This year I’ve radically changed how I work. Apparently there are terms for this! I’ve moved from a life dominated by shallow work, to one dominated by deep work and I’m slowly wrangling with the implications.
Shallow work doesn’t take a vast amount of mental energy or creativity. I’ve spent many years cranking out social media content for money – which required concentration, but I can’t say was ever satisfying. It’s the kind of work that is never finished, there’s no closure on it, no markable points of achievement.
Deep work involves focus, commitment, and intensity. Over the last few months this has come to dominate my working time as I’m mostly writing and colouring. These are tasks that require a lot of concentration and attention. I’ve always had a good attention span, I can usually focus for an hour or more.
Shallow work was unsatisfying and I did get tired from it, and left feeling that I had no energy for anything more substantial. Even so, I could do far more of it in a day than I can of the deeper stuff. To be in a state of intense focus for three or four hours is about as much as I can do. I have to take more breaks. I have to be much more careful about feeding my brain with things that sustain it. I have to have more rest time. It is much more satisfying work, but it takes a toll.
There are balances to strike, clearly. I’m slowly finding out what I can sustain from day to day, and what I need to do to support myself if I’m working at high levels of intensity. I have to be more alert to body wellness, to food, to hydration, and the overall shape of my working week. I have to watch for my limits, because I can end up so tired that I can’t do anything at all, which means I can’t do anything restorative, which rapidly compromises my ability to show up for the deeper work.
I’ve worked all kinds of jobs along the way – often part time and alongside trying to work creatively. The marketing, social media work required a lot of attention and tracking information, but that’s a very different way of using my brain. When I’m pushing my thinking capacity to its limits in multiple ways in a day, that impacts on my whole life. I feel differently about myself. On the whole, it’s a better way to be, but I can’t model it on the norms of regular employment, office work, retail, front of house or any of the other kinds of stuff I’ve been doing. I can’t work long hours at high levels of intensity, it’s not sustainable. I’m having to rethink my life a bit to try and better accommodate these shifts.
I think my ideal life would involve a few hours of deep work each day, and a few hours of physical work – I have gardening fantasies. I think being able to ground myself in more practical things while my brain does what it does between bouts of more intense thinking, would suit me well. In the meantime, there are craft projects, and the ongoing quest for better balance.