Cut It Out…Shallow Work, That Is

If actually doing deep work is meaningful, then we the flipside is true: doing shallow work is not meaningful. So what it to be done?

Rule #4 Drain the Shallows

If you want to work deeply, then you must drain the shallows. You must attempt to rid your schedule of as much shallow work as possible.

A Few Broad Principles

  1. Identify All the Shallowness: Identify the shallowness in your current schedule. Then cull it down to minimum levels, leaving more time for deep efforts that ultimately matter most page (218-19).
  2. Leave Room for Deep Work: Your ability to do deep work will range from 1 to 4 hours per day. This time must be guarded. It is easy to deceive ourselves and think that we can spend 4 hours doing deep work and then another 4 hours doing shallow work. The problem comes in is that our deep work hours are often interrupted. So we may think we’re working for 4 deep hours, when we’re not.

By Scheduling Every Minute of Your Day

Keep track of the time and scheduling your day just about every minute. Too often, we spend much of the day on autopilot, not giving much thought to what we’re doing with our time. This is a problem  (221-22).

Step 1: Take lined notebook paper and down the left-hand side, make every other line with an hour of the day, covering the full set of hours you usually work.

Step 2: Divide your hours into blocks. And assign activities to those blocks.

Step 3: Batch small tasks or shallow tasks in one block. (Draw an hour from the block and list all the “small tasks.”

Problem:  What happens if my schedule gets disrupted?

Step 1: Take a few minutes to create a revised schedule for the time that remains in the day (224). You can turn to a new page or just scratch out those blocks.

Step 2: Create “overflow blocks,” which you can turn to another activity if you don’t totally fill the time up. For example, you might take three-and-a-half hours to complete a project but assign the last hour as an “overflow block.” With that last thirty minutes, you can begin on another project.  

By Quantifying the Depth of Every Activity

Figure out whether a task is deep work or shallow work. The key question is to figure this out is, “How long would it take in months to train a smart recent college graduate with no specialized training in my field to complete this task?” (229). When you know where a task “scales,” then bias your time toward deep tasks.

By asking Your Boss for a Shallow Work Budget

Ask your boss what percentage of my time should be spent on shallow work page (232). For most people in none entry level knowledge work jobs, your answer to the question will be somewhere in the 30 to 50% range (That would be 12-20 hours in a 40 hour work week).

By finishing Your Work By 5:30pm

Make a commitment to “fixed schedule productivity” (236).  Make a certain time a firm ending point. Then you need to make sure all your work is done by that time. Ruthlessly reduce the shallow to preserve the deep. Reducing the shallow frees up more time for deep activities. Furthermore, our default answer to things should be “no” (241). Don’t commit to things which can pull you away from deep work.

By Becoming Hard to Reach

  1. Make people do more work to contact you (vet people): Create a “sender filter” where people can’t really reach you easily by email.  The idea that every message deserves a timely responses absurdly unproductive. Therefore, make people do more work to actually send a message. This might mean not posting your email address online, or making people fill out a survey before they send an email.
  2. Do more work in the emails you send (Create a process-centric approach): Use the following questions to help you craft better emails: What is the “project” represented in this message? What is the most efficient process for bringing this message to successful conclusion? (249).
  3. Don’t Respond: Most simply, just don’t respond to email. If an email is ambiguous in what the person wants from you, then don’t answer it.  People should make a convincing case in their email message of its important, especial if they want to meet (54). Don’t respond in these cases:
    1. It’s ambiguous or otherwise makes it hard for you to generate a reasonable response.
    2. It’s not a question or proposal that interests you.
    3. Nothing really good would happen if you responded AND nothing really bad would happen if you didn’t.

In Sum: SEND FEWER EMAILS and ignore those that aren’t easy to process.

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