Productivity tips, calendar hacks, & product updates from the Reclaim team.

Deep Work vs. Shallow Work: 8 Tips to Maximize Productivity
April 15, 2022

Have you ever sat down to work on a project that demands your full focus – like debugging some code, writing an article, or building out a strategic plan – and totally lost track of time because you were so engaged in the work? This awesome experience has been coined as a flow state, which can be best described as functioning completely “in the zone”. Flow states are best achieved during deep work, where you are dedicated and focused on a single task for an extended chunk of time and can really get into the problem at hand. It’s in these deep work sessions when we are the most innovative, creative, and up to 500% more productive. 

Deep work and shallow work differentiate intensely cognitively demanding activities (like writing, analyzing, designing, or researching) vs. non-cognitively demanding activities (like emails, calls, and quick to-dos). Understanding the benefits of both allows you to maximize your productivity by dividing your workload into dedicated focus time blocks for your high-value projects, and smaller time blocks to knock out your miscellaneous, smaller tasks that don't require as much mental exertion.

Read on to learn more about deep work vs. shallow work, and how making time for both across your schedule can help you get more quality work accomplished every week.

What is deep work?

What is deep work and where does the term actually come from? Cal Newport, a computer science professor at Georgetown University and author of multiple best-selling books on productivity and time-management, is best known for exploring the concept in his book ‘Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World’. Newport defines deep work as the ability to focus on a task without distractions as to maximize cognitive capabilities, allowing you to produce better quality work in less time. 

Examples of deep work:

  • Researching
  • Writing thoughtful content
  • Analyzing data
  • Developing strategy

But, as Newport also shares – it’s not easy to make time for deep work in the modern workplace. 

In fact, it takes about 15-20 minutes to reach a productive deep work flow state, and every time you’re distracted from the task at hand, that clock resets thanks to context switching. And since the average independent worker is interrupted a whopping 31.6 times/day, that means they’re getting pulled out of their task work every 15 minutes, making it basically impossible to reach a productive flow state.

While professionals are ‘busier’ than ever, trying to multitask actually reduces productivity by up to 40%. With the constant stream of Slack messages and emails, increasingly demanding workloads due to The Great Resignation, and a 69.7% rise in meetings since the start of the pandemic in 2020 – it is even more difficult for professionals to simply find the time for heads down work in their crazy schedules. Defending time for deep, focused work should be a goal for both workers and companies alike to help advance individual employee skill sets, maximize team efficiency, and drive more innovation for the organization. 

Pros of deep work:

Redefining the hustle of modern worklife is key to unlocking the potential of deep work, and the benefits speak for themselves.

What is shallow work?

Where deep work is focused activity at your maximum cognitive function, shallow work is logistical and administrative tasks and duties that can be done while distracted, that aren’t usually creating new value, and are easily replicated.

Examples of shallow work:

  • Email and chat communication (eg. Slack/Teams)
  • Data entry
  • Pulling reports
  • Checking social media
  • Meeting to meet

Shallow work is the ‘busywork’ undercurrent of our lives. While these tasks still require our time and attention, and are necessary to our goals and priorities, they’re generally of less substance and value than the more demanding to-dos on our plates. The problem is that many professionals find themselves spending most of their days hectically jumping around shallow work – constantly interrupted by new urgencies – and get to the end of the week without sufficient time for heads down work on their big ticket tasks. 

Our recent Task Management Trends Report revealed that both individual contributors and managers wish they had significantly more time for focus work on their task list every week. ICs reported wanting 8.1 more hours/week of additional time for deep focus work, and managers also wish they could defend 8.4 hours/week of dedicated task work time for every member of their team. 

So how do you strike a balance of both shallow and deep work in your schedule? 

8 tips to productively use deep work & shallow work

The average person has about 4-5 hours/day of focus time in them, and is only truly productive for about 3 hours/day. This is why you want to maximize your most productive time for deep work on high-priority, high-value tasks, while also reserving time to stay on top of your shallow work to-dos. 

Here are 8 tips to maximize your productivity across both deep work and shallow work:

1. Prioritize your task list into deep work vs. shallow work

Getting clear on what you need to do is a great start, but instead of aimlessly working through your never-ending list that keeps growing longer every day – make it a regular habit to sort and prioritize your to-dos

Organize your tasks into priority and urgent tasks, and according to deadlines and time estimates of how long each task will take. If everything on your list seems ‘important’, these guides can be helpful in breaking down how to approach each task:

  • Urgent and important: Complete before anything else.
  • Important but not urgent: Block uninterrupted deep work time before deadline.
  • Urgent but unimportant: Delegate, or move to your shallow work list.
  • Neither urgent or important: Remove from your to-do list.

From here you can divide your task list into what will require deep work to complete before the due date, and which tasks can be checked off easily in shallow work sessions or delegated to someone else.

2. Time block (everything) on your calendar 

The first step in accomplishing a task is ensuring that you actually have time to do it. So, if you want it to get done, put it on your calendar. 

