Do you ever have days at work where you’re totally rushed off your feet, but have nothing to really show for it? That is, you’ve had no time to reflect, stop for lunch or practically leave your seat, but you haven’t actually achieved much of substance? If that sounds familiar, you might’ve fallen into the shallow work trap. But what is shallow work and why is it so bad for you? More importantly, how can you identify and address your own shallow work problem?
Shallow work is a concept coined by Cal Newport, an associate professor of computer science at Georgetown University and self-help author. He defines it as as “non-cognitive, logistical or minor duties performed in a state of distraction”. They require little cognitive effort and it usually easy to replicate – things like replying to emails, looking at websites, using social media, filling out forms, and sitting passively in meetings.
This type of work can easily fill our day, but it rarely contributes towards our wider objectives and doesn’t confer much value. It also doesn’t tend to leave us feeling fulfilled or satisfied, since we don’t get a huge deal of meaning or sense of purpose from it.
Unless you’re lucky enough to have a personal assistant to take all the mundane tasks off your hands, doing some shallow work is inevitable. Emails need to be replied to, updates need to be communicated, invoices and timesheets need to be completed. So while you can’t remove this aspect of work entirely, you need to be mindful of how much space you dedicate to it.
The real problem with shallow work is distraction. Emails, pings, meetings and tool notifications create a series of small, inconsequential tasks that stop us from focusing for extended periods of time on high-priority valuable work. By hopping between these shallow tasks, we end the day feeling like we’ve worked hard with little to actually show for it. We haven’t necessarily learned or achieved anything new.
The progress and quality of our work also suffers. Constantly having to shift our attention from one thing to the other isn’t only draining; it stops us from performing at our cognitive peak. Studies show that every time we stop work to do something else, it takes around 25 minutes to refocus – “task residue” from our previous makes it impossible for us to properly concentrate on our current one.
Left to its own devices, shallow work can also create an endless cycle of unrewarding tasks. We need deep focus and creative problem solging to stay motivated and engaged at work – our brains thrive off that cognitive challenge. But unchecked shallow work makes that impossible: it introduces unproductive behaviors like multitasking and compulsive email checking, and lets our schedule be ruled by notifications and “quick requests”, instead of considered priorities.
The opposite of shallow work is – unsurprisingly – deep work. It's about working without distraction for extended periods of high concentration on one task. When we push our cognitive abilities to their limits, we produce our best work. It can also be incredibly rewarding; while it might be a struggle to knuckle down, at the end of deep work we feel like we’ve actually accomplished something. And by being fully present and giving a task our all, the work we produce isn’t only better – it feels like it’s worthwhile. But doing more deep work it isn’t always as easy as it sounds.
Overcoming the chaos of shallow work requires actual structural change. Our workplaces require a whole cultural shift to protect space for deep work and address the causes of shallow work. We need to rethink the way we communicate, use tools, share progress and collaborate with each other. A good place for managers to start, is to start automating shallow tasks and establish a communication framework, to keep daily collaboration productive and avoid a culture of instant availability.
On an individual level, we need to become more aware of our current schedules and more responsible for creating the conditions for deep work. That means understanding your productive patterns, self-destructive behaviors and daily inerruptions. Automatic time trackers like Timely can show you all of this – effectively holding a mirror up to the way you work. You can see how long you spend in particular tools and working on different tasks, and quanitfy all your shallow work.
Once you’ve identified your biggest distractions, you need to set boundaries for a more productive relationship with technology and create more effective daily schedules which protect space for deep work. Not only will you get far more out of your time, but you’ll also learn the power of self-discipline... and potentially be amazed at your own cognitive prowess!