Deep v shallow work

view of wooden steps taken underwater

I was recently asked to be one of the guest lecturers for a new undergraduate subject at the University of Melbourne, the Future of Work. I will be leading the sessions on new forms of work and innovation & entrepreneurship. As a result, I’ve been diving even more deeply into writing about the future of work and related subjects than I was already.

This morning I came across this article in Time magazine on time management. I don’t usually read such articles, because there is so much guff around. But this one intrigued me because the title had “backed by research”. So I read it.

I actually found that the crux of the article tied in very closely to the future of work issues I have been thinking about for a while, back to the Future of Work conference in April of this year.

The basic concept is that there is a distinction between deep and shallow work. Think about your own work – sometimes you’ll get home and think “I didn’t stop all day, but I don’t really feel I got anything done.” That’s probably because you spent the day doing shallow work – emailing people, going from meeting to meeting, preparing that PowerPoint presentation, inputting data into your organisation’s management systems. Other days, you’ll come and tell whoever you come home to “I had a great day, got loads done, really feel I moved forward”. That’s when you’re doing deep work. The cognitive, interesting stuff you signed up for in the first place.

The relevance of this distinction to the future of work is twofold, as I see it:

  • As people seek, or even expect, purpose in their work, the suggestion is they will want to focus on deep work
  • The routine tasks of shallow work, maybe not the emails and meetings, but the research, PowerPoints, data entry etc are more and more easily automated and/or outsourced. Even the emails are moving that way – Google now has an app that suggests answers to emails for you and artifical intelligence research is creating services like x.ai, which uses artificial intelligence to schedule your meetings.

The philosophical question is whether there will in the future be a deep/shallow split not within the one person, but between people? And what then are the implications for the “purpose” for the people that are just doing shallow tasks for other people and indeed only those that haven’t been automated? Does this tie in with the move to freelancing/digital nomadism – with people seeking to finding meaning in other ways than their work and seeing work as purely transactional to enable them to do things that mean more? Are we seeing a return to pre-industrial relationships where knowledge workers provide work for an eco-system of highly specialised workers? We have no way of answering those questions as this point in time, but it will be interesting to see how this relationship develops. In the meantime, I will continue to find ways to do as much deep work as I can possibly manage.

Published by Antonia

I'm a British citizen and European Union offical, who lives in Brussels again after 6 years in London and 8 in Melbourne. I went to the London School of Economics and University of Melbourne. In 2008 I took part in the Eisenhower Fellowship Multination Programme, the subject of 3 of my blogs. You can find me on Twitter as @antoniamochan or @antoniam

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