Book Discussion: Deep Work, Part 6 – Drain the Shallows

Welcome to episode 146 of the Nerd Journey Podcast [@NerdJourney]! We’re John White (@vJourneyman) and Nick Korte (@NetworkNerd_), two Pre-Sales Technical Engineers who are hoping to bring you the IT career advice that we wish we’d been given earlier in our careers. In today’s episode we share part 6 of our review of Deep Work by Cal Newport, discussing the 4th rule of working deeply – drain the shallows. We’ll discuss recommendations for scheduling your day and guidelines for how to quantify the depth of every activity.

Original Recording Date: 11-07-2021

Topics – "Rule # 4" – Drain the Shallows, Schedule Every Minute of Your Day, Quantify Depth of Every Activity

1:06 – Part 6 of our Discussion on Deep Work by Cal Newport.

  • Check out Part 1, Episode 141, where we discussed the “Why?” of the book (why deep work). Parts 2, Episode 142 3, Episode 143 were focused on the first rule of deep work, which was working deeply (the structure and the execution). Part 4, Episode 144, is focused on the second rule of deep work, embracing boredom. Part 5, Episode 145, is focused on the third rule of deep work, quit social media.
  • Format: We’ll do some summarization about why we’re talking about deep work, then summarize what we read in Rule #4, answer some questions along the way:
    • Do we believe the point?
    • Does it apply to each of us?
    • Does it make us want to change?
    • What we anticipate changing, if anything.
  • One thing we realized is that we want to model how we’re going to try to read books that have a big impact on us from now on.
    • Summarize big points.
    • Take notes.
    • Record our reactions.
    • Record what we’re going to try to change.

3:11 – Why Are We Reading Deep Work?

The Deep Work Hypothesis

Deep Work: Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.
Shallow Work: Non-cognitively demanding tasks that are often done while distracted which are easy to replicate and do not create a lot of value in the world
The Deep Work Hypothesis: The ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare at exactly the same time it is becoming increasingly valuable in our economy. As a consequence, the few who cultivate this skill, and then make it the core of their working life, will thrive.
  • We found this compelling and wanted to bring the information to our listeners.

4:09 – Rule #4 Drain the Shallows

The shallow work we’re asked to do isn’t as important as it seems. Eliminating as much shallow work as possible can drive success and excellence. There’s a limit to the shallow work we can eliminate while still maintaining our positions and there’s a maximum amount of deep work we can do a day. However, bias yourself towards the deep over the shallow and question whether new shallow work is actually useful or whether it compromises your deep work.

5:11 – Reactions

Do I believe this and does this apply to me?

  • John: Yes, this is the key step if you’ve been brought along on the series of ideas that Cal Newport has laid out. Minimize the low value work and maximize the high value work. I definitely have shallow work that I have to eliminate in my job. I have examined everything and tried to change the way I do work, evaluating whether something is deep or shallow as it comes in.
  • Nick: I believe it in principle, and I feel like I have interacted with people who have been able to do this already. I don’t think I’ve eliminated as much shallow work as I could. In trying to bias toward the deep, I find myself often getting pulled into the shallow and not accomplishing the deep. Maybe part of it is in having trouble saying no to helping others. But I’m also still learning.
  • John: People ask us for our time every day, and their emergencies become ours. It’s difficult to ignore these requests, especially if it’s coming from management, for example.

Does it make me want to change behavior, and if so, what will I change to align myself with this idea?

  • John: There are several things that immediately pop into my mind. Minimizing my interaction with chat and email I something I think I have done as I read the book. Minimizing or chunking my administrative tasks into blocks instead of spreading them throughout my day is another. As you were talking, I thought about maintaining my status and project state in a ready-to-publish way so if I ever get asked for fire-drill type information, it’s as easy as a copy-paste. Much of the information I am being asked for falls under the category of something I need to have ready before I am asked because it’s really part of being well organized. I’m not perfect at it but probably need to schedule more time to ensure I am recording everything in a central place, allowing me to easily read someone into a project.
  • Nick: That’s a great point about centralizing the task list and making it publishable. I don’t find myself questioning the shallow tasks enough, not in a “problem with authority” kind of way or narcissistic way but more along the lines of not using the craftsman approach (kind of like we talked about with tool selection). I see this in a similar light. It means I need to be more thoughtful in what I say yes to and what saying yes means as well as how it impacts my “protected time” for deep work. For me, it’s affirmation I need to do better with setting boundaries.
  • John: It’s good self-analysis. The book and its points have been good for spurring this type of analysis.

