Discovering Deep Work

For most of my career, I did my best work after 7 pm or early on weekend mornings. 

The amount of work wasn’t the problem. It was the environment.

I did my best at odd hours, mainly because I could not do my best work in the office. It wasn’t until the pandemic that I understood a better way of working. Then, without the chaos of the office or a wasteful commute, I regained control of my calendar, found the space I needed to think, and arguably delivered better results.  

As COO of a remote-first company and a real estate investor, I care deeply about this issue. Choices around remote work policies affect how businesses attract talent, optimize output, influence where people choose to live, and alter the demand for physical space. 

Based on my experience, which I share below, I feel strongly that remote work, in some form, should endure. Moreover, I know first-hand that this structure helped me achieve better, more sustainable, and more satisfying results for my employer and me.   

Let’s first revisit what didn’t work very well.

Earlier in my career, my daily routine echoed that of others on the buy-side. Each day was filled with a series of investment meetings, followed by discussions with external company management teams and marketing meetings, not to mention lots of informal conversations in the hallways or en route to Starbucks. 

Desk time was spent triaging the several hundred emails in my inbox daily. And people still used the phone back then, so voicemails were a thing to be managed. 

Don’t get me wrong. This accumulation of information and exchange of ideas was tremendously valuable. I can’t believe how much I learned each day. 

But my introverted brain needed uninterrupted periods of concentration to process my thoughts. So when was I supposed to do this, my most valuable work? Certainly not during the work day. Certainly not in the office.

I don’t remember sharing too much of this frustration with my colleagues or my bosses. I assumed everyone else handled the torrent efficiently and gracefully churned out brilliant investment insights on command. Surely, this was my problem. I would simply have to find some quiet time to keep up.

I was stunned when I first read Cal Newport’s Deep Work in 2018. This elusive state I sought now had a name. Newport defined this new term: “Deep Work: Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.”

Armed with a new manifesto, I began my quest to incorporate Deep Work into my work day. 

This effort taught me much about productivity, systems, and optimized workflows. The hope was that I could save time on “shallow work,” which would allow me to carve out longer blocks for deep work. 

It didn’t work.

Much like a derivative of Parkinson’s Law, the shallow work grew to fill the newly opened space on my calendar. Even when I successfully blocked off time, I couldn’t achieve the depth of concentration I needed while still in the office. It was as if my brain seemed like a separate physical space to signal that it was time to begin my deep work. 

I should have been prepared. In Newport’s book, he warned that it wouldn’t be easy. He wrote, “The Deep Work Hypothesis: The ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare at exactly the same time it is becoming increasingly valuable in our economy.”

I wasn’t alone. My battle reflected a broader struggle building across the economy. I saw the opportunity, but I couldn’t build this into my daily routine. At least not during working hours in the office. Ultimately, I found my space during later hours and on the weekends. 

It wasn’t until the pandemic, working remotely as an equity research salesperson, that I could incorporate Deep Work into my regular day. 

Remote work provided the time and psychological space to do better work since I was no longer seated in an open workspace on a trading desk. Finally freed from the twin distractions of CNBC blaring at high volume and the frequent (though entertaining) office banter, I could think and communicate more clearly. That was a win for me, my clients, and my employer.

Remote work offered a glimpse of how things could be. A world where knowledge workers can deliver more and better output when and how they work best. Physical meetings would still occur, focusing only on relationship building and connection.

Having been unable to produce my best output in an office environment, I’m excited by the potential of remote work. That said, I recognize that challenges remain. For example, employers must do more to foster culture-building, provide mentors, improve serendipitous communications, and evaluate contributors based on output. 

The stakes could not be higher. Those employers who do this well should have access to the best talent anywhere.