How a Shallow Work Checklist Gives You Back Your Focus

By Nat Eliason in Productivity

Published or Updated on Jun 23, 2016

How many times do you walk into a room and then ask yourself:

“What was I supposed to be doing here?”

It’s been happening to me for years in the physical world, whether I went somewhere for a specific purpose, or ended up somewhere without any reason for being there at all.

I might sit on the couch with no particular goal, and then absentmindedly pick up the remote and turn on the TV. Or I might be standing around waiting for someone, and passively pull out my phone and check Twitter.

I’ve started noticing it happening on the Internet, too. I’ll open a new tab, not remember why I did it, and end up on Medium. Or I’ll hit a moment where I’m not sure the next step in an article (say, this one) and suddenly I’m in a new tab checking my site stats or app revenue.

I didn’t realize how big an issue this was until I started to focus more on my writing.

Any valuable creative work requires long uninterrupted stretches of focus, what Cal Newport calls “Deep Work,” and if you can’t create them for yourself then it’s hard to produce your best output.

I didn’t entirely buy this until I started testing it. Writing for a few weeks while allowing myself to jump around when I felt like I needed a mental break, I would average about 2,200 words per day.

But when I started seriously implementing the Deep Work principles, my daily average output shot up to closer to 3,900 words per day. I nearly doubled my daily output, despite using the same amount of writing time.

While social media, YouTube, and other fun things are distracting, I realized that the biggest impediment to my output was the shallow work: all the little tasks that creep in that you feel like you need to do right now, but in reality are neither urgent nor especially important. AKA fauxductivity.

If you find yourself checking email, Facebook, Twitter constantly, checking site or sales stats, or any sort of light work that isn’t your most important task, that’s usually a kind of shallow work. And in order to get the big things done, you need to batch together and cut out as much shallow work as possible to not let it constantly interrupt your periods of deep focus.

The first step is to create a timeframe for it. Set a certain period of the day aside where you’re allowed to do the shallow work, and don’t let yourself at it any other time of day.

For me, I only allow myself to do it in the one hour before lunch, usually from 1pm to 2pm. Any other time of day I’m not allowed to check email, stats, etc.

The second step is to create a checklist of what that shallow work consists of. Instead of thinking of those tasks as something you do whenever you’re not sure what to do, you want to treat them like a daily checklist you run through, like your morning routine, and then don’t touch for the rest of the day.

It’s like having a cheat day for your diet. Resisting cake is hard when you think you can’t have it for the rest of your life, but it’s easy when you know you can have all you want on Saturday.

So for you, if you want to free up more time to focus on your most important creative task, try creating a checklist and then relegating all of those tasks to only be done during one or two periods of your day (or more, if you absolutely need to).

The benefit to treating it like a checklist is that once you’ve gone through it, you’re done. You don’t need to set aside the full hour for shallow work, because maybe you didn’t get many emails that day and you can get it all done in 10 minutes. Or maybe some days you don’t need the second period at all.

And by giving yourself an upper limit on how long you can spend on it, you take advantage of Parkinson’s Law and get it done faster than you otherwise would.

Making it is simple enough. First, identify what your deep work consists of. These are the few tasks that have the biggest impact on your most important output. For me, those are writing, reading, and synthesis. For you it might be coding, designing, making sales calls, writing ad copy, strategic planning, carving wood, you should know what it is.

Then, identify everything you need to do on a semi-regular basis that isn’t that. Be sure to only include items that you truly need to do, not just enjoy doing. Everything on the fauxductivity list falls into this category, as would any other managerial, organizational, and other small tasks that are necessary evils for your work.

Here’s mine:

  • Checking site stats
  • Checking sales stats
  • Checking Mailchimp
  • Extracting notes from notebooks
  • Checking / responding to Email
  • Checking / responding on Slack
  • Checking Twitter

Then, set one or two periods of your day exclusively for working through this checklist. Keep the checklist in an Evernote note or where you’ll have easy access to it, and when you start your shallow work periods, focus exclusively on burning through your checklist.

This way you’re not letting these small tasks creep in throughout the day, and when you’re doing them, you’re completely focused on getting them done. No more wasting time on them, and no more losing your focus to them.

As you keep working, you’ll notice things that you need to add to your list, other small tasks you forgot you need to do. Just tack them on to the end, and work through them with the rest of your checklist when the time comes.

Once you do this, you’ll find it significantly easier to stay focused on the big tasks at hand, without worrying about all the little things.


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