“Shallow work keeps you from getting fired. Deep work gets you the promotion.” Cal Newport
Drawing the distinction between depth and shallowness will show you where to maximize and minimize your time, but the role of shallow work in our lives cannot be written out entirely.
The shallow work that surrounds the life of a musician, and especially that of a music teacher, is significant. Most violin teachers who operate in a small organization or completely alone take on roles of work that would be delegated to others in larger organizations. The responsibility of scheduling, billing, planning, organizing, and marketing falls on one person’s shoulders.
I’ve already discussed how I prioritize deep work, and drain as much of the shallow work as I can, but I do want to take time to walk through the system I have in place to make sure the minutiae doesn’t take away from the most important work of my day.
The way I handle shallow work is inspired primarily by David Allen’s system of Getting Things Done. His book by the same name gives a complete, thorough system that will reduce the ambiguity and anxiety that probably surrounds your to-do list.
The system as it applies to the shallow work I do as a violin teacher can be broken down into three parts.
“The brain is for having ideas, not holding them.” David Allen
David Allen’s system is built on the hypothesis that our brain treats all of the thoughts we have as incomplete, and regards the actions we actualize in real life as complete. The problem is that we have hundreds of thoughts each day that we aren’t able to actualize in the moment (we can’t pick up a new pack of batteries in the middle of orchestra rehearsal, for example) and yet that doesn’t keep our brain from thinking those thoughts. So we walk around with hundreds of open loops, with few opportunities to close them. And more often then not, our brain seldom ever chooses to remind us of that open loop while we are in the proper context (batteries while at the grocery store).
Furthermore, Allen proposes that to our psyche there is no difference between an open loop regarding batteries and an open loop regarding hugely important career responsibilities. The incompletion of either loop leaves us equally stressed and anxious. This might explain why when you are practicing for the most significant recital of your career, your brain continues to remind you of incomplete homework, the tires that need to be changed, and emails you must send.
The way to end this cycle of stress and anxiety? Get these loops out of your head and into a trusted system.
For me this means typing any idea, urge, to-do, reminder, date, quote that comes to mind. It doesn’t even matter if the thought is inconsequential or doesn’t need action, I get it out of my working mind and into my Wunderlist inbox.
Once I did this for a few weeks I became very conscious of the nature of my working mind. If I was nervous about something, that nagging open loop would keep popping up in my mind throughout the day. But once I had it captured in a system that I trusted to eventually take care of an issue, those thoughts no longer interrupted my work.
Some of our open loops are conveniently captured in an inbox for us. Email, phone calls, text messages homework assignments, shared calendars are banks of information and to-do’s that we don’t have to do the work of compiling, just organizing. Which brings me to the next part of my shallow work management system…
Sort Ideas Into Contexts
Once you have every loop captured, it’s just a mater of processing and sorting the relevant item into a context in which it is most likely to get done.
Upcoming events and hard commitments go straight onto my iCalendar.
Things that need to be done as soon as possible are sorted onto my next action list. I ask myself, what is literally the next step I need to take to move forward on this project? Is it a phone call? A little bit of research online? Or do I need to wait for another friend to get back to me about their plans before I move forward? The next action, whatever I decided needs to be done, is put on a list related to the context in which I would do that thing best. Computer work goes on my computer list; emails to be drafted go on my email list; errands to be run go on my errands list. All I do to start processing these next actions is take a glance at my next action list when I’m in the appropriate context.
There are two other forms of inbox items that I process. One is general information, which I usually store in a reference system in Evernote or archive in my email application. The other is plans, goals or thoughts about the future, which I store in a note in Evernote called “Someday/Maybe.” This is where I collect my ideas for presents, general health goals, lists of books I’d like to read, places I’d like to travel, and blog posts I’d like to write.
Perform A Weekly Review
It is extremely difficult to capture everything from my head and to cleanly process everything in my inbox for weeks at a time without getting backlogged or worn out. This is where the power of the weekly review comes in.
I set aside a few hours on Sunday morning to make sure everything is dumped out of my head, on my calendar, in my next action list, filed for reference, or noted for someday/maybe. A take the time to write my grandmother a synopsis of what I’ll be doing in the next week, which primes my brain to think about my commitments and to backwards build big projects. I also try to process everything that got caught in my system that would take less than two minutes to complete (a surprisingly large amount of tasks).
By setting aside time for this review I …
- am rarely stressed that something has slipped through the cracks
- don’t have to spend too much time up the clouds thinking about the big picture, and can just get more shallow work done
- can easily get back on track if I fall off the wagon
The small stuff is small stuff, but it nevertheless must still get done. Above I’ve outlined a fairly detailed process for how I handle the surges of small stuff in my life, not because it is more important that deep work but because I don’t want it to interfere with my deep work. Your process will probably not look the same as mine, but I would recommend having as detailed of a process as possible. You wouldn’t want to risk letting inappropriately managed office work affect your ability and the perception of your ability to do deep, quality teaching.