June 30, 2021
With the risk of oversimplification, Product Design can be defined as 'creative problem solving'. It gets complex real fast though. Organisation challenges, research, collaboration, meetings and the whole nature of Product Design sometimes leaves little room for creativity. Although that creative output is crucial in connecting dots between many areas to solve the problem designers work on.
Shallow work, in such a scenario, is that stubborn termite that eats away our productive hours by keeping us busy. Every meeting, every email, every Slack message that calls for our attention while contributing peanuts to our productivity, is a form of shallow work.
In an age that demands connectivity with everyone and at all times, it gets challenging to slip in some hours to do some 'creative problem solving'. The job that designers get paid for.
'Shallow work' is a term I came across in Cal Newport's book Deep Work. He defines it as 'non-cognitively demanding, logistical-styles tasks'. In other words, tasks that do not need our complete attention and can be done even with some distraction are shallow work. These tasks are also easy to replicate.
For instance, designing a SaaS landing page from a mature design system can be shallow work for a Sr. Product Designer. Some of us might be able to crank out a landing page in zombie-mode. Setting up a Figma file for a new project could be shallow work as well.
Every meeting that could've been an email is a form of shallow work. So is every email that could've been a Slack message.
Manually nudging pixels and designing each page/screen keeps us busy, but also keeps us from focussing on more pressing problems. Every designer will have a different definition of shallow work based on their seniority and familiarity with context of a problem.
It's important to reduce the amount of shallow work we do. This frees up more time and energy that can we can direct towards solving more challenging problems. We only have only a finite amount of willpower. It would be better if we save that for tasks that need our complete attention.
The first step is to take a moment and identify the sources of shallow work. Also identify sources of distractions – social media would be the biggest culprit.
For most designers, especially those in bigger design teams and product verticals, status update meetings with various stakeholders is the biggest time snatchers. The no. of meetings is also proportional to the no. of stakeholders working on a project.
As designers, we can start measuring the amount of time we spend in meetings every week, and advocate for fewer hands on meetings. Scheduling and rescheduling a meeting because an important stakeholder was on another call is as painful as the meeting itself. Coming up with better documentation will significantly reduce the need for meetings. And the schedule-reschedule dances.
Project Management tools like Linear, Jira, Notion, Coda etc can be used to log the progress for each project – that saves a handful of meetings at least. Documentation can help deflect the need for daily standup meetings. Everyone hates those.
Unless you've been living under a rock, plugins must be a significant part of your design workflow already. Having survived my initial stint of designing with Photoshop, I can attest to the fact that todays' design tools are a boon.
Some of the plugins I use with Figma are Blush (quick illustrations), Unsplash (quick images), Content Reel (quick avatars, data, placeholder names etc), Charts (quick charts) and a lot more. These plugins have significantly reduced the manual effort I used to put in. It leaves me with more time for actual problem solving.
Just do it. It can be difficult and I get it. Or at least, find ways to combat your reflex to check Twitter or Instagram or whatever your poison of choice is. I logged out of Facebook 3 years ago, and my addiction is cured.
Quite recently, I uninstalled Twitter, Instagram and Reddit from my phone. I only use these services on my desktop, less frequently now. I go to sleep and wake up in peace. My screen time has reduced drastically since making this change.
"Social media has created a human phenomenon called FOMO: the Fear Of Missing Out. It’s the sense, scrolling through your feeds, that everybody out there is having a much better time than you are. The only antidote is JOMO: the Joy Of Missing Out."
– Austin Kleon, Keep Going
Avoiding shallow work is the key to remain relevant. In turn, we maximise our productivity by focussing on work that actually matters. Design, as a profession, is changing rapidly. Without eliminating, or at least reducing shallow work to a bare minimum, keeping up with it will become extremely challenging in the coming years. In other words, protect your time. Shallow work sucks.
To remain valuable in our economy, therefore, you must master the art of quickly learning complicated things. This task requires deep work (or avoiding shallow work). If you don’t cultivate this ability, you’re likely to fall behind as technology advances.
– Cal Newport, Deep Work