Shallow Work

“Shallow Work: Noncognitively demanding, logistical-stye tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend not create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate.”

I started off agreeing with the premise of Cal Newport’s Deep Work, that there are some types of work that demand focused, deep thought. I find myself seriously cranky about having it opposed to what he calls ‘shallow work’ in the quote above. Not that I disagree functionally about how those different kinds of work operate. But there’s a presumed value to deep work, and a consequent devaluing of shallow work that I think is deeply misleading.

Shallow work is accretive by nature, is the thing. Any random blog post I write here may be inconsequential, but the accumulation of a long series of them about cancer, or parenting, or writing can accrete into something valuable and worthwhile and even new. (Not that novelty is the most important thing either, and now I’m looking at doctoral programs that expect you to contribute something ‘new’ to the sum of human knowledge, and wonder who came up with that requirement anyway.)

Consider parenting — any given dinner you make for the kids, any given holiday you celebrate with special foods and activities, can probably be skipped without much trouble. (Though Kavi did get teary a bit when we told her that I had to cancel our Easter party and egg hunt to go help my parents this weekend; we were quick to console her with the promise that we’d do a belated one later this week. These things matter to children, beyond all reason.)

As an adult, you’re not going to remember one Christmas more or less, one dinner table or car errand conversation. Few of those individually will be significant. But a) a few of them will be significant, though you can’t predict which ones in advance, and b) the accretion of them creates significant value. Taking your elderly relative for a daily walk. Dropping off casseroles to the chemo patient’s families. Washing the children’s soiled bedding.

When Newport says these kinds of tasks don’t create ‘new value’ in the world, it’s true that they are unlikely to produce world-changing paradigm shifts, or brilliant, ground-breaking novels, or new math. Fair enough. But the world is made up of the bonds between people, and the daily maintenance of those bonds (women’s work, so often) is critical to the continued functioning of the world. It is the essential labor on which all else rests. If Thoreau’s mother didn’t do his laundry, would he have written Walden?

Seriously, if I didn’t have novels to write, I’d be tempted to write a companion book to this one, titled _Shallow Work_. Because that one quote made me just a little bit furious.

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2 thoughts on “Shallow Work”

  1. I don’t think that he would characterize the work your describing as shallow. Family holidays, helping a neighbor, writing a blog post, those actions are not typically done while distracted and I would argue do add something new to the world. That’s why they become more valuable as they accumulate. I believe he is talking about things like answering email, doing laundry etc. which a certain amount have to be done to function but when we get totally caught up in we can spend all our time on and never get to the deep work. (My House was never so clean as when I was writing my dissertation!)

  2. This post is fascinating. It would be great if you could write such a book, or else expand this post slightly and publish it as a magazine article somewhere!

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