Embrace Deep Work

Embrace the concept of deep work

While sitting at my desk, trying to read a paragraph for at least the third time, an email alert pops up!
The latest finance newsletter just dropped, better check out the latest stock quotes. Meanwhile my mobile phone buzzes and I feel the urge to check it immediately.
Oh, my wife send me a cute cat video!
Focusing back on the paragraph I read a few minutes ago, I realize I have to start all over again because my brain does not remember a thing!
This short scene is just one example of the vicious cycle of concentration and distraction, which repeats a dozen times throughout the day.
Sound familiar to you, too?
I may not exaggerate when I assert, that most of today’s knowledge workers’ day looks quite similar to what I just described!
Welcome to the everyday hustle to stay focused amid a stream of information flooding our cognitive systems.
At the same time, our ability to focus has diminished over the previous decades, making it hard to create meaningful and valuable work.
For my part, I’m fed up with this never-ending cycle and will do something about it!
You can too!
Today’s working environment is designed for collaboration and instant communication. Open office plans, as well as corporate instant massaging services like  Teams or Slack, are meant to create a constant connection within the workforce. Additionally, the average worker sends 40 and receives 120 emails a day and spends a huge amount of time doing so. (The Guardian 2019)
To complete the struggle, we spend nearly the rest of our time available in video or conference calls. In the majority of cases, these activities don’t contribute value to our “core” work but they even have a detrimental effect on our ability to do so.
In a 2005 Study, the authors (Mark, Gonazels, and Harris) examined the degree of fragmentation of a typical workday. The subjects were a group of IT professionals employed at a big finance firm. Throughout their study, they found that the average worker of the sample only concentrated ~11 minutes on a single task until switching to the next one. As a reason for this rapid task switching, researchers identified external and internal factors. Interruptions by colleagues as well as changing priorities demanded by incoming tasks. were cited as the biggest contributors to fragmentation.
As a result, workers felt extremely uncomfortable with their fragmented work and their corresponding lack of productivity.
Since this seems to be a major theme in today’s working environment, let’s try to get a grasp of the reasons behind these developments and what we can do, to not only feel better about it but increase the value of our work.
In a world, where it is becoming increasingly difficult to concentrate on one thing at a time, the ability to do so is becoming an asset you should have on your balance sheet.

The Concept of shallow work and deep work

To get to the core of a problem, you first have to define it’s  key parameters as well as the desired outcome. Therefore, we need to capture the different states of work we experience throughout the workday and strive to minimize those which are detrimental to our success.

Shallow work

For our purpose, shallow work should be defined as work that is artificial and does not contribute value to our core tasks.
Shallow work oftentimes includes the following activities, which in general are administrative by nature:
  • Monitoring your inbox and responding to emails
  • Scheduling meetings
  • Making administrative phone calls
  • Video calls without a clear agenda
  • Creating PowerPoint slides
Shallow work is insidious because a day filled with it makes you feel productive! You are exhausted by it and because of the high amount of emails sand and calls made, you even are perceived like it.
I don’t exaggerate when I state, that everone knows this particular feeling after a day full of back-to-back zoom calls and emails!
Unfortunately, in the majority of cases, this type of work doesn’t resemble the high-value work you should strive for during your day.
I admit, there is a baseload of shallow work anybody has to cope with, to be a good functioning part of the overall team. No one will perceive you as a team player if you are unable to reach or don’t fulfill your administrative day-to-day duties.
Nevertheless, a bit of planning will help you minimize the time you spend with shallow work and increase the time spent with the higher value deep work

Deep work

In contrast to the shallow work I just defined, deep work is of high value to your core responsibilities and moves the needle for your business.
You have to immerse in hard thinking and spend a vast amount of mental capacity to get it done.
To get a grasp of the concept, I made a non-exhaustive list of examples of deep work:
  • Writing a sales proposal for a customer
  • Crafting an investment memo for your board
  • Doing research for a specific market you want to target
  • Writing code for an app you develop
Deep work always has some kind of strategic thinking embedded in its core, therefore we need long periods of uninterrupted time to succeed.

