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Death by Tasks

Once upon a time, there was a to-do list filled to the brim…

Isn’t that the story of your life? 

Every day you wake up knowing you have a massive amount of tasks you must complete today. These tasks range from meetings to filing reports to calling clients or emailing co-workers. You’ve got a full plate of tasks, and it’s almost always impossible to finish everything on your plate daily.

Death by tasks. Boy, does it feel like that sometimes!

Here’s the problem: most of the tasks we complete each day don’t add a lot of value to our work. They’re simply things we need to get done, or things we think need to be done, in order for things to keep moving forward. Contrary to popular belief, small shallow tasks won’t get you far.

Cal Newport, the writer of the book Deep Work, wrote this about small, shallow tasks, “Shallow Work: Noncognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend to not create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate.”

Based off that quote, do you spend a lot of time in shallow work? If so, you’re not alone. The majority of people on earth do shallow, non-valuable work everyday. Some of this work is necessary, but most of it isn’t adding much value.

So what can you do about shallow, low-value tasks? Here are a few suggestions:

1. Specify One or Two Goals

In our podcast series “Your First Steps Toward Great Leadership (part 2),” we describe the importance and process of goal-setting. When setting goals, ensure you only have one or two goals at a time, or else you’ll likely not achieve any goals. How does this relate to deep work? Well, if you don’t know where aim, how can you fire? Without clear goals, you can’t do deep work and will remain in the frustrating cycle of shallow tasks.

Chris McChesney and Sean Covey sum up this point in their book The Four Disciplines of Execution“...human beings are genetically hardwired to do one thing at a time with excellence.” Put another way, you’ll have to learn to say no to other tasks and projects outside of your goals in order to do one or two things with excellence.

2. Spend intentional time in deep work

When is the last time you set aside a chunk of time to focus on one thing? It’s actually proven that the more time you schedule for deep work, the more work you’ll get done and more value you’ll add to your work. 

I intentionally schedule time every week to go somewhere quiet and focus on one of my current goals: developing leaders. This involves a lot of mental-work, thinking through ideas and writing out concepts for better leadership development. The truth is, this isn’t easy for me to do. I often feel guilty spending so much time thinking about one thing, and I get distracted easily. But I’ve learned how valuable it is for me to focus on my goal rather than dozens of shallow tasks.

3. Do one hard thing each week

Lee Cockerell, an author and retired Executive VP of Operations at Walt Disney World, gave me invaluable advice last November when I sat down to get coffee with him: do one hard thing each week (read our conversation here). Such a simple concept, but one that many people struggle with. Fighting the urge to stay in the shallow-end of work is difficult, because shallow is generally easier! But what Lee challenged me to do went beyond the shallow and into the deep. 

At the start of your week, choose one hard thing to do. It may be having a difficult conversation with a co-worker, or taking a large leap toward one of your goals. Whatever it is, doing hard things requires deep work. Get out of the shallows and dive into hard things!

4. Let some balls drop

A great juggler will let one ball drop to save the whole performance. There’s some wisdom to that when it relates to tasks. Most people build up in their heads that if one task is dropped all their work will fail. I’m living proof that this isn’t true.

Earlier this year, I was feeling overwhelmed by shallow tasks. I was working hard at small tasks, and almost getting no where. The best thing I ever did was walk into my boss’s office and share how I felt. I told him I felt overworked. I told him how I hated little tasks that lacked value. He told me to drop some tasks, or delegate them. Clear my plate and focus on what is most important, because that’s my job! And since that meeting, my shallow tasks are limited to only includes what is necessary

Don’t be a victim of shallow tasks. Take control of your life and do some hard, deep work!

If you’re desiring to learn how to do deep work, read Cal Newports book called Deep Work: Rule for Focused Success in a Distracted World.