• Shallow work is faux-ductivity and takes time away from what really matters
  • Deep work is the way to get ahead on important and urgent work
  • Prioritize and focus on the real work to get ahead 
You finally log off your computer after a long day at work.

You feel like you achieved a lot but you've got nothing to show for it. What kept you busy all day was all the random little bullshit tasks. You didn’t make any progress on the real work that needed to get done.

In a few days, you've got to submit a report to upper management and put together a presentation, and you haven't written a single word of either.

You’d think that you outgrew your college days of putting things off, but the reality is that it’s still happening today. Only now it’s less obvious because you’re fooling yourself by doing minor tasks most of the day.

Welcome to the world of shallow work.

You're spending all of your time on easy tasks like replying to emails, making phone calls, and formatting presentations.

Technically, you're powering through your to-do list but only for simple things that take time and energy away from important work that "moves the needle."

This shallow work gives you a superficial sense of progress.

You feel productive but it's a false sense of security. You're not making headway on what's really crucial.

It gives you an excuse to put that off until the very last minute.

It's only when the important stuff becomes super urgent that you get your shit together and really start working on it.

It’s at this point that you're frantically scrambling to get everything done. It's super stressful and doesn't reflect your best work.

The end result is that people notice your anxiety and inability to get things done thoroughly without mistakes. Maybe you've even gotten a reputation as someone who leaves things to the last minute or misses key deadlines.

Avoiding shallow work is one of the best ways for reducing stress and getting ahead on the shit that really matters.

Why Shallow Work Leads To Procrastination

Shallow work tasks are things you feel you need to do right now but they aren't technically urgent and important.

It's a type of procrastination that fools you into thinking you're kicking ass. In reality, you're just being faux-ductive.

Deep down, you know the easy and mindless work you're spending so much time on isn't a big priority. There's no urgent rush to get it done but you do it anyway and it creates a false sense of progress.

It's much easier to keep yourself busy with superficial tasks that don't require a ton of focus, instead of hunkering down to do the hard stuff that you keep putting off.

So you start organizing the files on your computer, looking for more cool clipart online, replying to easy emails or decluttering your crazy cubicle instead of actually working. It’s become your de facto go-to work habit.

This is known as productive procrastination, and it's often a way to avoid failure - until you can't put the deadline off any longer.

You don't know where to start with the big project you're sidelining and the overwhelming nature of it gets you looking for something else to do to keep you feeling busy.

And just to add insult to injury, when you do finally get around to doing the real work, the quality of the final output is below par and not reflective of your true ability.

You just screwed yourself.

The solution to this procrastination is a concept called deep work.

What Is Deep Work?

Cal Newport summed up deep work like this:

“Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that pushes your cognitive capabilities to their limit.”

Deep work involves long periods where you're not breaking off to do other random stuff.

It's about focusing deeply on one task at a time, preferably on the super valuable work that has huge importance for your job.

It's that feeling you get when you're completely in the zone and four hours have gone by in the blink of an eye. You feel like you got so much done and it's actually true.

Shallow work is the complete opposite.

The tasks are super easy, which is why you can do them while you’re distracted. They don't need a ton of focus and you can dip in and out of them mindlessly.

But this comes at a cost.

Once you've switched focus to another shallow work task, it can take up to 20 minutes to refocus and get your momentum going again. Keep doing that repeatedly and you've barely been focused all day.

Most people settle for shallow work because it’s the easiest option.

But if you can master the art of deep work, you’re on the right path to reaching your potential. This is what will help you succeed and get recognition for your work.

This 7-minute video walks you through the main elements of performing deep work.

VIDEO: Deep Work
YOUTUBE: The Art of Improvement
LENGTH: 6:53
Summary points:
  • Deep work is all about getting real work done
  • Schedule and block out time in your calendar for deep work
  • Develop and stick to smart routines and rituals that make it easy to focus

How To Do Deep Work

When shallow work has become your normal day-to-day behavior, deep work can be a big challenge. It’s very much like a couch potato trying to make the transition to working out every day.

It’s gonna be hard to make this transition. There will be lots of self-induced friction to keep you from making this change.

It’s a big jump from the mindless shallow work tasks you can do on autopilot to doing brain-heavy complex work. So, don’t try to do this in one big change. You’ll only set yourself up for failure.

What you want to do is start this in manageable phases and ease into the new habit. This will up the odds of you sticking to it.

In other words, forcing a couch potato to run a marathon isn’t going to work, but asking them to walk around the block is an easy goal to accomplish.

You want to make it easy and gradually build yourself up.

1) Block Out Distractions

The most productive deep work happens in a location that is free from distractions. No noisy coworkers. No casual side conversations. No meetings or calls. It’s just you and the work.

If you've got no choice but to work in a noisy environment, here are some awesome ways to mask and drown out noise.

And distraction-free also means no bullshit social media. So, no sneak peeks on what’s happening on the web. 

2) Start With Short Periods Of Deep Work

The intense focus required for deep work isn't going to be something you get to grips with overnight. This is gonna be hard.

That's why it's smart to start small and build up your skills.

Start with deep work blocks of 20-30 minutes. These short mental sprints of uninterrupted work are much easier to pick up. Then when that becomes easy, increase the duration to an hour to hour and half.

Then, take a quick break with deskside micro-exercises to keep your body moving.

3) Schedule Deep Work In Your Calendar

Creating a deep work schedule is crucial, even if you don’t always manage to stick to it. It forces you to be intentional about your time.

Block off time in your calendar and make it non-negotiable. If you don’t do this, other shit will get in the way and you’ll slip back into shallow work.

Scheduling deep work days or weeks ahead helps avoid the headache of trying to fit it into your daily schedule at the last minute. When you schedule it ahead of time, everything else has to slot in around it, not the other way round.