10:51 – Schedule Every Minute of Your Day

Time block planning: Decide what you’re going to do at the beginning of the day, how much time it will take, and when you’ll do it. Every minute of your day should be covered. You can always re-work the schedule. Take into account that you’ll probably underestimate the amount of time it takes to complete tasks, and use “overflow blocks” of time. Schedule more task blocks than you think you need, and for longer periods so you have areas to flex into for unexpected work.

11:25 – Reactions

Do I believe this and does this apply to me?

  • John: I do believe this, it applies to me, and it is still not easy to apply. I read this several weeks ago, looked at my calendar, and saw that every minute is definitely not scheduled. I automatically push-back so that I can have the ability to flex into the things that might come up. That be a little silly. If nothing comes up and nothing is scheduled, what does that mean I do with the time block? I would then need to make a decision about what is most important and do it on the fly instead of centralizing the task and prioritizing at the beginning of the day and spreading across time blocks, expecting that it can change. I have this idea in my head that I need to have free time for people to schedule meetings with me, and it’s difficult to let go of that. We have all these automatic tools now. If I schedule every minute of every day, my next free block cannot be until tomorrow. There are ways to get around this.
  • Nick: I like what you said about taking the need to decide out of the equation by listing it as a priority at the beginning of the day, even if it changes over the course of the day. This one is tough…so tough in my mind it makes me not want to do it. I tend to shy away from too much structure like this. I can certainly appreciate the “overflow block” idea presented, which provides structure for chaos in a way (which is what our days tend to be). You could skim a part of this book and come away with the idea that you need to be an inflexible jerk, but that’s not what the author is suggesting. I’m walking the fence between too helpful and too selfish, trying not to be too much of either.
  • John: I totally get that. When you get asked to do something there’s this process we have to go through on where this aligns to me, my account team, my territory team, region, and company. By saying yes to one thing I am saying no to something else (i.e. giving precedence of one to the other). Your manager can easily make that decision for you, but you don’t want to get tagged as someone who needs guidance all the time.
  • Nick: If you’re in a shorthanded department, for example, getting the manager to prioritize something for you doesn’t make you look like you lack prioritization skills in my mind. To your point, you don’t want to be seen as always needing advice on what you should work on next.
  • John: Sometimes it’s more like I have 6 hours of work to complete in the next 4 hours, which is physically impossible. Right now I may be too close to understand the order in which I should do these and need management’s oversight. If management is not providing guidance but assigning more work than can be done, that’s a problem.

Does it make me want to change behavior, and if so, what will I change to align myself with this idea?

  • John: Yes. There must be a happy medium here between fully booked and having some open blocks. I could easily fill in my daily empty slots with tasks that I need to accomplish. That is, pre-schedule every task to a specific time (based on the task’s deadline). This would be pretty easy to do with current tools, and I can maintain my availability easily as well. Scheduling a block of time and marking myself as free allows others to see when I am available. I can give myself some general structure, but if someone needs me, there are things they can schedule over. My reservation is I can’t appear to be unavailable for an entire day.
  • Nick: If someone has to ask every time they want to schedule a meeting with you, that is more interruptions.
  • John: I want them to be able to use tools to look at my calendar and just send an invite, making it easy for important interactions. But I also want the structure to be able to say here’s what I want to get accomplished and loosely schedule it, knowing I will do some juggling.
  • Nick: I really don’t want to schedule every minute of my day. I think it goes back to the same issue you mentioned of wanting to be available for other people. I like your compromise idea. This one kind of makes me want to change, but I’m going to leave it there.
  • John: Maybe I will commit to trying to do this for the next 30 days and see how it goes. If it’s a total failure very early on, it is easy to stop. If it’s successful but too much work, I can then stop.
  • Nick: I think what I just heard you do was commit to writing a blog post about this trial period. Is that right?
  • John: One of my goals for reading and applying deep work was to generate more content, including blog posts. If you’re hearing this is the far future and can’t find where I’ve written about it, contact me and ask where it was published.
  • Nick:

22:58 – Quantify the Depth of Every Activity

How long would it take (in months) to train a smart recent college graduate with no specialized training in my field to complete this task?