The conflict between shallow and deep Work

There is a ravaging war going on in our brains for the capacity to perform deep work.
Briefly summarized, our brains a wired to emphasize shallow work over deep work! It is more convenient for us to get a dopamine hit by answering emails, instead of solving cognitively challenging problems.
The feedback loops for shallow work are much shorter and rewards are more easily obtained. In addition, the modern workplace oftentimes isn’t designed for performing deep work. Open floor plans and instant messaging communication devices inhibit our ability to concentrate on one task at a time, which is crucial for creating valuable work.
The way we interact with our friends and family as well as our broader social life doesn’t help either.
Who is not familiar with the urge to check one’s smartphone a dozen times an hour? At least I am guilty of this type of behavior! I suggest you try to track your screen time and activity with a suitable app and you will be SHOCKED!
I’m honest with you, this is not a war you can win, but a constant struggle! Almost any app on the planet is competing for the limited amount of concentration you have.

How to get better at performing deep work

Although the odds are against us, let’s try to tilt them at least a bit in our favor. This is all you need to get ahead!
I recognized the following methods to be helpful to me to develop a more focused attitude:
Make deep work your lifestyle
To have only the smallest kind of chance of making a difference, you have to not only try to incorporate small pieces of deep work into your day but make it the other way around. Embrace the concept of deep work and try to adhere to it in the tiniest parts of your life. For example, resist the urge to reach for your smartphone during any interruption. We have primed our brains to be distracted constantly, so during the slightest break, we crave distraction. Try to be present in the moment, and notice your surroundings!
The overreaching principle is, to lengthen the time periods without distractions for your brain! You will notice significant changes immediately.
Create routines to minimize the expense of mental energy
Throughout the day, you will lose a lot of cognitive energy and will be more susceptible to the old habits of distraction. If you create your personalized deep work routines, you will conserve more energy and willpower. For example, I try to not touch my smartphone until I have written my daily journal, which takes me maybe 15 minutes in the morning. The lack of interruptions helps me put down my thinking more precisely.
Create dedicated deep work slots
To increase the actual time spend doing deep work, try to schedule ahead dedicated deep work slots throughout your day or week. Otherwise, other people’s agendas will fill up your calendar and impact your efforts. You will also be less vulnerable to shallow work during these blocked periods of time. During the deep work slots, make yourself hard to reach, close your email tab and set your phone on flight mode. With a little bit of training, you should be able to resist the urge to constantly crave distraction.
Act on the lead metrics of deep work
I know that the actual workday can get messy sometimes and you won’t be always able to stick to your thoroughly crafted plans. Nevertheless, pick some lead metrics (e.g. total time spend doing deep work or total words written per day) and try to maximize them.
Do the work and the results will follow!
The continuity of this effort will pay off massively. I once utilized this during the preparation for my CFA exams, where I maximized total hours spend going without interruption. The results were amazing, you don’t need to plan for everything in advance, act on the lead metrics and the rest will take care of itself.
Prioritize and embrace downtime
This one is critical because oftentimes people confuse spending more time with being more successful. I’m a huge proponent of being effective and I assert, that I’m getting more things done in 6 hours than a lot of people in 10. There is a limit to your cognitive ability, once exhausted, results will deteriorate rapidly. Be aware of your mental capacity and build downtime into your life.
I recognized spending time in nature, reading, or meditating restores my brain capacity quickly.



Overall, in todays world, deep work is getting extremely rare! If you are able to cultivate this valuable skill, it will be an asset few possess. I admit, that this is an issue I have been battling with for a long time.
Every time I increase my efforts to perform deep work, I feel empowered more calm and overall more productive and happy.
I can only encourage you to experiment with deep work habits and judge the advantages for yourself.

