Shallow Work and the Permanent Cost of Distraction

Shallow Work and the Permanent Cost of Distraction

My last two posts have been about deep work and shallow work, with one post looking at what deep work really entails, and one post considering when you should plan your shallow work relative to your deep work. Today’s post is more directly on the costs of shallow work. Yesterday’s post discussed the importance of doing deep work when we are most focused, and an unwritten but implied aspect to shallow work is that doing shallow work when we are most focus robs us of the time and mental energy that we could use to do our most important work. But that is not the only cost of shallow work – the downsides to shallowness extend beyond the opportunity costs of doing more important work instead of the shallow busy work.

 

Cal Newport in Deep Work writes, “Spend enough time in a state of frenetic shallowness and you permanently reduce your capacity to perform deep work.”

 

Newport’s warning is very important and extends far beyond losing a few hours where we could be more productive. It extends beyond even our work schedule and the time we are in the office. The warning is this: the more time you spend distracting yourself in line at the grocery store with your phone, the more time you spend fluttering around twitter at work, and the more time you spend scrolling down Facebook before bed, the worse your brain will be when it needs to focus most. Our poor digital habits reduce our ability to focus.

 

Deep work requires that we keep our mind focused on one thing for a long period of time. It requires that we make connections by truly learning and understanding the material we are focused on. In the long run, it makes us better performers because it allows us to be more productive with our time. The future of our economy is bright for those who can excel at deep work, when others are distracted and unable to complete difficult projects in a unified and coherent manner.

 

However, if we spend our time doing lots of shallow work like answering every unimportant email as soon as a notification pops up on our computer, or if we spend lots of time distracting ourselves on social media, we won’t build the capacity to engage with deep work. We will actually diminish our ability to do deep work and teach our brain that it doesn’t need to focus for long stretches of time. Our brains get a hit of dopamine with each new social media post and each notification. Our brains can literally become overly reliant on these dopamine hits, to the point where our brains can’t focus because they can’t operate for long stretches without more cheap dopamine hits.

 

It is important that we be honest with ourselves about how we spend our time and how distracted we allow ourselves to be. Putting the phones down and blocking time for deep work is important, otherwise we will unintentionally fill our lives with shallow work, and in the process diminish our focus ability.
What is Shallow Work

What is Shallow Work

Cal Newport, in his book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, provides the following definition for shallow work – the opposite of what he encourages us to strive for in our daily lives and work:

 

“Shallow Work: Noncognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend to not create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate.”

 

Recently I wrote about Dan Pink’s book When which shares research on our mood throughout the day. Pink presents information from studies looking at our affect on social media which suggests that most people have a peak moment of the day about 6 hours after waking up, move through a trough, and then rebound later in the afternoon. Pink goes on to show that we should do our best focus and analytic work in the morning during our peak, should take it easy on the hard analytic tasks during our trough, and should return to important work that requires creativity in the afternoon during our rebound.

 

We can incorporate the ideas of Deep Work and Shallow Work from Newport’s book into the framework of When. The shallow work that Newport describes are all the small administrative tasks that we have to muddle through during the workday. We get a lot of emails that we need to respond to at some point, but that often are not that important. We have to schedule some meetings, we have to go through some paperwork and check some boxes, and we have to do some relatively mindless data entry into a spreadsheet or program. These tasks don’t add a lot of value, are not usually urgent, and don’t use much brain power. These are the kinds of things we should save for our trough, the period after our lunch break when our brain just wants to jam out to our favorite songs while chugging through some cognitively simple tasks.

 

Deep work, on the other hand, requires a lot of focus and mental energy. Distractions from your favorite songs or social media notifications will interrupt you and make it harder for you to complete the work. This type of work should be completed during our peak, when our mind is still fresh and ready to crush our to-do list. Using our peak time to do shallow work is waste, and trying to complete our deep work during our trough will make us frustrated and lead to poor quality work. Think about when you do each type of work, and how you can organize your day to maximize your mental capacity to do your best deep work at the point when your brain is at its peak. Don’t let shallow work steal that valuable time from you, and don’t fool yourself into thinking you have been productive and accomplished something meaningful if you have only handled a bunch of shallow work.

Taking Issues of When Seriously

I wrote earlier about moving school start times to a later hour for high school students. In most school districts across the United States, our high school students start the day the earliest, and our elementary school students start the latest. Research, however, shows that swapping that order and pushing high school students’ start times back would improve learning as measured by test scores, reduce traffic accidents, and help high school students get more sleep.

