Welcome back to our Velentium Book Club series on Deep Work by Cal Newport. In this post, we’ll look at the role that boredom plays in deep work and offer a couple of quick tips for dealing with “shallow work.”
So, we’ve been talking a lot about deep work: its value, its potential to boost not just your professional trajectory, but your colleagues’ and your company’s as well. But what about shallow work? Answering emails, attending meetings, coordinating logistics, filling out reports, all the “busy work” that is critical to keeping an organization going, but doesn’t build ultimately into a challenging deliverable or a breakthrough innovation or a quarterly objective?
There’s a good strategy for dealing with all of that stuff – without letting it jeopardize deep work. Understanding why it works depends on embracing two facts:
- Shallow activities are necessary
- Focus is finite
First, accept that shallow activities won’t just go away. They can often be pared back, they can be managed, but they will never be eliminated because without them, your office, team, or organization would either cease to function or, ironically, become less efficient over time.
Second, the focus is finite. Most of us can’t focus intensely and productively on the same problem or subject for longer than a 3-5 hour block of time. If we want to become the kind of workers Newport describes, we do need to give those blocks of “deep work” time priority in our schedules. But, we also need to break them up with other kinds of work: shallow activities that we can move through quickly, get a boost from the quick psychological reward that comes from checking off a few, easy-to-complete boxes, clear out some of those tasks that would otherwise be nagging at our subconscious for attention, and move on. This need is hard-wired into our brains. Meeting our psychological needs with shallow work can become the means to facilitate and protect our designated deep work time.
Newport’s recommendation is to budget short blocks of time for availability, communication, and internet browsing (both research and entertainment) around your longer blocks for deep work. Within those blocks, batch your work based on the subject, type of task, and level of focus required. Take advantage of visual tagging, color coding, or whatever designation tools are available in your preferred task management system and sync those up with the time blocks on your calendar. That way you’ll be able to tell at a glance which tasks are fair game for the time block you’re presently in, and which will throw off your focus (during a deep work block) or take too much time and attention when you’re trying to move through shallow tasks rapidly. For example, you might use cool colors for tasks that are appropriate for deep work periods and warm colors for tasks appropriate for shallow work periods.
Of course, reorganizing your calendar and task manager won’t get you there alone. To become a deep worker and a champion of the deep workplace, there are critical disciplines you’ll need to develop, and critical decisions you’ll need to make ahead of time so that you’ll be supported in those disciplines. Newport provides many real-life stories and example scenarios in the book which we won’t go into on this blog. What we will do is sketch out a few practical tips for making this actually work – in our next post. We’re going to end this post with the #1 principle for training yourself to work deeply through those long, 3-5 hour blocks of focused time:
Embrace boredom. According to Newport, this is absolutely critical for teaching your mind how to focus. Because almost everything we do these days comes at us with a non-stop feed of unrelated stimuli, and we’ve learned how to cope and even thrive under those conditions, trying to focus on a single problem for even one hour can be a real challenge for many of us – let alone three, four, or five hours at a time. Yet that is what we must do to put our brains in deep work mode.
Boredom, Newport says, is the key: a mind accustomed to constant change wants to turn away from a problem and look at something else as soon as we encounter a roadblock on the route to intensely-focused progress. The temptation to reach for a shallow-work task – to answer an email or a coworker’s message, research an interesting tangent, or scroll through social media or a news site for a few minutes is almost unbearably strong. What we’ve got to do to move past this point, Newport says, is to decide that we’re willing to feel bored. When our mind isn’t given something fresh, new, quick, and exciting, it will resume thinking about the most interesting thing available: the challenge at hand. If we resist our impulse to address boredom by switching tasks (which creates that attention residue we discussed in a previous post), boredom becomes an ally. It turns into our brain’s personal trainer for deep work.