It won’t always pan out how you want. Urgent requests from your boss and other executives will still crop up, not much you can do about that. The key here is the intent. 

4) Create A Trigger Ritual

Making the transition from shallow to deep work is much easier if you have a trigger ritual that signals the start of your “time to get shit done” focus session.

Here are a few trigger ritual ideas:
Find that one trigger ritual that gets you going and doesn’t allow any u-turns or detours. It’s like the airplane announcement, “seatbacks and tray tables in the upright and locked position” to prepare for take-off. There’s no going back.

5) Factor In Downtime

It’s not humanly possible to go all-out all the time. You’ll just burn out. You need to give yourself some downtime to rest and recover too.

This is your “me-time” to decompress and de-stress.

During the day, it can be low sweat exercises like a walk around the block, meditating at work or taking a 5-minute cofftea (coffee+tea) break.

Outside of working hours, it can be a weekend nature walk, diving into your fav hobby, or even going on a solo weekend getaway if you can swing that.

Whatever it is, downtime is super important for doing your best deep work. It helps out in two main ways.

First, it gives your brain a mental break from all the heavy lifting.

Second, the downtime can actually lead to eureka moments like the ones that happen in the shower.

To allow for this much needed downtime, it’s smart to have an end-of-day disconnection ritual that tells your brain it’s time to switch off from work.

Find that one thing that initiates your mental “clocking out” process and use it every day.

How To Minimize Shallow Work

Deep work isn't the only way to move away from shallow work. Being even more intentional with your time can kick shallow work to the curb.

Alongside deep work, these tips can help to take control of your schedule. 

1) Schedule Shallow Tasks

Setting boundaries around shallow work is crucial. Otherwise, it’ll take over because it never ends.

Give yourself a window solely for shallow work and don't do these kinds of tasks outside of this block of time.

Create a list of the shallow work tasks you need to get done that day. Do what you can in the time you've allocated and move on.

If you don't get through everything, it's no big deal. Just pick it up again in your next shallow work schedule.

2) Use The Eisenhower Method To Prioritize

The Eisenhower Method is a great way to organize your to-do tasks according to how urgent or important the tasks are - because everything can’t be #1.

It uses four quadrants to determine priority.

These are:

Quadrant 1: Tasks that are both urgent and important

Quadrant 2: Tasks that are important but not urgent

Quadrant 3: Tasks that are urgent but not important

Quadrant 4: Tasks that are neither urgent nor important

Assign each item in your list to a quadrant.

Spend the bulk of your time and energy on tasks that fall into quadrant 1. And don't move onto tasks from quadrant 2 until you're done with quadrant 1.

Shallow work that isn't urgent or important is at the bottom of the pile. Ideally, you want to delegate or automate as much of this as you can.

Check out this video for an overview of how to make it work for you.

VIDEO: The Eisenhower matrix
LENGTH: 2:24
Summary points:
  • Focus most of your attention on tasks that are important and urgent
  • Delegate tasks in the third quadrant to free up more time
  • Eliminate non-urgent and unimportant tasks in the fourth quadrant 
The key is focusing on the top two quadrants.

Urgent and important tasks are often helping someone else to succeed (mostly your boss), critical emergency tasks and your key projects.

Important and less urgent tasks help you to achieve your goals, both professionally and personally. These are typically the big projects that have a significant impact on the company and that can boost your exposure.

This method of prioritizing your time helps you decide what really matters and what's just a time suck.

3) Protect Your Time And Energy

How often do you fall behind because you agreed to take on extra tasks and found yourself spinning too many plates? Chances are, it's mostly shallow work that's taking more time away from important projects.

You've got a hard enough time managing your own shallow work without adding any more into the mix. You’ve gotta learn to say no and set boundaries.

Saying no is tough especially if you're usually a people pleaser but it's crucial that you do so. Otherwise, you’ll end up getting buried under a mountain of bullshit work.

4) Be More Productive With Your Time

Getting smarter with how you manage your time is crucial for avoiding shallow work.

And one of the most effective time management tricks is the Pomodoro technique.
It’s a technique that can supercharge your productivity. It’s based upon the idea of working in short bursts - usually 25 minutes.

The idea is simple - get as much done as possible in that time and stop when your timer or app tells you to.

After that, you can take a 5-minute break. And after you've done four bursts of 25 minutes, you can take a longer break.

If you work well under pressure, it's a great way to get in the zone. It creates a sense of urgency. You've only got 25 minutes so you feel compelled to make it count.

Set the timer on your phone or use an app to set your work periods. Taking breaks is also a signal to get up and move around so you avoid the dangers of digital eye strain and sitting too much and getting dead butt syndrome.

It’s Time To Get Real Shit Done

Shallow work gives you a false sense of progress and is a massive time suck that pushes you into mediocrity. You might feel like you’ve been busy all day but in reality, you’ve not achieved anything important.

And while you’re so focused on these non-urgent tasks, you’re putting off the projects that really matter. The shit that counts.

Avoiding shallow work and getting immersed in deep work is crucial for getting more productive. It also cuts your stress levels since you’re not procrastinating on deadlines until the very last minute.

Managing your time is a huge part of this. When you're comfortable saying no and setting boundaries, it means you’re busy with the right things and not wasting time on stupid bullshit tasks.

Over the long run, you’ll be able to do more with less stress.

Moving from hiding behind shallow work to intentional deep work can feel like a big challenge but mastering it is a game-changer for getting ahead on projects and avoiding the stress of last-minute deadlines.

You just gotta start in small increments.

It’s time to stop fooling yourself with bullshit work and get started with real work that will make positive progress on the things that matter. And when this happens, you’ll get immense satisfaction and joy from your efforts - guaranteed.

Feel Better,

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