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An Argument Against "Deep Work"

CJ Chilvers
CJ Chilvers
2 min read

Deep Work is all the rage, and has been for a few years. It's refreshing to have some push back against it, if at least to have some diversity of opinion.

Tiago Forte, a productivity consultant, was recently interviewed for the Evernote podcast. He opposes the concept of deep work:

"You know, I get it. People are feeling frazzled and just scatterbrained and all these things. But I really think this idea that you’re sort of this monastic knowledge worker, that you’re going to enter your chambers and just think deeply for hours and hours and hours on end, is a holdover from that freelance specialist mindset. And following up on that idea of a generalist as a freelancer, to do that effectively you need a portfolio. You can’t have just one narrow skill that you do."
"If you look at the history of manufacturing, one of the great, great insights that took decades and decades to discover was small batches, right? That was one of the key breakthroughs to better quality, to speed, to more throughput, to more profitability in manufacturing. And then you go to knowledge work and you have the deep work thing, which is another way of saying big batch sizes. Deep work, spending hours and hours in deep flow, is a big batch size. So it’s like we’ve completely gone against decades of experience in manufacturing."

I think I understand what he's saying, but I'm not sure it opposes deep work as much as he thinks. Plus, I think Cal Newport was arguing that small batching was a good thing for "productivity," but a bad thing for deep human thought, which in turn became scarce and, therefore, more valuable.

I could spent hours crafting a single, long weekly blog post that would serve me better in terms of Google SEO and, later, compiling easy ebooks to sell. That would be deep work. It would take hours of concentrating. It's what every expert says I should be doing (and they may be right).

Or, I could write short blog posts (like this one) that get an idea that's churning in my head out into the world quickly. Done daily, it gives the reader much more variety in subject matter to read, which it seems, the reader does prefer. It's a process. It's a habit. It's what Seth Godin would recommend. It's not necessarily deep work.

I could still compile ebooks or courses from shallow work (or any long-form material), but it would require deep work at the other end. For instance, I put the last 400+ posts from this blog into Scrivener. It will take weeks (maybe months) to combine posts by subject matter and edit them into chapters. That's a huge amount of deep work, but it happens all at once and it's based on many small batch tasks. This obviously works for someone like Seth Godin.

Not so much for me. As an aside, that project isn't going so well, as it's creating something like 12 small books of no consequence, rather than a cohesive compilation like A Lesser Photographer. That's OK. It's more data. It's tells me that what I did in those 400 posts didn't work as well as the previous 400. Maybe I'm more of a generalist now, like Tiago. Or, maybe it's time for a change.

He may also be saying that the work really isn't just the product. It's everything that goes along with it. It's the dozens of tasks that have to happen to make the posts and books happen. None of that is deep work, nor should it be.

It's great food for thought. But, I wouldn't want to small batch the thought.