What Percentage of our Time Should we Spend on Shallow Work?

Percentage of time on shallow work
This is probably not a question we are used to asking — our boss or ourselves — and because in knowledge work, where most of us spend our time, it is harder to measure the value of what we do, we don't calculate it, or aren't aware of how much it is.

Cal Newport says knowledge work is afflicted by the metrics black hole — we measure everything, and yet we fail to measure two critical things when it comes to the majority of our work today:

1.) We don't tally the cost of using resources on one thing rather than another;

2.) we are not so good at knowing the impact in lost productivity of making trade-offs with attention.

We hear reward what gets measured for many corporate environments, but perhaps what happens is that we measure what we intend to reward.

In the practical recommendations section of Deep Work: the Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World Newport says we should “ask for a shallow work budget” from our boss. After explaining what “shallow” vs. “deep” work means, we should find the answer. Anyone working for themselves should do the same. He says:

For most people in non-entry-level jobs, the answer to the question will be somewhere in the 30 to 50 percent range (there's a psychological distaste surrounding the idea of spending the majority of your time on unskilled tasks, so 50 percent is a natural upper limit, while at the same time most bosses will begin to worry that id this percentage gets too much lower than 30 percent you'll be reduced to knpwledge work hermit who thinks bit thoughts but never responds to emails.)

For anyone who wants to decrease their percentage considerably and become more effective in their roles, I have an example from a CEO with whom I worked for several years. He had two kinds of responses to inquiries — 1./ “let's discuss”; and 2./ “see what you can do.” His behavior aligned with his communication style, if we could handle something ourselves, great. After all. he had hired because he thought we could handle work decisions of a certain kind. For the first response, we would put our heads together.

Those were some of the most productive, enjoyable, and interesting years in my career where we had also some of the best results in business. A terrific team and a leader who walked the talk. But as many of us learn, the exceptions are few. Back to Cal Newport and the 30 to 50 percent budget range for shallow work – that is:

Noncongnitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend not to create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate.

Dan Pink called this rote work easy to outsource in A Whole New Mind: Moving from the Information Age to the Conceptual Age, where we learned about the business relevance and importance of design, story, symphony, empathy, play, and meaning. All work that requires depth to develop.

Says Newport:

Obeying this budget will likely require changes to your behavior. You'll almost certainly end up forced into saying no to projects that seem infused with shallowness while also more aggressively reducing the amount of shallowness in your existing projects. This budget might lead you to drop the need for a weekly status meeting in preference for results-driven reporting (“let me know when you've made significant progress; then we'll talk”). It might also lead you to start spending more mornings in communication isolation or decide it's not as important as you once thought to respond quickly and in detail to every cc'd email that crosses your inbox.

As the saying goes — “nothing good ever comes from hitting reply all.” Making the changes will help us become more aware of where we spend our time and acquire discipline along with new habits.

Another organizational challenge this may help with is the “hair on fire mode.” Anyone who has worked in corporate America is familiar with the drill. Someone, somewhere delayed making a decision for whatever reason and now all of a sudden everyone needs to mobilize for a near-due occurrence. A very expensive proposition that drains in the metric black hole for knowledge workers. Hence the other saying, “your lack of preparation does not constitute an emergency on my part.”

This is not a profitable way to respond to the changing marketing landscape brought about by digital with speed. In fact, it's an organizational energy drain.

Agreement may be the highest form of misunderstanding

Cal Newport suggest this is a good conversation to have with a boss, including with ourselves if that is how we work, because:

The reason why these decisions should start with a conversation with your boss is that this agreement establishes implicit support from your workplace. If you work for someone else, this strategy provides cover when you turn down an obligation or structure a project to eliminate shallowness. You can justify the move because it's necessary for you to hit your prescribed target mix of work types.


part of the reason shallow work persists in large quantities in knowledge work is that we rarely see the total impact of such efforts on our schedule. We instead tend to evaluate these behaviors one by one in the moment — a perspective from which each task can seem quite reasonable and convenient.

To measure such impact we thus need to make it explicit and tie it to the business' goals, which are to generate value. Hard numbers provide the necessary backup and confidence to trim what is non essential to creating that value. Of course, there are all kinds of business environments and different people see things differently. Says Newport:

Of course, there's always the possibility that when you ask this question the answer is stark. No boss will explicitly answer, “One hundred percent of your time should be shallow!” (unless you're entry level, at which point you need to delay this exercise until you've built enough skills to add deep efforts to your official work responsibilities), but a boss might reply, in not so many words, “as much shallow work as is needed for you to promptly do whatever we need from you at the moment.”

In this case, the answer is still useful, as it tells you that this isn't a job that supports deep work, and a job that doesn't support deep work is not a job that can help you succeed in our current information economy. You should, in this case, thank the boss for the feedback, and then promptly start planning how you can transition into a new position that values depth.

There is also another possibility that sits behind the “as much shallow work as required answer, and that is that the answer is a placeholder for “I don't know. Either way, Newport's advice is worth considering for making an important decision about the type of work we want. In other words, we should agree for the right reasons, and not just to go along.


In a recent article about how work isn't working, NOBL founder Budd Caddell talks about the five conflicts at work (my take on publishing is that it is much preferable to use a creator mindset and an owned URL – much like Dave Winer says. This is also in line with deep vs. shallow, a conversation for another post.)

One of the conflicts Caddell lists is “Control vs. Agency. He says:

What it sounds like:

“It seems like no one trusts us to make even simple decisions for ourselves.”

“Anyone can kill an idea, but almost no one has the authority to actually say yes.”

“We recruit really smart people and then we discourage their intelligence at every turn.”

“We get asked for our feedback with a survey but I’ve never seen anything put into practice. I think it’s just lip-service.”

The deep vs. shallow work question is a good signal to understand if an environment and culture are constructed to empower human agency or not. Caddell suggests what's required is:

  1. Talent density
  2. Business training
  3. A definition of catastrophic failure
  4. Trained coaches
  5. A system for feedback accountability

And an openness to valuing depth.


[image via Pixabay CC0 Public Domain]


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