I stole the concept of “deep work” from this guy’s blog, and maybe some other places that I can’t remember. I may be mangling the concept here, but my interpretation of it is the incredibly detailed and well thought out focus you give to a project or problem. Deep work is important, because without it, you can’t turn out work product that is of the highest caliber, or obtain your desired outcomes in the most efficient yet thorough way possible. In other words, if you’re just putting out fires all day, multitasking (which is really just rapid fire single-tasking, if you’re being honest with yourself), and checking items off a list as you rush to and fro, you are not really performing your best quality work and achieving the best possible outcome you can achieve.
I deal with this quite a bit in my own career. Handling a large caseload means you cannot devote all of the time you would ideally want to spend on a project, or give it the full attention your clients deserve, because doing so would mean that balls would get dropped on other matters. But you also know that if you don’t put in the time needed to thoroughly understand your client’s problem, formulate possibilities for solving it, and organize your analysis in order to produce a coherent strategy, you are potentially putting the client’s interests at risk.
Despite the jargony workplace lingo associated with this idea, deep work is just as necessary at home as it is in the office. You know that you should really sit down and figure out how much you are spending on groceries and see if you can eliminate food waste (I am Queen of Brown Salad Mix), and feed your family healthy meals without overspending. Even the little things add up – if you’re like me, you’re great at washing and drying laundry, but not at putting it away. How much time could we save, and how much more could we accomplish, if we didn’t spend 10 minutes every day searching the various and sundry piles of unsorted, wrinkled laundry for a clean shirt that actually matches your kid’s pants?
And now you know where this is heading. Even if you’ve been ruthlessly efficient and delivery the maximum value possible, at work and at home, your whole life, introduce children into the mix, and watch in anguish as your productivity declines. I have days home with the kids where I can’t even think because of the noise and commotion. And I’m not even talking about the thinking I need to do for a client, or to do my taxes, or to research something online. I’m talking about the thinking I need to do in order to decide whether the kids should have cold cereal for dinner or mac and cheese, like last night, because you have milk to use up that’s about to go bad, but you may be able to push it another day. If you don’t have problems like this, then congratulations – you’re not an overanalyzer like me, and you are probably a lot more comfortable skipping out on deep work than I am. For me, on the other hand, my brain gets filled with so many choices, strategies, and possible outcomes, that I sometimes just zone out in front of Netflix with my kids because dinner is just too complicated. Problem solved! Except, not really.
Maybe the problem is not seeking out the holy grail of time-saving measures that will give us the ability to do more deep work, but really, just learning how to tell when you need to shut everything out and focus, versus when you can sort of wing it and get by just fine. So if the kids want mac and cheese for the second day in a row and the milk is going to be thrown out, that’s the decision, and I am at peace with that. Later, when the kids decide that yelling “BOO-AH-AH, BOO-AH-AH, BOO-AH-AH!!!!!” 200 times in rapid succession while jumping on their beds is their new favorite playtime activity, I will calmly shut the door and fire off a few emails. Yes, I would rather work in silence and utilize a bit more focus on both the substance and structure of the messages. But sometimes it’s more important to send an imperfect or inartfully worded reply to a client who is waiting on pins and needles to hear from you, instead of hemming and hawing for an hour on the syntax of every sentence. In other words, “shallow work” is sometimes ok.
Image via WikiMedia Commons.