The Hidden Costs of Deep Processing

Image: The climax of Hubert Airy’s image of his scintillating scotomata, reproduced in P. W. Latham’s On Nervous or Sick-Headache (1873)/Via

In the early days of my career, I worked in communications at Xtreme Labs. A significant part of my job involved interviewing people at ghostwriting blog posts for them. I learned a ton of stuff like this, and it also informed the collaborative writing process at my editorial studio Wonder Shuttle. In one of these conversations, I sat down with our VP of Engineering Farhan Thawar, and we ended up writing this blog post, which we polished up and sent to VentureBeat. The point that resonated most with me was the one on context switching:

“In multitasking, the time it takes to switch between tasks, also known as the context switch, becomes extremely expensive as more and more tasks are attempted simultaneously. When you examine context switching costs in aggregate, it’s clear that multitasking wastes a lot of time.”

As I would rephrase later as a staff writer at Lifehacker:

“Working on a task continuously is simpler than stopping and picking it up later. It takes time for you to focus and zone in on your previous train of thought. In fact, when something or someone interrupts your current task (or when you interrupt yourself with a distraction), it can sometimes take up to 25 minutes to simply get back to where you were. It’s why multitasking is so inefficient.”

The solutions are simple: batching up similar tasks, theme your days, and try to free up your calendar as much as possible so your brain knows it doesn’t have any other deadlines for the day. The term “calendar zero” is now popular at Twitter, and that’s because we’ve come to realize that context switching is just one part of the cost of energy and time we’re all paying.

Enter the Depth of Processing

Image: In the Man’s Brain (1897) by Edvard Munch/Artvee

As I wrote in this piece on brain overload, “Roger E. Bohn and James E. Short at the Global Information Industry Center at UC San Diego suggest the average American took in around 34 gigabytes of data per day in 2009 (here’s the original estimate, via NYT). That was a year before Instagram was released. Nobody was searching “side hustle” on Google yet. Cryptocurrency wasn’t mainstream yet. Whatever the amount was in 2009, I’m almost certain that we’re processing more today.”

I would suspect this is tied into our depth of processing. Especially for a person who basically just spends all day typing or in meetings, their work involves much less manual labor, but comparatively a lot of conscious mental labor. In one of my business classes, the theme was implications—doing a case study, figuring out what the facts and events actually meant, and how to move best forward. This type of foresight and insight requires deep processing.

It’s no coincidence that this language is used elsewhere already. Consider Cal Newport’s book Deep Work, which basically makes the case for the importance of uninterrupted, highly immersive, work and—by extension—structuring our calendars and work lives to prioritize this. Consider also this incredibly popular essay by Paul Graham, Maker’s Schedule, Manager’s Schedule. The reason these two insights resonate, plus the “calendar zero” and asynchronous communications trend, are all actionable explanations for the fact that many of us feel our brains working smoother and better when we have vast, unblocked, swaths of time. And I suggest that’s because our jobs require very deep processing. 

The APA defines deep processing as “cognitive processing of a stimulus that focuses on its meaningful properties rather than its perceptual characteristics.” I first came across this term at Dr. Elaine Aron’s blog, which she writes as an example, “When people are given a phone number and have no way to write it down, they will probably try to process it in some way in order to remember it, by repeating it many times, thinking of patterns or meanings in the digits, or noticing the numbers’ similarity to something else. If you don’t process it in some way you know you will forget it.”

For example, if I’m gathering information for myself, I might also want to keep my radar up for friends, clients, or colleagues. This requires a much deeper level of processing than if I’d just been listening for my own interest—or frankly, half-listening to be polite to the other person. 

Image: Fukurokuju Writing with His Head (1882) by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi/Artvee

Based on Aron’s blog, and of course Kanye West’s interview, I can see a link between highly sensitive people, art, creativity, and depth of processing. I don’t know if I’d label myself as that, but I can feel this link too—I’ve had to learn to deal with interruptions when I write. I do my best writing when I’m not interrupted, I sense little time pressure, and when my brain’s actually had a chance to warm up. But throughout the day, I also process ideas—I write them down all the time. So yeah, in other words, a lot of my writing happens when I’m not actually writing.

When we are allowed time for this deep processing, our brains can really focus. It doesn’t need to unconsciously worry about time pressure like deadlines or meetings. It can actually use all of its resources to conceive and conceptualize a problem or a solution. That’s why meditation, philosophy, and journaling all support depth of processing. Stillness really Is the Key.

I’m working on a hypothesis about which things require shallow or deep processing—I’m guessing that the cleaner the process (e.g., familiarity, clear steps, with clear and unrushed time requirements), the less processing it will put on the brain. The more new, unpredictable, or the higher the stakes, the deeper the brain will want to process. 

Personal infrastructure like the zettelkasten help ease up on this type of information management as well, but as our brains remember more connections and connect more dots together, it starts getting really difficult. 

Accounting for Depth of Processing Costs

Image: rainbow slinky by Clare Black/Flickr

The problem is, we actually also need to gather information in order to process it. But in a rich 30-minute meeting, let’s say, there might be 30 pieces of information to gather. It’s impossible for the brain to store all of this, so maybe we’ll integrate a transcription tool for the meeting. But after the meeting, we just feel completely wiped—our brains were deeply processing things—and unfortunately, we’ve booked another meeting right after, so we join that. Rinse and repeat. 

The solution here is simple, which is to add more slack into our lives. End meetings at the 15-minute mark, so we get 15 minutes in between meetings. I take 30 minute breaks between all of my meetings, so I can write notes down from that meeting and put them into action steps. There’s a huge difference to my brain during the days I get to do this, and the days that I don’t.

The other challenge, of course, is our brain is constantly processing non-work stuff as well. Kelli María Korducki describes an example of this at The Guardian, which she calls “pandemic brain.” Each of us have had to deal with the pandemic in our unique, different, ways—some of us seem unruffled, others are constantly treadings water, still others have needed to take time away from their work and social lives to stay sane.

Interviewing for a new job? Moving homes? Starting a new project with a new client? Planning a wedding? Making new friends? Even though you technically might have the time and energy to do all of these things at the same time, each of them have a high depth of processing costs (some higher than others, for each person). You’ll find that you need to make choices. What do you need to prioritize? What can be negotiated and scoped down, or delayed? Or, are you okay at failing some of them halfway through?

3 Keys to Release Yourself from Overwhelm

Like I wrote with the multi-hyphenate piece, I know there’s a lot more here that I can cover. For example, if you want people to do you favors, position it in a way that requires low depth of processing (like sending a forwardable email!). In other words, you need to process more of the task for them, and make it really easy for them to respond, basically with a yes or no or just a few taps of their thumb. After all, they’re probably also overwhelmed from processing.

But for now, if you’re feeling overwhelmed, here are some keys to soothing it:

  • Forecast each project you take on, and the depth of processing involved. If you’re stressed, you’re doing too much stuff that involves too much processing—or you’re not doing it in the best way for yourself. Learn to prioritize and learn how your brain works comfortably.
  • Create environments where you can work comfortably without interruptions. Turn down stimulations—for example, maybe just instrumental music (or no music!). Avoid an open office workspace. Let your colleagues know you won’t respond on instant messaging immediately at certain points in the day. Training your brain to be okay with boredom and quiet. Habit fields might help here.
  • Invest time in habits to ease your brain’s processing at regular points throughout the day—meditation, journaling, working out, etc.

If you enjoyed this article, you’ll love my Best of Books newsletter, where I send three great books to your inbox every month. In other words, I find the best ideas worth your depth of processing! Thanks for reading.

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