible to cut these shallow activities out to their bare minimum levels - giving you more time for working on your health, your social relationships or hobbies while maintaining excellent grades in JC or university. Try out the following strategies to cut out the shallows:

Schedule every minute of your day.

At the beginning of the day, block your calendar with blocks of a minimum of 30 minutes. Each of these blocks represents a larger activity. For example, instead of "replying to emails", you will schedule a 30-minute block for "generic tasks" or "correspondence". These blocks can also include leisure or boredom and do not have to be limited to deep study.

If you have not done such calendar blocking before, you may find yourself unable to come up with reasonable estimates for how long a particular activity may take. In these cases, block of a chunk of time you estimate the activity will take. Then, schedule a conditional block that can be used to continue working on the activity if it takes longer than expected or be used for the next activity which you have planned previously.

Remember: the purpose of this scheduling is for you to be mindful of how you are spending your time. Interruptions and unexpected changes are an inherent part of life, so don't be hard on yourself if you cannot follow the schedule to the dot. The idea is not to make your life harder, but to use this metric to help you be more accountable over how you spend your day.

Quantify the depth of every activity.

Ask yourself, "how long would it take (in months) for someone a few years younger than you to understand how to perform this task?" By so doing, you can gauge which of the activities are actually deep study where you are pushing yourself to the limits to understand new concepts in depth. Furthermore, you can then use this metric to prioritise the tasks that are truly important when making your daily or weekly schedules.

Fix a particular time after which you will not engage in any more study/ other school work.

For example, perhaps you decide you will finish your daily tasks by 6:00 pm. Stick to this time so that you will stay focused and complete all important tasks during your actual working hours, minimising procrastinating. Such a "fixed productivity schedule" will allow you to avoid engaging in shallow work to appear busy, but instead make good use of every hour.

Moreover, this will free up a few hours every evening for you to engage in your hobbies or meet friends, or do something else that brings you happiness. The ability to cultivate a healthy work-life balance is an essential skill, and Junior College and University students are best positioned to begin to experiment with it to ensure long term happiness and success in their future careers.

Now you know how to spend fewer hours studying by engaging in deep study! Which of these tips was the most interesting to you? Let us know in the comments below!

Bonus: working with a private tutor can be an excellent way to engage in deep study!

A private home tutor can help you stay focused and push you to learn more during scheduled sessions each week. If you want to see a decided increase in your grades, click the button below and request a tutor now:

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