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< Productivity Glossary
Shallow Work

What is shallow work?

Shallow work is the busywork, or logistical and administrative activities you need to do, that can be performed while distracted. These tasks are usually easily replicated, don’t create a ton of new value, and do not require deep cognitive thinking to complete. They are the mental chewing gum, keeping our jaws busy without much nutritional value.

The term shallow work was coined by Cal Newport in his book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World.

Examples of shallow work:

  • Responding to emails
  • Scheduling meetings
  • Data entry
  • Checking social media
  • Preparing a status update
  • Formatting documents

In comparison, deep work refers to your cognitively demanding work that requires complete uninterrupted focus for an extended period of time so you can achieve max productivity.

What are the characteristics of shallow work?

Shallow work has several distinct characteristics:

  1. Low cognitive effort: Shallow work requires minimal mental strain and can often be done on autopilot. 
  2. Easily replicated: These tasks are routine and can be completed by anyone with the relevant information, making them easily delegated or outsourced.
  3. Limited value creation: While necessary for keeping things running smoothly, shallow work rarely produces substantial results or contributes significantly to achieving your goals.
  4. Distraction-prone: Shallow work can be done alongside other activities, often even while multitasking as it does not require deep focus.
  5. The feeling of busyness: Completing shallow work can create a sense of accomplishment and productivity, even though it may not contribute meaningfully to your long-term objectives.

The challenges of shallow work

While shallow work is a necessary time investment for almost every role, it can present several challenges that you need to watch out for:

1. Distractions & multitasking

Shallow work often involves quick tasks and constant context switching, which can be highly distracting and fragment our attention. This makes it difficult to enter the state of deep focus necessary for creative thinking and problem-solving. Multitasking, often glorified in busy cultures, actually hinders our performance on each individual task.

2. Feeling busy, but accomplishing little

The constant busyness of shallow work can create a false sense of accomplishment. We check things off our to-do lists, but often these tasks lack the depth and impact of deep work. This can lead to feelings of frustration and dissatisfaction.

3. Hinders creativity & innovation

Deep work allows us to delve into complex problems, experiment with ideas, and come up with innovative solutions. When our time is dominated by shallow work, we miss out on these opportunities and risk becoming stuck in a rut.

4. Burnout & stress

The constant busyness and mental strain of shallow work can lead to burnout and stress. We feel overwhelmed and exhausted, further hindering our productivity and well-being.

Best practices for shallow work

Finding a balance between shallow and deep work allows individuals to handle routine tasks efficiently, while also dedicating more time to productive value-adding activities. Here are best practices for managing your shallow work: 

  • Batch similar tasks together: Set aside a set amount of time twice a day to check your email, catch up on chat, make your quick phone calls, and other administrative tasks in one session so these activities don’t interrupt you during other productive work sessions.
  • Schedule deep work sessions: Block out time in your calendar for focused work on specific tasks, without allowing shallow work items or other distractions to interrupt you during this\ time.
  • Delegate or automate where possible: Consider delegating shallow work tasks to others, or using tools to automate repetitive processes.
  • Set clear boundaries: Train yourself and others to respect your deep work time and minimize unnecessary interruptions.

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