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Rule 3: Categorize Tasks By Depth, And Work Them At The Right Time

pepopowitz profile image Steven Hicks Originally published at stevenhicks.me ・3 min read

I find an hour to be enough time to get into deep work. I haven't always felt this way, but I do now.

But what about even shorter blocks of time? What about those half-hour gaps between meetings? Is it worth starting anything meaningful during those, or should I just burn that time on Twitter?

As with everything, the answer lies somewhere in between. I don't think the ROI is worth getting into deep thought for a half-hour, but I do find those pesky half-hour blocks to be extremely useful for shallow work.

What qualifies as shallow work?

  • Making a personal phone call
  • Raising a question in Slack
  • Scheduling meetings
  • Creating tickets for new issues
  • PR review (if they're on the smaller side)
  • Small updates to docs
  • Investigating a tool I learned about recently
  • Answering a question I'm curious about

Many of these things require very little time, but "shallow work" isn't really about the amount of time involved for the task itself. It's about how much time it would take me to get into the level of focus required for the task. Everything in that list requires very little priming. I could drop any one of them immediately and spend very little time getting back into it an hour later.

Avoid shallow work during deep focus blocks

This is probably the most controversial thing I'll say in this series: procrastinate shallow work when you come across it during times of deep focus. Instead, track the task however you track your work, tag it as "shallow," and save it for a later tiny block of time.

When that next tiny block of time comes up, knock out as many shallow tasks as you can.

Ten seconds of distraction is better than five minutes of distraction

I've heard people say something to the effect of "if it takes less than five minutes, do it now." But I don't need any help getting distracted, especially when I'm trying to do deep work. Every unrelated task that you do during deep work is an opportunity to pull yourself out of your flow.

Stomp these distractions out. Recognize them as quickly as you can. Say "Not today, Satan," and save them for a time when you don't need your attention, focus, or deep thought.

My system for categorizing tasks by depth

What works for you will probably look different than what works for me, but I use Todoist to manage my day. I've shared more detail about how I use it, but I categorize my tasks using the labels feature.

When I'm in the middle of deep work and I come across a distracting task, I'll use Todoist's global Quick-Add shortcut (ctrl-cmd-A on a Mac) and add a task with the appropriate label: @shallow, @medium, or @deep.

And that's it! I'm distracted for less than a minute and I stay focused.

The rest of the day I'll handle my @shallow tasks during my extra-short time blocks, my @deep tasks during my longer time blocks, and...I don't really have a good description of when I handle the @medium tasks. I use it for tasks between @shallow and @deep but I don't have a simple heuristic to describe when I use it.


Next time we'll answer the question that actually prompted me writing this series: "How can I get into flow state more quickly so that I can accomplish something meaningful in smaller blocks of time?"

Discussion (1)

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Willem Odendaal

Can I say "Not today Satan" when someone interrupts me? :P