Shallow Productivity Advice

On productivity and organisation blogs, there are occasional articles about the overwhelming importance of Deep Work. How distractions must be avoided at all costs. How your environment is distracting you. How your vary colleagues are even now tempting you to the dark side of trivial busywork. How browsing anything is unproductive because it is intrinsically distracted. How complete sentences are a waste of time (OK, that last one might just be me). To a degree, they are right. Working memory is limited, and while there is some debate over the capacity it is definitely not large (this is one of the main premises behind the GTD methodology) (I know that wikipedia is not the best source ever, but this does cite research articles, and doesn’t require a university library to access). But they are overly simplistic. There is much more to work than deep work

First, there is the grunt work. This is not the same as busywork – replying to emails if (usually) busywork, while column chromatography is grunt-work: it does need to be done in and of itself, but is not particularly complicated. While grunt-work needs some focus to do correctly (and, for laboratory grunt-work, safely), it clearly needs far less than deep-work. The blogs where these articles appear would probably say that grunt-work is a necessary evil, which should be automated, delegated, or otherwise avoided wherever possible. Automation is a good idea for electronic grunt work, but physical objects are harder to automate. As for delegation, it’s good if you can do it, but if you, like me, are at the delegate stage of life rather than the delegater, then you’re out of options.

The praise of Deep Work also assumes that you know exactly what you are doing. CLosing the door on distraction can also close it on serendipity, and serendipity is one of the ways in which unknown unknowns become known. An example, from a lecture given by (Nobel Prize-winning chemist Robert Grubbs: at one point, none of some solvent that they were using was dry and, instead of drying the ‘right’ solvent, someone used a different solvent (which was already dry enough) to save time. The solvent reacted with whatever it was they were studying at that time, which taught them something about it. A Deep Worker would have taken the time to dry the normal solvent, and wouldn’t have had the unexpectedly interesting result. Deliberate browsing is another way to learn things you didn’t know you didn’t know, but that deliberate is important: spending a couple of minutes looking through the python sub-reddit once a day may be useful, but spending twenty minutes a day looking at captioned cats is definitely not.

Deep Work is important, particularly for writing things, and people do prefer the pass of least resistance, which generally involves busywork or excessive browsing, but simplistic advice doesn’t improve anything.

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  1. #1 by Bojan - Alpha Efficiency on September 17, 2013 - 11:51 am

    Are you trying to say that tips on what you should do, aren’t as important as “how to do it”?

    • #2 by nrgunby on September 18, 2013 - 8:52 pm

      More to understand why the tips work, instead of just mindlessly following them.

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