Mental models guide your way

Mental models guide your way

Throughout the last years, working in financial markets, I sometimes struggled with the amount of information raining down on me. Due to the constant news flow and wave of quotes, making sense of markets and execute your strategy can be difficult.
Searching for ways to be more focused and consistent, I discovered the concept of mental models. Through their application, I’m able to process information more efficiently and see through the fog of war. In essence, Mental models describe general thinking principles of how the world around us is working. They are used in almost any domain, be it economics, physics, or biology. Mental models are deeply rooted in the evolutionary tendency of our brains to generalize from information. They help us make sense of the world and guide us to make better and more consistent decisions. They reduce complexity which in return frees up brain capacity.
Due to my curiosity regarding a wide range of different subjects, I intend to acquire as many mental models as possible. Ideally, one can combine the various models from different disciplines (e.g. physics, biology, and economics) and weave a multidimensional network of principles. The more mental models you acquire, the more you can make sense of the things going on around you. This effect also can be seen in the collaboration of multidisciplinary teams. People with different backgrounds bring different mental models to the table which can increase overall decision-making quality.
One vivid example of the value of combining different mental models is the application of evolutionary theory to financial markets. There is a variety of different market participants using different investment strategies. In the course of time, profitable investors survive while unsuccessful ones lose their capital and get extinct.  Markets behave with respect to the current ecosystem of participants and investment strategies.
A recent resemblance of this phenomenon is the investment strategy of volatility selling which was used heavily in equities over the past few years. Market participants would generate a steady income stream by selling options or combinations thereof and only would lose money if a significant rise in volatility would occur. The extensive utilization of this strategy led to a low volatility market environment, which in turn was perceived as confirmation of success. In February of 2018 short vol strategies were put to a test, when volatility markets blew up, a number of market participants were wiped out, and markets switched to an overall more volatile regimen. After trending down again for more than two years, COVID-19 send volatility skyrocketing and bankrupted even more investors employing short vol strategies, changing the market ecosystem permanently.
Following this short example of how you can apply and combine mental models, I will share some models which I assess as the most valuable. This list can be extended by any number of examples. Please refer to the links provided at the end of the article for additional resources.

First principles thinking

The mental model of “first principles thinking” describes how one deconstructs problems into their basic components. These components are then used to build up a solution for the problem at hand. First-principles thinking is contrary to thinking by analogy, which is used most in our society. By reasoning from first principles, one can come up with far more innovative solutions to a problem because established paradigms are ignored. A brilliant example of first principles thinking is given by Elon Musk in this short interview.
One of the most important first principles of finance is “there is no free lunch”. To earn a return on your investment you have to assume some kind of risk. When analyzing an investment ask yourself:  What are the risks regarding this investment? Am I compensated well for assuming the risks, especially with respect to opportunity costs?
When there is no intelligent answer to this kind of question, the odds are high that you won’t earn the expected return, or even worse, the investment will blow up in your face.

Probabilistic thinking

In my opinion, this is one of the most important mental models, if you aspire to improve your decision-making process.  When applying probabilistic thinking, one tries to assign reasonable probabilities to a set of future outcomes corresponding to all possible sets of actions. To deduct reliable probabilities you have to consider the base rates of the respective problem at hand. For example ask yourself: How did similar situations, regarding the conditions and opportunity set, play out in the past? Based on this, what is the most likely outcome going forward? Base your assessment only on facts and separate them from underlying narratives!
It is extremely hard if not impossible to assign fixed probabilities to specific outcomes. Therefore I try to tilt the odds in my favor.  When someone asks me if stocks or interest rates will move higher or lower in the future, I will answer “I don’t know! But based on the opportunity set at hand and historical base rates I assume x is more likely than y and therefore I’ll position my portfolio according to it”
If you are keen to learn more about probabilistic thinking, you will be delighted to watch the conversation with poker champion Annie Duke on making smart bets.

