Deep Work, Shallow Work and Frippery
As you begin to read this chapter, I invite you to participate in a short experiment: cut yourself off from electronic connections with the outside world for 30 minutes. If you are reading this from a physical book, turn off your phone and computer, find a comfortable chair and concentrate simply on reading for 30 minutes. If you are reading on an electronic device, switch it to airplane mode and don't use anything other than your reading app. Does this experiment sound difficult? Exhilarating? Old-fashioned? Perhaps you feel like Nicholas Carr, who wrote in his 2010 book, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, "Over the last few years I've had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain.. ..I'm not thinking the way I used to think. I feel it most strongly when I'm reading. I used to find it easy to immerse myself in a book or a lengthy article...That's rarely the case anymore....! get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do".
Osamu Shimomura shared the 2008 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his role in the discovery of green fluorescent protein (GFP), a molecule that glows a bright green and is now used in thousands of laboratories around the world as a vital tool in biological experiments. This success must have been hard to predict in 1945 when the then 16-year-old Shimomura was temporarily blinded by the detonation of the world's second atomic bomb over Nagasaki, 25 km from his home. In 1960, Shimomura was a researcher at Princeton University and was given the task of understanding the bioluminescence of jellyfish that were found in the coastal waters of Washington State. This required collecting jellyfish, lots and lots of jellyfish, so that various chemicals could be extracted from them. Shimomura later described his daily routine during the summer season in Washington: collecting jellyfish from six to eight o'clock in the morning, cutting rings of tissue from the jellyfish until noon and then spending the afternoon extracting chemicals from the tissue samples. After a dinner break, he spent two more hours collecting jellyfish. That probably isn't what you think of when you imagine a relaxing day at the beach. In the first summer he spent in Washington, Shimomura and the others working with him collected around 10,000 jellyfish.
Shimomura's routine of long summer days collecting and processing jellyfish continued for years, and these efforts were matched by long months in the lab in Princeton performing chemical purification experiments. By 1966, six years after his first trip to Washington, he had isolated the luminescent agent, now called aequorin, and felt that it should be possible to determine the molecule's structure. This experiment would require 100-200 mg (less than l/10th of a teaspoon) of purified aequorin. Obtaining this sample, however, would require processing roughly 50,000 jellyfish. This realization motivated the development of various tools such as mechanical cutting machines to catch and process thousands of jellyfish a day and improvements in lab-based purification methods. These development took roughly 20 years to come to fruition, during which Shimomura collected more than a million jellyfish.
It is worthwhile pausing to compare Osamu Shimomura's years of patient work to Nicholas Carr's description of having trouble maintaining the focus necessary to read a book. Which one feels more like your day-to-day efforts to focus on your work? Although Shimomura's decades-long quest to understand a bioluminescent molecule is an extreme example, it further highlights the observation from Chapter 1 that making substantial advances in any creative endeavor requires sustained attention and focus. In this chapter, we will discuss some of the patterns of thinking and day-to-day habits that can help you work in this way.
The title and many of the ideas in this chapter are adapted from Cal Newport's excellent book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. Newport is an academic computer scientist at Georgetown University who studies abstract theories of dynamic networks (sample journal article title: "Contention resolution on a fading channel"). Driven by his personal interest in achieving academic success while maintaining something resembling a normal life and family, he has thought carefully about work habits and collected these ideas in a series of widely read books. What is deep work? Newport defines it as
professional activities done in a distraction-free state
that push cognitive abilities to their limit.
All three parts of this definition are important. The focus on "professional activities" reminds us that this kind of work isn't done just for its own sake but is a core element of being successful in careers based on creative pursuits. The necessity for a "distraction-free state" hints at how easily distractions can destroy a complex train of thought. Finally, to accomplish something truly original and meaningful in any field of research is hard, so it can only be done if you are able to "push cognitive abilities to their limit".
The characteristics of deep work contrast with shallow work, which Newport defines as
undemanding logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted.
Shallow work isn't bad or unimportant. Ordering routine supplies for your lab so experiments can continue is shallow work. Recording the homework grades for students in the class you are teaching is shallow work. So is booking travel arrangements for the conference where you are giving a talk or completing the online ethics training your institution mandates annually for all employees. Failing to complete any of these tasks in a timely way can have intensely negative consequences, so they can't just be ignored. They don't, however, push your cognitive abilities to their limit or require complete and distraction-free concentration to be successfully completed.
Another characteristic of shallow work tasks is that spending more than the minimum amount of time they require is unlikely to yield much positive benefit. An exhaustive comparison of plane ticket options for your conference travel or a deep dive into the cancellation policies of the multiple hotels near the conference center isn't going to improve the conference talk you are preparing. Creating and using a complex multi-tiered grading structure with pens of three different colors is almost certainly not going to help the students in your class get more out of their homework assignments. Achieving a state in which you perform no shallow work is not a sensible goal, but it is sensible to find ways to minimize the time you spend to adequately complete the shallow work that must get done.
The definitions of deep work and shallow work make it clear that both kinds of work need to be part of a creative, research-based career. There is a third category of time use, however, that we all experience: frippery. This is an old-fashioned word that carries the ideas of something that is trifling, frivolous or empty. Playing a mindless game on your phone is frippery, as is following an acrimonious dispute among celebrities on your favorite social media platform. Completing a daily crossword may feel somehow more virtuous than Candy Crush or Instagram, but this too can be frippery. If an activity has no bearing at all on your professional work and you would feel vaguely embarrassed if someone measured the time you spent on it there is a good chance that this activity can be described as frippery.