 

Nevertheless, changing school schedules so that high school students start the day later would be inconvenient for adults, and we also have the idea that we need to push high school students to start their day early to prevent them from being staying up all night long with video games and social media. We choose not to consider the when of school start times, even though we will spend hours debating what books should be read in English class and whether art should be a requirement.

 

As Dan Pink writes in his book When, “We simply don’t take issues of when as seriously as we take questions of what.”

 

School start times are only one instance where we deprioritize the when. As far as I can tell, we operate with many inefficient whens in our lives without anyone taking much action to really change them. Many of us are now knowledge or service workers, and we often work 8 hour shifts for no obvious reason. Our work start times are all pretty uniform, and with our consistent 8 hour shifts, we also end at the same time, putting a huge strain on infrastructure for just a few short hours every morning and evening.

 

I see only a few whens that really seem to count for a lot in our daily lives. The start time of our work, the duration of our work, and the end time of our work. These whens are crucial and often inflexible. Every other when in our lives seems to be crammed around those three.

 

What I find disappointing, however, is that we don’t actually ask if those three whens make any sense. We focus on the whats all the time: did a report get finished, did we reach a sales target, what did the student learn? But we don’t often ask these questions in a meaningful way in relation to time: could the report have been finished in half the time, when should we reasonably expect to reach a sales target, what is the best time for student engagement with math versus art?

 

Asking if someone was at their desk at 8 a.m. and if they stayed at their desk for a full 8 hours doesn’t really tell you if they were effective or efficient. This isn’t a valuable way to look at time in our modern world and economy. Our when can be a lot more flexible, and increased flexibility, I would argue, can help improve the outcomes we actually want to see. Thinking differently about the when would help us to do better work and interact better with our world. We don’t need to hold on to rigid expectations about the timing of work or school, what we need is to find avenues to help people produce the best work and learn the most effectively.

On Naps

Quoting Nicholas Bakalar from an article in the New York Times, in which Balakar cites research from a 2007 journal article by Androniki Naska et al., Dan Pink writes the following in his book When: “Naps also improve our overall health. A large study in Greece, which followed more than 23,000 people over six years, found that, controlling for other risk factors, people who napped were as much as 37 percent less likely as others to die from heart disease.” Quoting Bakalar directly, “an effect of the same order of magnitude as taking an aspirin or exercising every day.”

 

In the United States, we are really missing out by not having a siesta culture. Pink was skeptical of naps going into his book, but I’ve listened to him in a couple of podcasts describe how the surprising benefits he uncovered have changed his views toward napping. Relatively short naps, say 20 minutes or so, can provide us with a lot of benefits: reduced blood pressure, better cognitive functioning, and increased vigor to name a few. Naps can have a big impact on overall health and well being, but in the United States they are not appreciated and are in many ways looked down upon.

 

Pink writes, “In general, concludes one analysis of about twenty years of napping research, health adults should ideally nap for approximately 10 to 20 minutes.”

 

For some reason, we believe that all one needs to do to be an effective and efficient employee is get a full night of sleep and then have the willpower to work hard and churn out good work throughout the day. Our ability to not be distracted, to think clearly, and to produce innovative insights are all seen as within our control if we simply work hard enough and apply ourselves with dedication.

 

The research into naps, however, suggests that we are thinking of our personal strength in focusing and producing meaningful work incorrectly. Rather than just focusing on our effort and intention with our work, we should consider our environment and small tools and techniques that can help us perform better. Yes, we should make sure we sleep well at night and find ways to motivate ourselves to do our best deep focus work, but we should recognize that it can’t all be 100% on our conscious brain. Yesterday’s post talked about the restorative power of walks, and today’s post is about the restorative power of naps. Both of these activities can seem like foo-foo time wasters, but they can actually be quite powerful in giving our brain a chance to reset and perform better in the time after we step away from our work. Rather than valuing people as automatons who should be chained to a desk of productivity, we should remember that we are creative, thinking, problem solvers, and need a little TLC to help our brains perform the best on work that matters.

Economics Suggests We Should Change Our Routines

Dan Pink looks at earnings calls for major companies in his book When. It turns out, for major companies reporting earnings on conference calls, scheduling for the early morning is best. Pink writes, “afternoon calls were more negative, irritable, and combative than morning calls.”

 

In the book, Pink explores how we react to the day and behave at different times. There are points where we are more and less likely to be energetic, alert, and focused, and times when we are more likely to be lethargic, irritable, and distracted. The takeaway from his research is that we should organize and schedule our days so that we are engaged when we need to be, handling the right tasks at the right time for our brain, and adjusting our schedules to fit our current states of being. Doing so would be a radical shift in how we think about the way we work.