Laws of thermodynamics

The laws of thermodynamics provide numerous possibilities of connection to business and financial markets. The most practical one is the first law of thermodynamics which in its essence states, that the energy of an isolated system is constant and can neither be destroyed nor created.
This can be wonderfully transferred to investing, as Corey Hoffstein of Newfound Research put it Risk can not be destroyed only transformed”! For example, when you try to avoid a particular risk ( by hedging it) you introduce a new one (losing capital due to paying an option premium). This metaphor is particularly useful when evaluating risk/return tradeoffs. What kind of risk am I taking or avoiding at what cost? What am I losing or gaining in return?
You will gain more insights into the transformation of risk by listening to the conversation between Meb Faber and Corey Hoffstein.

The concept of leverage

Anyone in the financial community is familiar with the concept of leverage, nevertheless, I’d like to add this mental model to my list. A lever can be thought of as a device that increases the force applied to an object. To put it in more general terms,  a point of high leverage can be found, when small actions can make a huge difference in outcomes. One should focus on the problems where the inputs lead to the greatest results.
With respect to financial markets, leverage can increase good outcomes but reduces room for error when things go bad. It can make or break one’s existence and should be applied with caution. Leverage can be used explicitly via debt or implicitly via investment structure or derivatives. When evaluating investment strategies, it is crucial to understand the sources and uses of leverage.
Warren Buffett brilliantly describes the effects of leverage in this interview.

Regression to the mean

The mental model of regression to the mean can be found in nearly every aspect of our daily lives and its importance can not be overstated. In brief, the concept describes the occurrence of extreme outcomes which are followed by less extreme ones. For the effect to materialize, there need to be imperfect correlations between two objects which causes the true value of observations to oscillate around the mean. The higher the skew in the distribution of observations, the more pronounced is the regression to the mean after certain observations.
This concept is especially useful when analyzing market behavior or assessing the drivers of the success of investment strategies. Often we tend to assign outcomes to dedicated events when actually regression to the mean is at work. Take for example the evaluation of an asset manager’s performance during a due diligence process. Focusing to much on past performance, instead of the investment process, leaves you wide open for bad surprises, when returns regress towards their long-term expected values. The period of regression can be so long that it is hard to identify cause and effect relationships. Therefore you have to ask yourself: “Is the current observation caused by a comprehensible action or is it due to regression to the long-term mean?”
Watch this short explanation of the effect of regression to the mean in investing!


Mental models can be a usefull tool to aid your decision-making process, reduce complexity, and help you think more clearly. The broader the repertoire of models you acquire, the higher the number of opportunities you can create by connecting them. When using these models, it is critical to constantly question the underlying assumptions and examine whether they are applicable in the specific case. 
They always only can be seen as guiding posts! It is not the intention to blindly adhere to them.

Additional resources

A System to boost productivity

Boosting productivity

The improvement of productivity is a battle many people keep struggling with.

This battle isn’t won in a single day but needs constant effort. Every day there will be new challenges testing your resilience to outside forces that may distract you.

In my personal life, private and professional, I’m also struggling to be my productive best, not always winning the challenge.

I noticed recurring bad behaviors of mine like:

  • Trying to keep all tasks in my head
  • Not prioritize tasks efficiently
  • Not saying “no” enough
  • Not delegating tasks which are out of my responsibilities
  • Checking my smartphone too often
  • Exessive multi-tasking
  • Constant checking and reacting to emails

Overall, there was much room for altering my behavior to become more productive. So I started researching and implementing techniques to strive for a more productive life, which in retrospect, also reduced stress levels by a considerable amount.

I discovered the “getting things done method”, or short GTD, developed by David Allen during my quest for an effective productivity system.

In the course of this article, I’d like to explain how GTD works and give brief examples of how to apply it.

The GTD system consists of five distinct steps which, when followed correctly, will help you get more done with less stress.

Step 1: Capture

To develop trust in your system, you need to capture every task on your mind, be it personal or business-related, and store it in a trusted way. Your storage system may consist of a physical notebook or some useful app on your smartphone, this actually depends on personal preferences.

However, for the system to work effectively, it is essential that you capture every loose end floating around in your head.

For me, my smartphone works best, since there are only a few occasions when it’s not to hand. I use Evernote to capture and store tasks, as well as make them accessible from every device.

