Deep and Shallow Work: Why Both Are Brain Essentials

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Think about some businesses or organizations you have visited recently. Did the employees working there display a commitment to quality? You can likely remember instances when you witnessed extreme quality—or, unfortunately, the opposite. How do great employees do great work? One of our QIP core values—committing to quality—involves two very different types of work. It turns out that both types are essential to the human brain’s ability to be productive.

Deep work produces quality

The scholar Cal Newport coined the term “deep work” to refer to distraction-free, cognitively demanding work. In his book Deep Work, he cites evidence that many workers are continuously distracted by email, text alerts, phone calls, social media, and clickbait temptations, and have trouble finding sustained time to think deeply.

Consider whether you engage in deep work, for around 90 minutes, without distraction, on a regular basis. If so, that’s great. If not, Newport has some recommendations:

  • Change your phone notification settings.
  • Find a work environment that minimizes disruptions.
  • Schedule deep work sessions into your day.

QIP Program Manager Kris Dunman, for example, protects her deep thinking time because attending to tasks such as emails, phone calls, and meetings, while very important, sometimes prevents her from accomplishing deep work. She marks calendar time slots as busy when she needs to focus on specific projects. She says, “I aim to respond quickly to colleagues. However, phone calls and emails can make it difficult to accomplish work that requires focus. Fortunately, I can rely on team members who help to make sure our projects balance responsiveness with time for deep thinking.”

Don’t skimp on shallow work

Newport notes that the human brain can sustain only about two deep work sessions per day. More than this on a regular basis will exhaust your brain’s daily capacity for deep work—and you risk burnout. What Newport terms “shallow work” plays an important role in helping our brains recover from deep work sessions, as well as process the problems we were tackling in those sessions. Therefore, email, text messaging, and Internet surfing can have an important place in our lives—so long as shallow work is not all we do.

In a New York Times article about the value of “wasted” time, Lisa Belkin writes, “Over the years I have come to see that the hours away from the writing are the time when the real work gets done . . . a paragraph turns itself this way and that in a corner of my brain even while my fingers are buying books on Amazon.com.”

Deep vs. shallow

Reflect on how much deep versus shallow work you tend to do each day, or each week. If the balance seems off—you are either working deeply too often and burning out, or shallowly too often and feeling unable to concentrate—strive to gain the necessary balance. Finding time for both deep and shallow work is just one way you can enhance the quality of your outputs on the job. We find that striving to keep this balance helps us stay true to that particular QIP core value. Indeed, our commitment to quality runs so deep that we named our company after it.