Deep Work vs. Shallow Work

What is the difference between deep work and shallow work?

Paddy explains how you can approach deep work and shallow work, using both to drive productivity in your day-to-day work and in your team.

Video transcript

We live in an always on world, a world of a culture of connectivity. Our smartphones are always with us, and any number of notifications can appear at any time in our work lives. It’s not just about our phones, but many other things as well, such as email, slack, Zoom calls. Even so, on walking over to my desk, the pandemic has led to many of us working from home, meaning that interruptions can also come from our partners, kids, dogs and cats.

This makes it hard to focus. It was hard to focus, is hard to deliver and most effective work and be at our best. Not only is this a problem for you, but also your team conscious effort is needed to deliver great work and a great leader with blockers from their team that may stop them from doing this. A lot of these techniques and methodologies surround the concept of deep work, which is explored in detail by Cal Newport in his book titled deep work.

It’s the first, let’s call it, cover what deep work and shallow work means. Deep work is professional activities performed in a site of distraction free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill set and often hard to replicate. Some examples when working as a leader in a digital, I just think includes things put together a marketing strategy for a new client or planning a personal development plan for one of your team.

Essentially, deep work need you to really think and concentrate. The thinking and concentrating isn’t always easy and an always on world and busy work environment. This contrasts with shallow work, which is non cognitively demanding logistical style tasks often performed while distracted. So examples of this might be things like processing emails that are just for your information that you need to scan and just take him, but not do anything about copy approving holidays and leave or making tweaks to the design you’ve already been through a few times or even selling calendar invites for meetings.

Now, it’s really important that you don’t mistake shallow work for meaningless work or work that has no value. The task we just talked about need to be done and do have value. The key principle to understand here is that both deep and shallow work are important, but to be most effective at both. You need to be very deliberate about how you prioritize work and how you adapt to the environment around you to be effective.

When you’re trying to do deep work, then you’re likely to need an environment that is distraction free and shapes to enable you to focus for an extended period of time. One way to think about this is to think of all the variables that contribute towards you having the environment around you to be as effective as you can be in your role. One area is your physical environment if you work at home. Have you got a desk or space as explicitly for work or do you work on it on the sofa with your laptop?

Is a sofa. The same place that you relax in the evenings? Or do you work at the kitchen table and you also eat your dinner at the same kitchen table in the evenings? The key point for you to think about here is the location to work that is separate from you.

Relax, and we try to switch off from work in the evenings. If you can do this, then you’re subtly telling your brain that when you are sitting in the location where you work, it’s time to work. The added bonus, isn’t it quite a big bonus, is that this will also help you create stronger boundaries between work and home if you work in office. Is it your own office or is it an open plan?

If it’s your own office, do you have a door that you can open and close? I’m working in an office. There’s only so much you can do to control the physical environment around you. If you work in open plan office with 200 other people across the entire floor, then there isn’t really much you can do to change that.

At the same time, you can try to adapt it and do whatever you can to get the focused on that you need. It could be as simple as putting on some big headphones or a hoodie so that people don’t interrupt you. Or if I were to put me in rooms or go and work in a separate area for an hour or two, that can work too. Whilst it’s not easily the case, look for ways you can shape your environment to give you the best chance possible of focusing and not being distracted.

The second big variable when it comes to working effectively is the time that you work. This means that you need to learn what times of the day you are most likely to be effective and to work distraction free. Some of this will be decided by your natural inclination to be productive at certain times. For example, some people find they have more energy first thing in the mornings when others are asleep, whereas other people are night owls and are productive quite late at night when everyone else is offline.

There might also be triggers to affect, such as going to the gym in the morning or starting work throughout afterwards. The opposite could also be true. You could have a surge of productivity just before you head off to the gym, at lunch or after work as well. Otherwise, this can be decided by those around you.

For example, if you’re a parent, then most mornings may be taking up by getting your kids off to school, meaning that even if you are a morning person focusing on work and being distraction free at this time of the day may not be feasible. This is similar to be able to control the physical office environment in that there’s only so much you can do about that to try to focus on what you can control and think about the time triggers that may make you most productive and most effective. Next, let’s talk about some of the things that can dictate how you work and might actually get in the way of you being productive.

These often are just common distractions. The most common ways that many of us are distracted from our work is our phones, emails and instant messaging tools such as Slack or teams. When we settle down to focus on a big task, we can never resist that little notification that pops up on our screen, telling us we have a slight message or an email about an important project that we’re working on. Whilst these notifications and messages may be important, they are not likely to be urgent.

This means that we need to feel comfortable switching off these notifications so that we can work in the most effective way possible. The key here is to switch off anything that can distract you from focusing on the task in hand. If you’re worried about doing this, simply set expectations with your colleagues that let them know you’ll be head down for a few hours and you’ll get back to them later. This is hardly ever an issue, and it’s something that will help you massively by setting expectations that you don’t feel bad or guilty about switching off over the notifications and not seeing those messages.

The final big variable to think about is how you will support yourself to deliver your most effective work. We touched upon the idea of putting your headphones on earlier, which is an example of this. So what you have to hear is to find the triggers to make you take a deep breath and focus on the task. Maybe something like your favorite piece of music or some upbeat music, you might be closing your office door at home or maybe making a good cup of coffee, a tea or a smoothie.

Figuring out what these little triggers are is important because I can support everything else your physical environment the time you go to work, blocking out distractions, giving you the little nudge you need to focus and get things done.

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