Step 2: Clarify

Before you tackle the most pressing tasks, you have to clarify what it is exactly. By asking yourself: “Is this item actionable or not?” you sort tasks in two categories “actionable” and “not actionable”.

The latter category is easy because unactionable items go either in the trash bin or are stored and reviewed later, in-kind they may be of use someday.

The actionable items are the ones you want to focus on!

In case, the item is a project, consisting of many actionable steps over a longer period of time, you put it on the “projects list” and decide on the next physical actions to come closer to its completion.

Simple single tasks may be “write an email to a business partner” or “gather data for your financial model”.

After labeling items as projects or tasks, you have to decide on the time horizon and your ability to complete them.

So you can:

  1. Do it yourself, if you are the right person for the job and able to complete it in less than two minutes
  2. Delegate it, if you think someone is more suited to complete it
  3. Defer it, which include scheduling the task in your calendar for later completion

Step 3: Organize

After getting clear about what tasks you have at hand, you can organize them. As I mentioned before, non-actionable items go to the trash bin or the storage system for later review.

To organize the actionable items you need a “projects list”, which consists of multi-action processes and is used to derive the next actions.

In addition, you need a “next actions list” where you collect all physical actions you need to complete to move ahead.

Lastly, a “waiting for list” is needed where you store all actions you are waiting for to be done by others. All these lists can now be used to schedule tasks in your calendar and process them one at a time.

Step 4: Reflect

Frequent reflection of your workflow management system is essential to keep it clean and up to date. The daily review of tasks on your calendar can be supplemented by weekly reviews of your overall system to see whether it is still working.

Step 5: Engage

The fifth stage is essential for pushing projects and next actions forward. You actually need to decide which task to tackle first and which to postpone for late completion. In his book, David Allen suggests you can take at least three different perspectives on your tasks.


a) The four-criteria model to choose actions in the moment: 


Is it possible to complete the items in the current set-up? Are you at work or at home?

Time available:

Is there enough time available to complete it? In case you have an important call in 15 minutes, you don’t need to start a time-consuming task now.

Energy available:

Do you have enough energy available to complete it? After crunching complex models for several hours, starting a new complex project may not be the best idea.


Which of your tasks would give you the highest pay-off if completed?


b) The threefold-model for identifying your daily work:

 For me, it is helpful to clarify what kind of work I am doing.

Doing pre-defined work:

Solving tasks which were previously clarified and scheduled fall in this category. Doing pre-defined work helps you push things forward.

Doing work as it shows up:

It is inevitable to deal with important ad-hoc tasks, which show up during the day but are not directly contributing to the progress of your projects.

Defining your work:

In case you are not working on some scheduled or ad-hoc tasks, you may define what you have at hand during the “clarify” step. 

c) The six-level Model for reviewing your own work:

There are different altitudes from which you can view your next actions. The higher the altitude, the more it impacts every decision you make.

Horizon 5: Purpose and Principles

What are your core beliefs and principles? This category tends to drive all decisions in other categories.

Horizon 4: Vision

What is your plan for the next 5 years? What is your long term vision regarding personal, business and financial matters?

Horizon 3: Goals

What are the goals you want to achieve in the next one to two years? These define the areas you want to focus on most.

Horizon 2: Areas of focus and accountabilities

Balancing all your areas of focus and accountabilities towards your family and business partners is important to sustain long term performance.

Horizon 1: Current Projects

The current projects are derived from your areas of focus and are responsible for the majority of the tasks on your “next actions” list.

Ground: Current Actions

This level consists of all the next actions you have to take (e.g. write the sales proposal or feed the data into your financial model) to push the items on higher altitudes forward.

When you are able to be aware of the three perspectives I just mentioned, you just leaped a step forward to being more in control of your “next actions” list.

Hopefully, you can implement some of the principles mentioned above in your life and increase productivity by a vast amount.

I will keep you up to date regarding my daily struggle of increased productivity.

Below you’ll find five additional tips, which may be useful for your daily life!


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