The main argument of Cal Newport’s book Deep Work was that significant work only comes through undisturbed and focussed effort, as opposed to the shallow work achieved when constantly interrupted by alerts. Newport saw shallow work as easily replicated and of little value. It’s a seductive and well-argued theory. His book gives many compelling examples for different types of deep work.
But lately I’ve been wondering if there’s a problem in that the old ways of working cannot easily be compared against something new and different. What if there are types of shallow work that are as powerful as deep work? And there would then also be people who function better at shallow work than others.
Deep work is much rarer these days than before the Internet – given the expectation for me to be reachable on teams and slack all day, there is less opportunity to focus on detailed tasks. In my recent project, some of my work on unfamiliar software has led me to working weekends, just to have uninterrupted time.
But I can see advantages to shallow work. With everyone being networked, knowledge is much more accessible. Information is not confined to books but can be accessed within seconds. I listened to a podcast where a film theorist explained that young people nowadays are discussing more sophisticated subjects than she was at their age. You can learn the basics of a new skill, or how to fix something, with a quick search.
When I started programming, the full APIs of the tools we used we on a shelf of books in the office. You were expected to remember as much of this as possible, and we were definitely judged on how often we crossed the room to look things up. Now, the APIs are all accessible in IDEs, and any problems can be quickly searched in StackOverflow. I used to read books on programming tools. Now I read a Quickstart guide and copy a few examples of what I need into that.
I love reading books. There’s a value to getting the texture of a subject, something you can’t get from a quick info-snack. Books also benefit from perspective – I’ve learned more about politics from accounts written a few years later than from the news.
But too many books are padded out to make sure they hit the right length to be sellable. I retain very little from the tens of thousands of words I read in a non-fiction text. And maybe not being tied to books as a learning technique will enable young people to learn faster. It’s exciting that there are so many ways to learn, and that ideas are being unbundled from books.
Like all things, it’s probably about balance, but I do worry that there is something missing from this debate, that there are advantages to the shallow work approach. I try to keep my alerts to a minimum, but it’s possible that managing a complicated media environment is just an essential modern skill and that something fundamental has changed.