Zombie Tasks vs. Deep Work - how to preserve brain power

Updated: Oct 18, 2021

You may have heard the phrase “deep work” tossed around recently and wondered what exactly it means. The term, coined by Cal Newport, associate professor of computer science at Georgetown University and best-selling author, refers to the ability to focus on cognitively demanding tasks without becoming distracted. The opposite of deep work is Zombie tasks, which we will elaborate on in a bit.

Monotasking and deep work go hand in hand for increasing productivity. Unfortunately, we often fail miserably at monotasking. Instead, we hop about, leaving a trail of unfinished business and dozens of tabs open. Newport uses the term "attention residue" to describe how multitasking is detrimental to work quality. Constantly task-shifting reduces our ability to adequately focus on the current task because our brain is still chugging away processing the previous task, to a certain degree. Just like our computer browser with dozens of open tabs, our poor brain is suffering from a lingering residue of distraction.

Here we share our favourite strategies for deep work and befriending Zombies, to help you avoid attention residue and enjoy a focused and highly productive day.

Out of sight, out of mind

Whether you are aware of it or not, you are affected by the instant dopamine hit supplied by social media, which is designed to be rewarding and addictive. It is a known destroyer of concentration and focus. We recommend minimizing digital distraction by simply putting your phone out of sight for at least a few hours a day.

You can also go one step further and delete social media apps from at least one of your devices. Services like Freedom can support you with this by blocking apps, and even the internet, helping you preserve time and attention for high-value work.

Zombie tasks are not the enemy, but don't get too friendly

Newport calls anything that doesn’t require a lot of cognition or focus “shallow work” – stuff we do almost on autopilot, like checking and answering emails. Performing these shallow tasks can make us feel productive, which has value, even though they may not bring us closer to our bigger goals.

The shallowest of the shallow are what we refer to as Zombie tasks. And while we don't want to spend our day with Zombies, these easy tasks give us a boost of dopamine which can help build momentum for more challenging stuff. Keep a handy list of Zombie tasks to do when your energy is low and your attention is waning, such as making a dental appointment, cleaning out junk mail, or organizing files.

We have a client who prefers to label this 'Wine Work' vs Zombie tasks. Not that we advocate drinking and working, but if you are able to relax at the end of a busy week with a glass of wine and knock a bunch of little jobs off the list, cheers to you!

We give bonus points for batch processing shallow work. Just as a computer batch processes, grouping similar tasks together into one batch means you won't spend as much time switching back and forth. Get in the headspace of making a bunch of calls, for example. Create a list with all your phone calls, agenda for each call, all phone numbers, and tackle them together so that you can get into a flow.

Manage your time by getting clear on how you spend it

Time tracking may seem old school, but it gives you a solid and necessary foundation to understand precisely where the minutes go. Use an app like Clockify to appreciate how much time you spend on various tasks (and notice the distractions!). Or simply jot it down if that is easier. Whatever your method, the insight gained will give you important information to design your ideal day.

Once you have a handle on how you spend your time, it's easier to plan for deep work. To make time for high-value work, it must be honoured in your calendar in the same way you would protect an appointment or a meeting with others. This can be difficult when working remotely, especially when family, roommates or pets demand your attention. However, protecting time for deep work will help make it easier to leave work with a clear head. When you end your work day feeling satisfied with your accomplishments - deep work and slaying a few Zombies - you will be more focused and present in your personal life.

Putting boundaries on your time can help limits the effects of burnout, and prevents work from taking over other areas of your life. With deep work sessions, you might actually find that you do less work, but that it’s of higher quality.

Move from Chaos to Calm

Focus Bubbles - dedicated time blocks with accountability to yourself and others - help with deep work by creating a predictable container of time with a specific focus. It allows you to block it in your calendar as a time defence to keep other things from encroaching. You can design your Bubble rituals to set up for deep work, whether it’s 60 or 90 minutes. If you want to maximize your productivity in a like-minded community, join a Bubble or contact us to learn more.


Dawn O’Connor

I have over 30 years of experience working with more than 10,000 clients in helping people unlock their productivity potential. Personal productivity is my passion! Every day I am curious and excited to learn what people are working on. I can’t wait to see you in a Bubble!

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