I can’t tell you how many times I’ve finished a long productive day at work...only to realize that I didn’t accomplish much at all!
Sure I was busy.
I spent all day knocking small tasks off the to-do list, had discussions, took phone calls, answered emails, finally tidied my desk, and barely stopped for lunch.
What about the big things? Sadly, they remained un-done.
Cal Newport discusses this exact phenomenon in his book: Deep Work.
“Knowledge workers, I’m arguing, are tending toward increasingly visible ‘busyness,’ because they lack a better way to demonstrate their value.”
In a world rife with imposter syndrome, that kind of makes sense, doesn’t it?
We feel productive after a long day of trying to prove that we’re productive.
“Clarity about what matters, provides clarity about what does not.” - Cal Newport
Shallow work is all the small activities we perform that don’t propel us closer to our big goals.
Through a thinly veiled aura of neutrality, Cal Newport makes one thing very clear: He despises social media.
He refers to it in his book as: “the shiny throng of tweets, likes, tagged photos, walls, posts, and all the other behaviors that we’re now taught are necessary, for no other reason than that they exist.”
Well that seems clear enough.
He shares a similar distaste for email, but recognizes it as a somewhat-necessary evil.
Shallow work is more than just wasted time on our phones, it also encompasses all the “quick wins” we accomplish during the day. Those tasks that we use in order to avoid our “deep work.” Time spent in meetings would also fall under shallow work.
Back to the quote about clarity, the “what matters” is all of the tasks that move us towards our ultimate goals. That’s the deep work.
These are bigger than goals for the day, these are big projects that move you closer to the life that you want.
In a position where the difference between deep work and shallow work is more nuanced, Newport suggests the following:
Ask yourself “How long would it take to train someone else to do this?”
The answer is likely a number of weeks or months for any task, but the deep work tasks can be picked out by assigning this number value to them. The longer it would take, the deeper the task is.
In “Deep Work” Cal Newport contemplates the increasing amount of shallow work we do every day, and provides two major reasons for it:
Shallow Work is Easier
Simply put, without the connectivity provided by email, text, and in-office messaging, we would have to be more organized and plan ahead. We would also need to be willing to wait for other people when we reach the point in a task that we need their contributions.
We rely on shallow tasks to allow us spontaneity in our day. We don’t have to plan our work if we can request something from others at a moment’s notice. Likewise we spend much of our day dealing with others’ requests as they arrive.
We use meetings in a similar fashion, to force our attention to a task at a later time.
Shallow Work Looks Important
As quoted earlier, we tend towards “visible busyness” because we don’t want anyone to think that we aren’t working.
Newport suggests that deep work isn’t cool. It’s invisible.
You have probably been dragged away from a project countless times to perform shallow tasks, often to answer questions and emails about the very task that you’re trying to accomplish!
Isn’t it funny that the quieter and more focused you are, the less people are sure that you’re working?
At the very beginning of his book, Cal Newport predicts three types of people will succeed far and above everybody else in the coming years:
Only the first of these categories is accessible to anybody, and that is #1 - The ability to work well and creatively with intelligent machines.
Newport argues that you need to be able to master difficult concepts quickly to be effective at #1, and you will need #1 to be the best at what you do (#2.)
This is where deep work will help you get ahead. You need the ability to shut out everything else, and master a new subject quickly.
Just like the increasing amount of shallow work that is added to daily life, deep work decreases.
In a simple case of supply and demand, the ability to do deep work will become even more rare in the future, and therefore more valuable.
Knowing this should make you feel good!
In a world where success is screamed on social media (whether it’s real or not,) quietly performing deep work will get you to the top.
While there is a lot more information in the book, these were my two biggest takeaways about how to work deeply.
1. Self-Control is Finite
I had never heard willpower described like a piggy bank before. The book suggests that we only have limited self-control, and we use it repeatedly throughout the day while trying to stay on task.
We make willpower withdrawals every time we resist the urge to scroll Facebook or peruse Reddit. We use a huge amount of willpower when we force ourselves back into a task when we would prefer to do something else.
“Deep Work” recommends that we set up schedules, routines, and rules, to save as much self-control as we can.
When you have routines for yourself, you don’t need to use willpower, because the expectation is already laid out. Likewise, if you have rules about distractions, you will accept them and stay on task.
Basically your brain accepts rules and routine as facts, and it doesn’t require the same willpower as when it’s posed as a choice.
2. Concentration is a Skill
Exercising our concentration like a muscle is a “must” when it comes to deep work.
Shallow work has emphasized the importance of multi-tasking, which has really ruined our ability to focus on one thing at a time.
Newport is a huge advocate for meditation, and discusses it at length. With proper practice, both meditation, and the ability to be bored, will help build concentration to the point where we can use it at will.
Those who are practiced at deep work, can eventually switch into deep work mode whenever an opportunity presents itself. Newport calls this the “Journalistic Philosophy” of deep work, but states that it is only for the trained.
Us mere mortals, in recovery from shallow work overload, should instead try a “Rhythmic Philosphy” which is scheduling the time for deep work and being very strict about it.
There are two other philosophies, “Monastic” and “Bimodal” but those are reserved for hermits, or those that can disappear and work for days at a time.
The real burning question: Can we work deeply and be active on social media?
The book doesn’t provide a lot of support for social media, or even much of the internet in general.
After citing a few weak reasons that someone might use social media, Newport argues that “some benefit” doesn’t make social media net positive.
There are a lot of small benefits that could be outweighed by time spent on more beneficial tasks.
While I tend to agree that a LOT of time is wasted on social media, I think that these activities could easily be separated into deep and shallow work too.
A lot of us use groups on Facebook or Reddit for learning and even work opportunities, so I don’t think it’s fair to say that these are all shallow tasks.
At one point the book even slanders having multiple browser tabs open, which is the primary method in which I research while I work on a deep project.
I think an approach with rules would be fine here too. For example: Only going into specific groups during work hours, no messaging, no scrolling daily feeds or checking notifications.
In addition to our disagreement about social media and too many tabs, the book also advocates for a work day that never spills into the evening.
For lots of us with big goals, we need to work outside of office hours in order to further our passion projects. This probably means working in the evenings.
For me, I just prefer to work at night. I am at odds with basically every productivity book ever written, and I’m okay with it.
Enter Mr. Newport with the save: “A commitment to Deep Work is not a moral stance.” A little grace from the man advertising strict rituals and rules.
Unlike many productivity books who invoke guilt on those who don’t perform their process exactly, I feel the freedom to alter the Deep Work approach, and so should you!
By using some of these strategies we can: