Do You Want to Spend More Time Thinking Effectively? Cal Newport Recommends Productive Meditation

In his book Deep Work, Cal Newport discusses his practice of productive meditation.

Productive meditation is nothing weird or mystical. Productive meditation is really just structured thinking.

Why should you care about structured thinking or productive meditation?

Because Cal Newport's productive meditation practice can make your thinking more effective and more valuable.

Productive Meditation can Make the Most of Certain Moments

Productive meditation is great for those moments when we're somehow physically occupied but not engaged in mentally demanding work.

We all do such things:

  • driving a car in a commute
  • walking the dog
  • jogging around the neighborhood
“The goal of productive meditation is to take a period in which you’re occupied physically but not mentally—walking, jogging, driving, showering—and focus your attention on a single well-defined professional problem.”
— Cal Newport

When you spend time in activities like these — activities that take us away from "productive work" but that aren't very productive themselves — you have an opportunity.

You can meditate productively.

Cal Newport's Productive Meditation Practice

In the book Deep Work, Cal Newport describes his "productive meditation" practice.

Newport walks from his office to his house for lunch. While he walks, he doesn't let his mind wander or flit from thought to thought.

Instead, he thinks intentionally about some professional problem he needs to solve.

The key word is intentionally. Newport is intentional about how he uses his mind during that walk.

He is so intentional about using his walk for productive meditation that he prepares for the walk by reviewing material relevant to the problem. That way, his working memory has what it needs to meditate productively.

Productive meditation is therefore:

  • Intentionally directing the mind
  • To a specific problem
  • With materials you've reviewed for thinking the problem through.

This productive meditation — this structured, intentional thinking — can happen while you're jogging or driving. You can do some serious thinking rather than letting your mind wander randomly.

It's not always easy, though. There are pitfalls.

The Pitfalls to Avoid in Productive Meditation

In Deep Work, Cal Newport identifies two pitfalls to avoid in productive meditation:

  • Distraction and
  • Looping

Distraction in Productive Meditation

In productive meditation, distractions are thoughts that are somehow connected to the thing or problem you're intentionally thinking about, but that don't help you solve the problem or clarify your thinking.

These thoughts pull you away from your subject.

For example: You're walking the dog, and you're meditating productively about a problem at work. Work makes you think of your email, email makes you think of an email you got from a friend about a party, the party makes you think about the weekend, the weekend makes you think about going to the store, the store makes you think about your kitchen, which you want to remodel, and so now you're thinking about how much it would cost to hire a remodeling contractor.

Your started by thinking about work, and you ended up thinking about remodeling contractors.

The thought about the remodeling contractor distracts you from thinking about the problem at work, which was what you intended to meditate about productively.


In productive meditation, looping is the mind's tendency to keep thinking the same thoughts that it has already thought before. "Looping" is easier for the mind than thinking new thoughts.

For example: If you're walking the dog, and you're meditating productively about a problem at work, looping happens when you keep thinking about the problem in the same terms ("This happened because X forgot to do Y. If only X hadn't forgotten to do Y. Y happened because X dropped the ball. Etc.").

Looping also happens when you keep thinking about only one solution, or solving the problem in only one way ("We need to fire X. X is the problem. X needs to go. Without X, things would be fine. Etc."). 

If your mind keeps going round and round a problem or solution in circle that stays the same size, you're not producing anything new. Your thinking is not creating valuable insight. You're looping.

Your Thinking is Worth Some Effort

We all think. The trick is to think effectively — to spend time thinking in a way that adds value to your life.

Cal Newport's practice of "productive meditation" is a way to aim at effective thinking.

I've found it helpful because:

  • Naming the Practice Helps Me Put it Into Practice. Newport's term "productive meditation" gives me a name for something I can try to put into practice. Rather than spending my commute time with random thoughts rattling around in my head, I can tell myself: "Let me try some productive meditation."
  • Productive Meditation Feels Good. Do you like waiting in line? Do you like being stuck in traffic? Neither do I. It feels like I'm wasting time. But when I practice productive meditation, I feel like I'm getting something done. And I like that feeling. It's better than frustration.
  • When You're Aware of Distraction and Looping, It's Easier to Avoid Them. Newport's description of productive meditation identifies pitfalls that I find myself falling into: distraction and looping. I get distracted. And my mind tends to "loop" in a pattern of stale thinking. Newport's discussion of his productive meditation practice and its pitfalls makes me more conscious of those pitfalls. I'm on the look-out for the pitfalls in my own thinking, which makes the pitfalls easier to avoid.

Give the practice a try.

You and your thinking are worth it.

Jamie HansonComment