That is a way to assess how deep a task is. Then bias your activities towards deep activities. In other task philosophies, it is the opposite (get rid of the simple, quick task to get it off your plate without needing to record it). If something will only take 5 minutes, how important is it for you to do it at all? This starts to result in some hard questions up the chain. Listen to John’s example of this based on a specific situation.

25:56 – Reactions

Do I believe this and does this apply to me?

  • John: Yes, I find myself adding this filter in mentally for every task. Right now, I’m categorizing this as a “weeks” or “months” issue and not tracking it. It should be a simple task to formalize it. As soon as I say it’s simple, I realize it isn’t. A gut instinct on assigning a depth number should be a good enough first pass. I would probably need to fight against needing to get it too precise. Newport suggests tracking the number of months as the time measurement. The only time to closely examine things is when they’re on the border between deep and shallow. It’s also not really a prioritization number because there’s a difference between how deep something is and its priority. It’s a way to decide what to keep and what to try to shed.
  • Nick: I like quantifying the depth of your tasks to give an idea of the amount of deep work you’re accomplishing (i.e. the idea of tracking what reality is). It doesn’t mean I’m doing it all the time, but we should see what reality is and then what to do about it.
  • John: Even the binary classification of deep or shallow is better than not doing it at all. And recording it is better than not recording it.

Does it make me want to change behavior, and if so, what will I change to align myself with this idea?

  • John: I’d like to try to do this for a month to see how it affects my workflow. Maybe I’ll start off with deep or shallow only. I should assign a “deepness” number when recording the task (like 1 month or less, 6-12 months, and 1 year or more to get a feel for shallow / intermediate / very deep). I don’t have a way to add metadata to tasks, but I can just informally add a line at the top of each task at the time of its creation (or in the title). I’d still like to try it for 30 days, and then re-assessing should give me a good read on how it’s working or not working. I have to be careful assigning myself too many of these to report back on.
  • Nick: I know John will somehow get me back for encouraging him to do these 30 day test runs and report back.
  • John: It would be interesting to see how many people are reading along, made it to this point, and what they think about it. If you have a strong reaction to quantifying the depth of each task, Tweet at us, and let us know whether this makes sense to you. We’d love your feedback on
  • Nick: After hearing your reaction, my feedback is closer to the getting things done approach in some ways (especially for the 5 minute task that needs to be classified, etc.). Maybe it would be worth it if it was something recurring. I did experiment with this a little in the last few weeks on a notepad (classifying the depth of each activity as deep / shallow – only 2 options). It helped me batch together shallow items more efficiently than I would have otherwise. Is it easy to continue to do this? Absolutely not. It’s one thing to start doing it but another to keep at it. The latter is where I need more effort. At some point I fell off the horse and started working off the hot list again.
  • John: That’s interesting. Where do find these tasks coming from (e-mail, text, chat, outcome of a meeting, etc.)?
  • Nick: I would say it’s a mixture of all of those. Usually it’s I said I would do something, and I want to make sure I do what I committed to do. Sometimes it’s a really good idea I had that needs capturing but that isn’t as urgent as something else. I have not been classifying the source of the tasks, actually. If I have to spend too much time with a classification system I don’t know that I will stick to doing it, even if the payoff is worth it. I’m not sure if I’m being lazy or if I have this misconception about it being too much work out of the gate. I have a feeling there will be listeners who take the same stance.
  • John: In my experience, when you’re asking yourself to do work up front to save you work in the long run, that is difficult in general for humans. Who early on in their career is fanatical about putting money away for retirement? It may be the right time to do it, but it’s hard to think over that time frame. In order to do it, you need to make all of these things part of your process. I’m not saying that is easy to do. I feel your pain. I haven’t done it.
  • Nick: If I am being lazy here I fully admit it. It’s a bit of a struggle to get over the hump.
  • John: That instinct to just do short tasks is something we need to resist during deep work blocks. It is a distraction, and we should record it to do later. Fully recording what to do can be when we classify whether it’s a deep or shallow task.
  • This time John gives Nick homework.

Contact us if you’ve read Deep Work and have reactions you think we missed; we’d like to hear from you. Reach out if you have other books you’d recommend or if you need help on the journey.

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