 

We are still stuck in an economic model of jobs that better fits industrial assembly lines than knowledge work. When you needed someone on an assembly line pushing a button to make widgets, then it made sense to have 8 hour (or longer) shifts throughout the entire day to ensure that the factory could produce widgets. However, in a world where our output is dependent on our brain power, this model doesn’t work so well. Having someone work more hours doesn’t equate to more output. Additionally, if performance substantially declines during the day or if performance and behavior experiences wild shifts as we become hungry and tired, then we could have negative productivity. This is part of what is being explained by Pink with the earnings calls above.

 

Right before lunch and in the afternoon, the quality of calls was worse. People were less optimistic, less happy about the business, and company share prices were likely to take a hit. Our  bodies were overwhelming our rational brain power and hurting the companies. “Economic rationality is no match for a biological clock forged during a few million years of evolution.” What we need to do is recognize how our brains work and how they respond to the world so that we can organize our shifts and schedules in ways that actually help economic performance and productivity. As it is now, we have people work through long stretches where their brains are simply not primed for good economic productivity, and then we suffer with poor output. Rather than taking advantage of the natural cycles of the human brain and productivity to do good work, we push people to slug through the day and feel miserable about their low performance. Everyone is worse off in this system, but we could change it by better aligning our schedules with our circadian rhythms and body-clocks.

Why Tyler Cowen is Worried About Segregation and Selectionism

Tyler Cowen’s book The Complacent Class could have been called The Catered Class, and he takes a critical look at the ways we settle for simplicity and comfort in our lives rather than strive for greatness. In the book, Cowen makes the argument that the American Middle-Class (but really all of American culture) has become complacent in our approaches to life, relationships, careers, entertainment, and more. He suggest that we are seeing a slowdown in our economic advances and in productivity because we are creating tools that make us more complacent as opposed to creating tools that fuel an ambition to grow and make the world something better than what we can imagine right now. What is worse, these complacent tools cater to our desires for homogeneity, make inaction easier than action, deplete our sense of agency, and have serious long-term consequences.

 

Much of our technology today includes an algorithm to help us select more of things that we have already selected in the past. Amazon tells us to buy shoes that are similar to the shoes we previously bought, TV streaming services auto-play the next episode of the show we just watched or start a new show that is similar to the last, real estate sites help us navigate to neighborhoods based on our preferences and the characteristics of other buyers like us. These algorithms make us complacent.

 

Rather than take a chance with a title we have never heard of, we are directed to a show or book that people like us also buy if they have similar consumption patterns. Rather than try something new, Amazon pops up with available purchase options for the same things we have always had. Instead of wandering into and exploring new parts of town (maybe this isn’t so different than having a human being show you a part of town based on your race) we scope out the perfect house in the perfect neighborhood online. We have in some ways given our decision-making abilities to machines and a result is that we are actually becoming more segregated today than we have been in the past. We don’t have to interact with people who are not like us, don’t have to experience something new if we want to avoid it, and don’t have to see headlines that don’t correspond with what we want to believe.

 

Cowen writes about the dangers of this segregation in his book, “Segregation has yet another negative consequence: It leads to more intense sorting along political lines, so that both Democrats and Republicans will be more likely to live in communities of politically like-minded individuals. That would lead to more polarization in Congress and to some extent governmental gridlock.”

 

With technology that sorts us so efficiently, we become complacent and are catered to by our devices. This allows us to become more narrow minded as our catered news sources, entertainment options, and food delivery reinforce the idea that complacency is the ideal standard that everyone else should live up to. The idea that we would actively participate in making the world a better place has disappeared behind the veil that the world should be catered to our desires. Rather than working to understand things that are different from our own preferences and rather than working with others to create a world that actually improves our happiness and well-being, we prefer a world that tells us we are special and delivers the safe and comfortable things we want directly to our homes. Our complacency is catered to us, and it has serious consequences as we segregate ourselves and our interests, and as we give up a willingness to dream big about the possibilities of the world.

Norms and Productive Coordination

In my previous post I wrote about wasteful competition that occurs between animals within the same species, including us humans. To try to be impressive, we do a lot of things that are relatively wasteful. We might spend hours and hours focusing on developing a single skill, some animals will spend lots of time building an impressive dwelling, and some animals grow brightly colored plumage that puts them at risk of being seen by prey and requires energy to maintain. All of these examples are things that are done to impress others, attract a mate, and pass along our genes.

