Why You Need to do ‘Deep Work’. Part 1 – Are You Truly Productive, or Just Fooling Yourself?

By Jon Rumens on 08 May 2019

A lot of people think busy = productive

Imagine the following situation. It’s a regular, run of the mill workday. You get up at 7 AM, quickly eat breakfast, head off to work at eight, and start working at nine.

But what does ‘starting to work’ mean?

It might be that, for you, starting work might entail ‘checking your inbox’. You might have made it a habit to check e-mail as soon as you get behind your desk. (Here’s how to fix that.)

In your inbox, there’s one new e-mail. Someone sent you this message yesterday at 4:30 PM, about the time you left for home. It’s one of your colleagues, who works in a different office, and he has the following message:

“Hey, Diana has asked me to send those documents over, so she can review them. Can you scan them and mail them to me? Thx.”

This might or might not be important, but in this case, scanning documents is not your main job. Nevertheless, since it seems urgent, you decide to do it anyway. Checking e-mail, scanning and mailing documents, let’s say all this took you 20 minutes.

So, the first twenty minutes of your day, you haven’t performed any of your main tasks, the stuff you are paid to do because you’re very good at them. You’ve basically done secretary work (no offense to secretaries, who are of course very important).

Okay, all good and done. Now, you open up your files and start doing some real work. You read them and try to get started.

But you can’t seem to focus very well. You still have to wake up, and you need some caffeine to get going. That’ll surely help you be more ‘productive’.

Making coffee, that takes about five minutes. But again, you’ve distracted yourself with a non-essential task.

Once your coffee is finished, you head back to your desk. You seem to be able to focus better now. You get into the groove, and start doing ‘real work’.

Forty minutes have passed. It’s about 10:30 now. You’re getting bored and feel the need to check your e-mail again. After all, your boss, a colleague, or a customer might have sent you a mail, and suppose they urgently need something?

You give in to the nagging desire and check your e-mail. Two new messages. The first mail is from a customer, who’s asking how his file is coming along (great, until I decided to check my e-mails again).

Another one is the colleague that you sent those documents to this morning, who says that the files didn’t come through properly. Could you try scanning them again?

You spend another ten minutes answering both e-mails, and another ten minutes scanning the files a second time (this time it goes a bit faster, the caffeine really helps). You double-check if the files are completely in order now (they are) and send them ahead. This is the last you hear from this today. But alas: in the time it took you to do these things, another mail has come in…

It’s now 11 AM. You have been ‘working’ for two hours, but you’ve only spent less than half that time actually doing something really useful. The rest of the day was spent in a similar fashion.

In other words, your work was superficial. You did not create much value. You did not become better at your job. You did become a little bit better better at using the copy machine, writing e-mails and making coffee. (maybe you could consider a barista career?)

You might have missed your true calling in life – working at Starbucks.

This is not what we call ‘deep work’. You might say to yourself that you have worked hard today, but in truth, you have not been very productive.

While doing ‘real work’ has a positive impact on your company’s results, the amount of e-mail sent has does not have a positive correlation with the bottom line.

Deep work versus shallow work

In today’s high tech world, a lot of the work we do is pretty shallow, and doesn’t require much concentration to be effective.

This shallow work entails tasks that aren’t cognitively demanding, and are mostly of a logistical nature (think sending e-mail or scanning files).

At the same time, being connected to the Internet gives us a constant source of distraction and novelty, and hurts our ability to do long streaks of concentrated, cognitively demanding work, or deep work.

Although shallow work has to be done in every workplace, making it your main occupation won’t be very helpful in advancing your career. Since almost everybody can do it, it’s not a very rare commodity. Simply put: you don’t become CEO by sending the most e-mails or scanning the most documents.

Deep work, on the other hand, is so valuable because of its very nature. Not many people, especially in today’s distracted world, are able to perform this kind of work. Hence, it is a rare commodity. If you’re able to do a lot of it, you’ll become an extremely valuable asset. Because of this, the ability to perform deep work is often handsomely rewarded.

Playing with your smartphone is not a rare, valuable skill – it doesn’t earn you 100K a year.

Let’s give another example of shallow work versus deep work. Imagine that your job entails making Excel graphs and entering data into spreadsheets, and using spreadsheets to calculate stuff.

To an extent, this is a skill that has to be learned and has some value. But at a certain level, you can automate all this stuff with a macro (a sort of program within a spreadsheet), basically making your job redundant. This makes it shallow work. If a computer can do it in your place, why even hire you?

What is not shallow work however, is interpreting and analyzing the output data that the spreadsheet provides (especially if it’s complicated stuff you’re dealing with) and then using this data to make certain decisions that affect the business.

This can be a cognitively demanding task that requires human input and higher levels of thinking. It is not something anybody can do and it requires deep focus.

Checking e-mail and being on the phone every fifteen minutes severely hinders your ability to do this type of work well.

In an age where everybody is constantly seeking novelty and distraction, being able to do deep work without getting distracted is an immensely valuable skill. Whatever you think about shallow work (e-mails have to be sent, and communication is necessary for an organization to work properly), it is not work that is rewarded very well.

Shallow work isn’t a rare commodity, and the laws of economics dictate that goods that are in high supply are relatively cheap, whereas goods that are in low supply are more expensive (provided there’s a demand, of course).

If you want to earn money and become good at something that’s valuable, you have to cultivate your ability to do deep work.

Be honest with yourself…are you doing deep work or shallow work?

It’s easy to fool yourself, but not if you consciously think about what you’re doing at the moment. Are you doing something that requires deep thought and mental effort, or are you just keeping yourself busy with menial tasks? Be honest.

So, to put this into practice, I’m going to give you a simple assignment to complete this week.

During your workday, try to be very conscious of how you spend your time. Don’t try to change your habits yet. Simply measure the time you spend doing deep work, and the time you spend doing shallow work.

More specifically, measure these three things:

  • How much time are you spending, in total, doing real, deep work during the day? Is this work that requires intense concentration and intellectual effort?
  • What is the longest streak of uninterrupted deep work that you performed during your workday? Can you do focused, concentrated work for three hours on end, or is it hard for you to get to thirty minutes without doing something shallow?
  • How many times you perform shallow tasks per day: checking e-mail, using the copy machine, making coffee, calling someone on the telephone, or entering numbers into Excel sheets.

It’s likely that you’ll be very surprised by how little deep, valuable work you do. But only once you are aware of how much time you are wasting, it’s possible to do something about it. And turn yourself into a valuable (well-paid!) commodity.

We’re going to be talking a lot more about Deep Work soon. So do your homework, and see you next class!



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