Deep Work vs Shallow Work: How to Study More Things in Less Time

Updated: Apr 9

Overview - What Will You Get In This Post?

  • What is the difference between “deep work” and “shallow work”

  • Why it matters.

  • How you can apply it to your life (with action steps).

What’s The Idea?

Deep work is an idea explored by Cal Newport in his books Deep Work and How To Become a Straight-A Student. In them, he talks about the difference between shallow work and deep work.

Shallow work is when we’re kind of focused.

We’re trying to study, but still getting distracted, checking our phones (when notifications pop up), chatting with friends, watching tv in the background, etc. Things keep coming up that take our full attention away from what we’re doing.

We go low-intense focus for long periods of time.

Deep work, on the other hand, is when we’re totally focused on the task at hand.

We have blocked out a period of time to study, our phones are in silent mode, and we’re virtually distraction-free. Nothing comes up and there’s only one thing to do at a time.

We go high-intense focus for a short period of time then take a break. Then repeat the cycle again.

Guess in which mode do you learn faster?

Why Does It Matter?

The time it takes for you to study a certain material will depend, first and foremost, on the level of uninterrupted (!) attention you give to.

Here’s how Newport in How To Become a Straight-A Student elaborates on it:

“In fact, when asked what one skill was most important in becoming a non-grind straight-A student, most of them cited the ability to get work done quickly and with a minimum of wasted effort.

So, how do these students achieve this goal? A big part of the solution is timing—they gain efficiency by compressing work into focused bursts.

To understand the power of this approach, consider the following simple formula:

[work accomplished = time spent x intensity of focus]

[Shallow] work features a very low intensity of focus. Therefore, to accomplish something by pseudo-working, you need to spend a lot of time.

The straight-A approach, on the other hand, maximizes intensity in order to minimize time.

For example, let’s rank intensity on a scale of 1 to 10 (with 10 being the most intense). Assume it takes ten hours to finish studying for a test by [shallow]-working with a low intensity score of 3.

According to our formula, this same amount of work can be accomplished with only three one-hour bursts, each with an intensity of 10.

The work that took you all day Sunday to complete could instead be finished by studying an hour after breakfast, an hour after lunch, and an hour after dinner—the rest of the day being free for you to relax.”

The second important thing about deep work is that it takes around 15 minutes for your brain to settle on a task and have full cognitive resources aimed at the task (think 10/10 of intensity), with nothing looming in the background.

Because your brain’s cognitive load is only filled by that task, it has extra resources to process the information. Which means you learn things faster - i.e., they “stick” more.

But if your attention keeps bouncing around because of distractions, first your brain won’t have the time to “settle in” and be full-on on the task at hand (think 4-6/10 of intensity).

Plus, roughly speaking, each time you change focus, your brain has to start the whole process again.

Second, it will get tired faster because of something called task-switching.

In short, it means each time you change tasks or something interrupts your attention (even a sound notification), your brain spends a little bit of energy to process that change or stimuli.

Add those up and not only you lose quality time in transitions, but you also end up tired more quickly.

Action Step:

It’s super simple and you probably already know what to do.

Instead of studying long hours with low-intensity and high-distraction, break your study time into sessions of 60 to 90 minutes. Science shows that’s the optimal amount of time (more than that your brain is already tired and can’t “digest” more information).

Then, go intense (think 10/10) and distraction-free at them.

After the 60-90 minutes are done, take a break of 15-20 minutes to recover your brain.

Best things to do are taking a walk, listening to music, talking to friends, exercising, meditating, stretching, etc. Avoid stimulating things like social media, messaging, watching videos, etc

Repeat the process until you’re done with the material for that day.

That’s it.

By simply doing that, you’ll study more things in less time.

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