 

Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson wrote about this phenomenon in The Elephant in the Brain, and they also wrote about a phenomenon that goes in the other direction, productive coordination. The authors write, “humans are different. Unlike the rest of nature, we can sometimes see ahead and coordinate to avoid unnecessary competition. This is one of our species’ super powers – that we’re occasionally able to turn wasteful competition into productive cooperation.”

 

The method that we follow to get to productive cooperation the authors call norms. We are all familiar with norms and know what they are, even if we don’t recognize most of the norms around us and can’t perfectly define what norms are. Rules are the laws, guidelines, and standards that we follow in our day to day lives. Some are written down and formalized. Some have strict and explicit penalties if violated, and some are unwritten, a bit fuzzy, and sometimes don’t include obvious consequences when violated.

 

I find norms interesting in the context of Simler and Hanson’s book because they show the ways we get to well functioning societies with fewer costly and wasteful externalities from our signaling and self-interested behaviors. Norms create a way for us to compete with each other without having to go to war with every person who might have a higher status, greater wealth, or more social and political power than we have. Many norms help all of us, as a group, function a bit better together even if they get in the way of our individual self-interest from time to time. In many ways, norms are what create the elephant in the brain.

 

The idea that our self-interest is constantly at work, hiding in plain sight and influencing our behavior while being consciously ignored comes about because of norms. We have many unwritten rules against openly bragging about ourselves and against openly disregarding others in the pursuit of our self-interest. If we did not have norms that made us feel guilty, that caused people to look down upon us, and that isolated us socially when we bulldozed our way toward the things we wanted, then we would have no reason to hide our self-interested motives and we would openly and directly compete for the things we want. Norms shape our lives by defining acceptable behaviors, and they limit our direct pursuit of our self-interest to cut out some wasteful and damaging behaviors while pushing us to be more cooperative and peaceful.

Fencing Out the World

This last week Ezra Klein interviewed British journalist John Higgs for his podcast. About midway through the episode they talked about difference between people from the Millennial Generation and those from Generation Z, the following generation that is the first generation to grow up with smart phones. One of the differences they highlighted was in how the two generations think about the individual. Generation X and the Millennials are more likely to hold tightly to ideas of individualism than are Generation Z-ers. Unsurprisingly, given the technology they are growing up with, Generation Z-ers are more likely to see themselves as part of a network and are more sensitive to the connections they have with each other and with the world.

 

This connection and push against individualism is something I found really interesting and that I don’t have a great sense of myself. I am quite independent in general and have a strong individualistic push, but at the same time I try hard to recognize my dependence on others and to be aware of just how much I need the world around me. As much as I often want to set up my own perfect environment for me to operate within, I recognize that my individualistic barriers are continually breached by what is happening beyond myself, and not necessarily in a bad way.

 

This connects with a quote I highlighted in the first book of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. As Frodo is on his way out of the Shire, he runs into Gildor, an Elf traveling across the shire to leave the continent. Gildor says to Frodo, “The wide world is all about you: you can fence yourselves in, but you cannot for ever fence it out.”

 

In a non-direct way this quote can come into alignment with my thoughts about individualism versus our dependence on others and on society. I want to be productive and achieve meaningful things. I often feel that I can shut out everything around me and focus on just those important items on the to-do list, but the reality is that I won’t ever be able to close out the world around me, and in attempting to do so I run the risk of ruining the work I am trying to produce.

 

The world is interconnected and the wildness outside of our neat box is always trying to force itself in. We can try to order our own lives perfectly and design our own spaces for perfection and productivity, but we cannot force out the rest of the world forever. We must learn to live with the world around us and to use the world in a way that will help us make ourselves and our work better. As independent as Millenials feel, they need to grasp the networks that make them who they are the way that Gen Z-ers do. The Gen Z-ers can teach us to think beyond, “is this good for me” to “is this good for the group I belong to” especially as that group is expanded to include people beyond our family, community, city, state, or nation. The protests we see today from our youngest generation highlight what is possible when we think outside of our own selves and desires, and expand our idea of the network we belong to as being a globally connected and integrated network of humans that must come together to change the world for the better.

Behaviors and Ways of Working – The Keys to Unlocking Growth

I am not currently in a leadership or management position with the company I work for, but I still took away a great deal from Michael Bungay Stanier’s book The Coaching Habit. I have always had a bit of a coaching mindset and the book taught me a lot about how to be a better coach, which is helpful even though I am not currently in a coaching position. I learned a lot about how I can better support my coaches and mentors in my current role, and I believe that will translate well into future opportunities and relationships. Reading his book from the standpoint of someone being coached was helpful to see how to also position myself to set up powerful and positive coaching.

