Deep Work Is Not Necessarily Purposeful

The World Economic Forum recently published How To Decide What To Spend Your Time And Energy On (March 4, 2016).  In this ever-busy, hyper-connected world of work, author Ash Read covers a necessary and important topic. Read rightly points out that much of our time is spent doing “shallow work”—work that may be necessary, but that ultimately creates or adds little value. Shallow work largely consists of tasks such as replying to emails, returning calls, scheduling meetings, etc. Additionally, shallow work may include mundane work that your boss has directed you to do, work that has “always been done this way”, or work that you think someone else might want you to do for them. According to Cal Newport, Assistant Professor of Computer Science at Georgetown University and author at Study Hacks Blog, shallow work might just as easily be done by someone else with minimum training and attention. The key in recognizing shallow work is that the return of value-add on the investment of time is low. 

Yet, despite poor returns on investment, many of us spend most of our time on shallow work. Why do we do this? The allure of shallow work is the immediacy of feeling productive and checking off items on our to-do list. I must admit that at times I have even put already-completed items on my to-do list just so that I could quickly check them off and get a swift kick of rewarding dopamine. It is rewarding to clear out that inbox or check off that box, yet we pay a price in terms of real accomplishment and contribution.  

In addition to the frequent but fleeting sense of reward, why else might we spend so much time engaged in such shallow work? Both the author and personal experience suggest that we may do this because of insecurity engendered by fear: fear of falling behind, fear of missing out, fear of lost opportunity. Underneath each fear is the fear of loss: loss of control, loss of status, and loss of image. In humans, the defensive aversion to loss, which Kahneman and Tversky have demonstrated is psychologically twice as powerful as anticipated gains, is certainly powerful enough to drive an ever-increasing busyness at the expense of adding long-term value.  

What, then, are our alternatives to pursuing the fleeting reward of shallow work and staving off insecurity and fear? The author suggests that we should rather engage in “deep work”—work consisting of “cognitively demanding activities that leverage our training to generate rare and valuable results”. That is, we should focus on what is important rather than urgent, and on doing work that others cannot do as well as we can. We should say ‘no’ to the rest. This is, in one sense, classic strategy: choosing what not to do. However, we are now left with a nagging question: how do we know what is really important? The author provides us with a number of useful, but still tactical choices, but not with a tool or an instrument to determine what is important. Moreover, this tool should help us create strategic clarity in a continuous and sustainable way. So then, what might this tool look like and how might we create it?  

To answer the question of importance, we must ask ourselves a different one, one that is often overlooked in the time-urgent, fast-paced work environment: “Why am I doing this?” The only way to answer this question is to discover and articulate your purpose.  

Your purpose answers in a deep and profound way why any and all activity—including but not exclusive to work—is important and meaningful.  More than a strategy or strategic plan, it is a strategic philosophy. It will articulate your unique capabilities and the contributions you can make, identify those who benefit most from what you have to offer, and integrate your deepest passions, infusing energy into everything you are doing. It will help you go beyond deciding what is merely important and help you determine what is meaningful to the benefit and well-being of others. Therefore, while deep work may be more productive than shallow work, it is not necessarily purposeful. The only way to identify and sustain deep work is to align it with your strategic philosophy as articulated by your purpose. 

The same holds true for businesses as well. Like individuals, businesses too often pursue urgent yet shallow work rather than deep (i.e. value-adding) work. Without the strategic clarity provided by a well-articulated purpose, they have no way of filtering opportunities and activities by importance.  Historically, strategy, driven by the ideal of sustainable competitive advantage, was largely dictated by a focus on competitors rather than customers. Great amounts of time and energy were spent looking to exploit even the slightest competitive advantage and often pulled businesses into inefficient and unprofitable directions. But, as we have articulated elsewhere (see Distinction: The Noble Way to Win), the notion of even transient competitive advantage is insufficient for a business to discover and deliver on its purpose.

At Lapin International, we believe every individual, every team, and company already has a higher purpose. For most, this purpose is implicit and must be discovered and made explicit. Further, a reliable and robust method is necessary to learn how to discover it accurately and articulate it clearly so that it answers the why question in a deep and profound way. It is the uncovering of individual and corporate Purpose that is at the core of what we do in both in our consulting and in our coaching. So, while it is most certainly useful to differentiate between shallow and deep work, we argue that it is more powerful to differentiate between work that is not purposeful and work that is on purpose. 

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