Drain The Shallows.

Concluding our Deep Work series, we look at Cal Newport's final rule, focusing on task prioritisation.

Drain The Shallows.

The final rule of deep work.

To conclude our Deep Work rules series, we're discussing the final step of 'Draining the shallows'. In summary, this advocates thoughtful task organisation and prioritisation; ensuring you focus your time and efforts on the rewarding work that truly matters.

By viewing tasks by varied 'depth', we can categorise the deeper tasks as more meaningful, and aim to avoid the shallow work that can be classified as menial. Shallow tasks require very little thought, focus, or skill, and these can usually be done while multitasking or generally zoning out to some degree.  

When establishing tasks by depth, we can quickly create an effective schedule for our days by prioritising that which demands focus and care. A common idea here is to 'eat the frog', which refers to tackling the most testing and awkward of tasks first rather than getting bogged down with other distractions and less meaningful work.

Putting it into practise.

To begin draining the shallows, there is a simple two step plan to follow.

  1. Define and prioritise tasks according to depth.

Firstly, you need to structure your work. Use organisational tools or even the simple act of writing down a to-do list. Once you've outlined your work, decide which is most urgent and of 'depth', so that you can prioritise your schedule accordingly.

2. Create a schedule, and use overflow conditional blocks if necessary.

Often we miscalculate how long a task may take. This can be an excellent discovery when the cloud of tasks raining down on you only takes a brisk morning of typing to complete... but often we underestimate the amount of work required. To counteract this, allocate additional 'overflow' blocks of time to either continue your tasks, or to complete other work.

Know your limits.

Once you’ve hit your deep work limit in a given day, you’ll experience diminishing rewards if you try to cram in more.

Previously, we examined the Pomodoro technique. This advocated deep work for 25 minute segments, punctuate by short breaks. The breaks are designed to refresh our minds, and help us keep maintained focus towards a task for longer and at a higher quality.

The Pomodoro Technique
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The example often used to illustrate the need for such breaks, is the simple act of pouring a glass of water; If you fill a glass to the brim, then any excess water poured into the glass would simply overflow and be lost. Equally, our focus towards a particular task can have a limit, meaning that we need to take a break once our limit is reached—to reset and start the process again.

Whilst you should aim to drain the shallows, be aware that shallow work is largely crucial to many everyday operations and therefore cannot be fully eliminated. When your deep work limit is breached, you can divert your attention to the everyday little tasks that may seem trivial... or perhaps you can spend some time dreaming up ways to automate them and further kill potential daily distractions.