 

One of the big difference between an effective coach and someone who simply manages people and projects is that the coach is focused on the development and growth of the individuals they work with rather than just on making sure work is getting done. Focusing on growth and development means looking at individuals, their performance, and what opportunities they have to improve their work and lives. Bungay Stanier describes it like this,

 

“Here you’re looking at patterns of behavior and ways of working that you’d like to change. This area is most likely where coaching-for-development conversations will emerge. They are personal and challenging, and they provide a place where people’s self-knowledge an potential can grow and flourish. And at the moment, these conversations are not nearly common enough in organizations.”

 

Being receptive to coaching requires good self-awareness and self-knowledge. If an individual does not see themselves honestly and does not have a true vision of themselves, with both their strengths and opportunities for improvement, they will never be able to grow in a way that will reach their true potential. Coaches can help bring this out by focusing on real patterns and looking for opportunities to change and address those patterns. We all know how hard patterns and behavior can be to change, and coaches can provide the impetus for change by identifying the environmental and internal changes that can help usher in those changes. This is a process of developing greater awareness and self-knowledge with the person we are coaching and connecting that back to the larger picture of organizational success or personal growth. This ties in with ideas of management by objectives (MBO) where each goal or action that an individual takes is tied in with the larger goals of the department and company overall.

 

As an individual, I have been able to harness self-awareness to focus on the patterns and areas where I have wanted to change and build new habits or skills. Working with a manger and understanding these conversations allows me to be someone that my manager can practice these conversations with. I can help my manager better see and understand the problems and patterns that I experience as a result of the tools we use and the environment we are in, and we can discuss ways to overcome the resulting obstacles that I face. The strategies developed for me can then influence the conversations and approaches used with other people down the line. It all starts with self-awareness and honestly addressing patterns of behavior and ways of working, whether you are the coach or the one being coached, and then addressing the changes that can be made to help the individual make the adjustments that will lead to the changes that will benefit themselves and the organization.

Monotasking and Focus

A big part of author Colin Wright’s lifestyle is his minimalistic approach to life.  Wright travels across the world writing from wherever he finds himself living, and he typically does not settle in one place for more than a year or so at a time.  Without a truly permanent residence he has adopted a minimalist lifestyle, which he believes helps him focus.  In his book Considerations Wright addresses focus with a short essay about what focus is, what leads to greater focus, what distracts from focus, and how we benefit from greater focus.

 

Wright leads off with an explanation of minimalism expressing his ideas behind a life with less. Living with fewer things to worry about gives him more time and energy to focus on things he finds interesting as opposed to working on managing ‘things’.  He continues with his dialog on focus to explain that another type of minimalism can be very helpful for us on a daily basis,

 

“Focus can be about mono tasking: doing one thing at a time, and allowing your brain to process everything about what’s happening with that one thing.  Conversations become richer, work is easier, ideas present themselves with greater frequency and ease. This type of focus is momentary, but incredibly effective.”

 

I think  that we all realize that our multitasking has negative effects on our output, but we defend multitasking by explaining how busy we are and by creating excuses about the timelines and urgency of our products, phone calls, emails, and reports.  A constant pressure to accomplish more in less time forces us to push toward greater productivity, and drives us to perform multiple processes at the same time.  What Wright’s quote shows is that everything about our work becomes more robust when we can monotask and focus on a single thing.  To tie in with Paul Jun’s writing about focus, we can think of focus as a flashlight. If our flashlight of focus is shining at just one thing, then the beam of light directed in one direction will be very strong. But if we use mirror’s to split the beam to two things, the amount of light illuminating either thing will be lessened.  As we subsequently split the beams with more mirrors, we reach a point where the things we focus on become indiscernible because our focus is too fractured and weak.

 

The other aspect of Wright’s considerations about focus that I am drawn to is the way he explains on the rewards of monotasking and minimalism without attacking the person who is multitasking.  As a millennial I heard all the negative studies and stories about multitasking  and it’s negative effects on my brain.  The news stories and research presented in class always felt like a negative attack against my generation, and in many ways felt like a challenge for me and my peers to continue multitasking to prove the scientific community and the community of skeptic teachers wrong. Wright in his writing simply explains the peace of mind and the areas of life that a single focus strengthen. This is a much more effective way to invite the individual in to a life of monotasking and minimalism.