Understanding shallow work and deep work

Cal Newport is a computer science professor at Georgetown — hey, I went there too! — and wrote this book about the idea of ‘deep work,’ which I’ll discuss more in a second. He also wrote this article for 99U on ‘the lazy producer paradox,’ and that’s where we should begin.

The ‘lazy producer paradox’ is just what it sounds like: many of the most talented, gifted, brilliant minds of any generation actually appear to be mostly lazy when observed on surface. Richard Feynman, who won a Nobel Prize in physics, is one example that Newport gives — he constantly told his colleagues at Cornell that he didn’t want to do certain things or be bothered by them, such as joining committees, etc.

And now we’ve come to the fork in the road.

Most work — at least in the first world — is set up around ideas such as:

  • Productivity
  • Tasks
  • Goals/Targets/Priorities

We do have attitudes around ‘work is virtue’ — very strong in many people — and a belief that any and all things related to work, such as doing social media on behalf of your company or answering e-mails or flying to a random town to meet with some people, is work. When we think that way, we’re basically adopting this definition of ‘work:’

Anything that can potentially impact or benefit your professional existence.

The problem with that definition of work is that it led to our Temple of Busy culture. People are now much more concerned with the quantity of tasks and commitments they take on, as opposed to the quality of them.

That’s a race to exhaustion beset by senior managers screaming about ‘The business world is ever-changing!’ and ‘Grow or die!’ It doesn’t create productivity and innovation so much as it fosters bitterness and job searches.

In reality, this is how we should think about work:

  • Deep Work: Cognitively-demanding, requires focus without distraction, and you apply hard-to-replicate skill sets.
  • Shallow Work: More logistical/basic tasks that don’t require tremendous amounts of attention or skill.

There are a couple of different ways to slice this up, so let’s do that.

Examples Of Each: In case you need some, let’s do two simple ones. If you set about trying to brainstorm different approaches to a problem at hand, that’s deep work. If you answer a reply all in your department, that’s shallow work. Got that part? Awesome.

Most jobs are shallow work: This is an unavoidable fact. The majority of jobs — and probably moreso in the future with the rise of automation processes — are going to be shallow work with some opportunities for deep work (long-term vision or strategy, etc.)

There is an interplay: Just like there’s a major ‘macro’ (vision) vs. ‘micro’ (execution) level at most organizations, so too do you need to understand there’s an interplay here. Not everyone can do deep work all the time — that’s impossible, and would tire your brain too. Although, people shouldn’t do shallow work all the time either — so if your entire job is essentially meetings and e-mails, that also needs to change.

What’s the big idea? You need to do the shallow work necessary to move things forward and achieve tasks, because that will always be a factor of how individuals are measured at jobs, but … you need to minimize it and not heap it on your plate (“I’ll join that task force!”). You need to balance it out with deep work, even if some of that occurs outside of the office setting — you grab a drink with a friend and talk about ways the company could improve, for example.

How do you do that? You stop worshiping at The Temple of Busy and start thinking about what work would lead to actionable outcomes for yourself or your company (who needs results because, well, they pay you). Here’s a quick primer on how to set priorities, and here’s an antidote to the Temple of Busy called Essentialism.

From Newport’s article, here’s the broad takeaway:

If we rethink the laziness shown in our above examples through this lens, we realize what Feynman and Stephenson are really doing is eliminating large amounts of shallow work from their schedule to maintain a priority on deep work. By doing so, they’re taking advantage of the following crucial but overlooked reality: deep work is what produces things that matter in the world.

Think about this way, right? How many mindless meetings do you think guys like Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, Henry Ford, et al run to every day? Probably some, yes — because mindless meetings are essentially unavoidable aspects of the capitalist structure — but a lot less than you or I do. (Ford and Jobs probably none, because they’re dead.)

In that way, you could look at an organization like a flipped pyramid — you do well at the shallow work and advance to focus on the deep work. That would be cool! In reality, most C-Suiters are probably doing more shallow work than they’d care to admit, and most middle managers are attempting to chase some deep work to provide any type of strategy or tie to the organization to their direct reports. So we haven’t exactly perfected the work pyramid and promotion concept just yet.

My name’s Ted Bauer; I blog here regularly and you can learn about hiring me for freelance and contract gigs as well. You can also subscribe to my newsletter.

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