Shallow work is the darnest thing in the life of a knowledge worker – “Non-cognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend to not create new value in the world and are easy to replicate.” Quite possibly, it’s the Achilles’ heel of your workday. If you think about this definition by Cal Newport, how much of it is in your day, you think? You can ask yourself a simple question to find out.
The opposite: deep work
Cal Newport introduced this concept of ‘shallow work’ in his 2016 book Deep Work – a plea for doing the opposite of shallow work. Mr. Newport beautifully wrote a both scientific and highly practical report on the one skill that will never die (so to speak): deep work. His definition of deep work is:
“Professional activity performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.”
How to get into a deep work state? A lot has been written about it, so no need for me to replicate all of the book’s contents. Others did a mighty fine job at that. Here’s a guide and a few summaries which are helpful to understand the topic:
- The Complete Guide to Deep Work by Doist.com
- Book Summary by Samuel Thomas Davies
- Another Book Summary by GetStoryShots.com
I’d like to zoom in on shallow work instead. Before you get all into the science of deep work, a good place to start is knowing how much of your work is not deep.
How to measure the amount of shallow work
If you’re a knowledge worker like me it is likely you’ll be distracted throughout your day. Distraction comes from meetings, emails, quick questions, notifications, even creating presentations, and so on. We suffer from major attention residue (google it and you’ll find lots) on most days, preventing us from completing hard work – the work that requires you to really think and ponder to get it done.
To measure the amount of shallow work in your day, whenever you set upon a task, Newport invites you to ask a simple question, which I’ll paraphrase here:
How long (in months) will it take to teach how to perform this task to a newly graduated student with no particular experience in my field of work?
If your answer is in the range of 1 to 3 months, you bet your task is ‘shallow work’. If you keep asking this for a few days or say, two weeks, you’re starting to see what portion of your work spend on shallow work. You’ll not be amazed that it will be close to, or even more than, 50% of your daily work schedule.
Avoiding shallow work
Find your results are eye-opening? The next step is to follow the strategies of Newports 4th Rule of deep work: getting rid of it. The ‘Complete Guide’ mentioned earlier has a section on that, with great examples. I also recommend reading Cal Newport’s book (of course!).
Are you doing anything to keep shallow work at bay? Please let me know your strategies in the comments below.