Your calendar is a place to organize more than just team meetings and appointments. Time blocking all of your deep work and shallow work to-dos on your calendar, by priority and expected duration, allows you to realistically plan and estimate your real availability. That includes task work, routine habits like lunch and exercise, regular breaks, and even the little to-dos like making a follow-up call or running an errand. This simple strategy can improve your productivity up to 80% by guiding you to focus on one thing at a time. Cal Newport explores this further in his ‘Deep Work’ book, suggesting that fixed-schedule productivity makes deep work specifically more manageable by setting a clear time limit around the session.

3. Create a productive weekly work plan

The start of a new week can be stressful (hello Sunday scaries), especially without a clear action plan on how you’re going to tackle everything on your plate. Creating a weekly work plan aligns your weekly efforts with your priorities and goals, and provides structure for what you’re going to work on and when so you can reduce decision paralysis every day.

If you want a simple template to start with, block time for one or two cognitively demanding deep work tasks in the morning hours before lunch - this is when the average person is most productive. You can then reserve the afternoon hours for shallow work to-dos and meetings. After trying it out for a couple of days, adapt this work plan to accommodate your deep work tasks during your most productive hours to maximize the amount of cognitively demanding tasks you complete every week.

4. Reduce distractions & communicate your availability

Of course, there is an element of self-discipline that comes into play when performing deep work. In order to keep focus, try making your work environment as distraction-free as possible by having a comfortable workspace, setting “Do Not Disturb” on your phone, muting desktop notifications, and committing to not getting sidetracked on the internet (or eliminating access to distracting apps altogether) for your entire deep work session.

And while it’s challenging enough to manage yourself, it can be even more difficult to set and stick to boundaries with others when you’re trying to work. That’s why at Reclaim we set out to automate greater transparency around your availability, without compromising the privacy of your schedule. The Reclaim app allows you to defend time for your Tasks and Habits automatically around your busy schedule, sync your Slack status with your calendar to share context and minimize interruptions during task work or when you're in  Zoom meetings, and auto-schedule Decompression Time after meetings to ensure you get a break and prevent back-to-back meetings. All without the extra work of you having to manually manage it every day. 

5. Limit time in meetings

We’re (not) sorry to say it, but – most meetings (71%!) are completely unproductive. Knowing this makes it that much more unfortunate that the average professional is sitting through 25.6 meetings/week. With so many meetings scattered throughout your workday, it’s nearly impossible to find a solid couple of hours to dedicate towards deep work, and 67% of workers agree that meetings actually end up distracting them from accomplishing their work.

By getting clear on your priorities every week and communicating these on your schedule, it can be easier to start saying no to pointless meetings, and plan for fewer, more productive meetings yourself. Reserve your afternoons for scheduling 1:1s and team meetings so that your mornings can be dedicated to productive deep work, or consider implementing a no-meeting day at your company for everyone to have one day a week dedicated to independent task work! 

6. Integrate project management apps with your calendar

Project management apps are effective tools for managing your team’s workflow, delegating individual tasks to assignees, and organizing project statuses – but there’s a major gap between the to-do list and actually finding the time to get it done.

To avoid the additional task of having to manually time block work items in your calendar (and deal with rescheduling them if something comes up) – many professionals are saving hours every week by integrating their task list from their favorite project management apps right into their weekly schedule. Reclaim currently features native integrations for ClickUpAsana, Jira, Todoist, Linear, and Google Tasks (with more coming soon) directly with Google Calendar.

7. Take breaks after deep work

Pushing yourself to productively work through cognitively demanding deep work tasks does not mean you should be mentally draining yourself. There’s only so much you can take on in a day.

Maybe you find you ‘flow’ best with a couple two-hour focused work sessions in the morning, and a long lunch break before diving into shallow work in the afternoon. Or, if you prefer shorter, more frequent breaks as you find it difficult to get into a flow state, implementing the Pomodoro technique for your deep work might be more effective. This method recommends shorter, distraction-free sessions and mindful break intervals to rest your eyes and drink some water (not hop on social media or check your email). Do what feels best for you, and remember that maximizing your productivity starts by taking care of yourself, to avoid complications like mental exhaustion down the line.

8. Audit your time spent on deep work & shallow work

How many of your planned tasks did you complete this week? What habits did you make time for? What was left unfinished on your to-do list by Friday afternoon? Regularly auditing your calendar can help give you quantitative insight as to where your time is going, whether it is aligned with your goals and priorities, and where it may be getting misallocated. 

Maximizing your productivity also means being proactive and defensive with your time and availability. The average professional wastes almost half of their workday due to a lack of organization, and with at least 150 different tasks on their plate at a time, it’s no shocker that 41% of their to-do list never gets done. Regular time audits can help you pinpoint time sinks, say ‘no’ to things you don’t have time for, and minimize daily distractions – so that you can get more of your task-list done, and defend your limited time for the things that are important to you.

Increase your productivity with deep work 🧠

Finding a balance between deep work and shallow work helps you develop a manageable schedule, keeps you on top of your to-dos, and also defends sufficient time for you to productively work on your most cognitively demanding tasks. 

By tapping into the magic of deep work, and better managing the boring (albeit necessary) everyday shallow busywork – you can work to find greater fulfillment in your skill, get more quality work accomplished in less time, and provide an even better value to your team. As per Cal Newport, “a deep life is a good life”, and in the end that’s really what we’re really all about.

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