By labelling some of the distractions that divert us as frippery I am not trying to say that all diversions are bad or that you should aim to become an automaton who works constantly to the exclusion of everything else. Finding ways to relax and recharge our mental and physical resources is important for everyone. It is useful, however, to explicitly identify these activities so you can allot time to them consciously instead of feeling that an entire afternoon or evening has disappeared without quite being able to tell what you did with your time. Just as importantly, we must realize that the habits we develop when we are not working also deeply influence us when we are working. This is the idea Nicholas Carr pointed to in the subtitle of his book, What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. Carr argued that constant exposure to a connected environment where clicking through to another link is far easier than thoughtful reading has broadly eroded our capacity for creative reflection and connection. To say this another way, repeated exposure to the stimulus overload of many Internet-enabled activities makes it fundamentally harder for us to maintain the focus that is a prerequisite for any kind of deep work.
The idea that spending time engaging in distraction-heavy activities subtracts from our long-term abilities to think clearly is not a new one. In 1985, long before cell phones and social media were widespread, Neil Postman made many of the same points as Nicholas Carr in his book Amusing Ourselves to Death. The target of Postman's displeasure seems almost quaint today; his book was about the negative impacts of television on society. Postman contrasted public discourse before television ("generally coherent, serious, and rational") and in the age of television ("shriveled and absurd"). He had prescient views on the dangers of conflating education and entertainment. His tongue-in-cheek commandments for what might be called edutainment included "Thou shalt have no prerequisites", "Thou shalt induce no perplexity" and "Thou shalt avoid exposition like the ten plagues visited upon Egypt"
There is one element missing from the definition of deep work given above. To reap the benefits of deep work, this kind of work must be performed persistently over long periods of time. This was one of the major themes of Chapter 1: inspired creative work requires steady effort over months and years of concentration. A striking historical example from my own institution, Georgia Tech, illustrates some risks of trying to sidestep this aspect of scientific progress. On March 23,1989, Martin Fleischmann and Stanley Pons from the University of Utah held a press conference to announce an incredible breakthrough; they had observed nuclear fusion in a table top device at room temperature. Generating energy from fusion, the energy source that powers the sun, had been a target of the physics community for decades. Traditional work on fusion aimed to mimic the incredible temperatures found within the sun to overcome the enormous repulsion that exists between the components of atomic nuclei. The stunning process outlined by Pons and Fleischmann involving a simple electrochemical cell in a regular chemistry laboratory rapidly became known as cold fusion. In a hint of the problems to come, the University of Utah work had not been peer reviewed or published at the time of the March 23 news conference, although the university had filed paperwork to protect its patent rights.
In an astonishing historical coincidence, the day after Pons and Fleischmann's news conference saw another dramatic energy-related event. On March 24, the oil tanker Exxon Valdez ran aground in Alaska, spilling more than ten million gallons of oil. The contrast between the pollution and risk associated with fossil fuels and the promise of seemingly limitless clean fusion energy was irresistible. Labs around the globe began a frenzy of work to repeat and improve upon the original cold fusion experiments, and Georgia Tech was no exception. On March 29, just six days after the University of Utah news conference, Bill Mahaffey submitted a $25,000 research proposal to the Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI). Within days funds had been made available, and Mahaffey, Gary Beebe, Darrell Acree, Rick Steenblik and Bill Livesay were working around the clock gathering supplies and building equipment. On Saturday April 8, the Georgia Tech cold fusion experiment started its first runs. There can be little doubt that the experimenters were ignoring distractions and pushing their cognitive abilities to the limit; that is, they were engaged in deep work.
After a weekend of intense experiments, the GTRI team held their own press conference on Monday April 10, announcing that they too had observed cold fusion. In particular, they had detected neutrons being emitted from their electrochemical cell, a key signature of fusion. Their results attracted national media attention. In a front page story the next day from the Atlanta Journal, Bill Livesay was quoted as saying "There's no question it's fusion. I still don't believe it, even though I see it" and Bill Mahaffey added "It happened so soon, we thought it was an equipment malfunction". The same article included admiring quotes from scientists at MIT and the Los Alamos National Laboratory together with a comment directly from Stanley Pons, who said "This is just incredible, I can't remember when I've had a better Monday".
Unfortunately, the Georgia Tech team's elation was short-lived. Continued tests convinced them that their neutron detector was only registering a signal because it had heated up, not because it was actually counting neutrons. On Thursday, only three days after their first news conference, Georgia Tech made the difficult but admirable decision to call a second news conference. The following day they were once again the subject of stories in the Atlanta Journal (a front page piece headlined "Tech Scientists Retract Fusion Claim") and The New York Times ("Georgia Tech Team Reports Flaw in Critical Experiment in Fusion"). This is presumably not the kind of publicity you hope your own research to generate!
In less than a year the scientific community came to a consensus that Pons and Fleischmann's cold fusion was not fusion and did not generate energy. Not surprisingly, researchers at Georgia Tech were not the only ones to succumb to the allure of potential short-term fame and fortune via cold fusion. An article from the Atlanta Journal just a few days after the Georgia Tech retraction interviewed a graduate student from Duke University who had been busy building cold fusion cells "and missed his girlfriend's birthday party in the process". The student, James Langenbrunner, was said to be reluctant to return to his "pre-cold fusion work in nuclear physics", quoting him as saying "You don't know what a drag it is to use that accelerator. You can work for days without getting any usable data at all". Ironically, after completing his PhD, Langenbrunner went on to have a successful career at the Los Alamos National Laboratory where he published work, among other things, on inertial confinement (i.e., "hot") fusion. Apparently, he realized the long-term value of deep work and that working for days was typically a necessary part of generating valuable scientific data.