One of the biggest hazards of being a professional money manager is that you are expected to behave in a certain way: You have to come to the office every day, work long hours, slog through countless emails, be on top of your portfolio (that is, check performance of your securities minute by minute), watch business TV and consume news continuously, and dress well and conservatively, wearing a rope around the only part of your body that lets air get to your brain. Our colleagues judge us on how early we arrive at work and how late we stay. We do these things because society expects us to, not because they make us better investors or do any good for our clients.
Somehow we let the mindless, Henry Ford–assembly-line, 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., widgets-per-hour mentality dictate how we conduct our business thinking. Though car production benefits from rigid rules, uniforms, automation and strict working hours, in investing — the business of thinking — the assembly-line culture is counterproductive. Our clients and employers would be better off if we designed our workdays to let us perform our best.
Investing is not an idea-per-hour profession; it more likely results in a few ideas per year. A traditional, structured working environment creates pressure to produce an output — an idea, even a forced idea. Warren Buffett once said at a Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting: “We don’t get paid for activity; we get paid for being right. As to how long we’ll wait, we’ll wait indefinitely.”
How you get ideas is up to you. I am not a professional writer, but as a professional money manager, I learn and think best through writing. I put on my headphones, turn on opera and stare at my computer screen for hours, pecking away at the keyboard — that is how I think. You may do better by walking in the park or sitting with your legs up on the desk, staring at the ceiling.
I do my best thinking in the morning. At 3:00 in the afternoon, my brain shuts off; that is when I read my emails. We are all different. My best friend is a brunch person; he needs to consume six cups of coffee in the morning just to get his brain going. To be most productive, he shouldn’t go to work before 11:00 a.m.
And then there’s the business news. Serious business news that lacked sensationalism, and thus ratings, has been replaced by a new genre: business entertainment (of course, investors did not get the memo). These shows do a terrific job of filling our need to have explanations for everything, even random events that require no explanation (like daily stock movements). Most information on the business entertainment channels — Bloomberg Television, CNBC, Fox Business — has as much value for investors as daily weather forecasts have for travelers who don’t intend to go anywhere for a year. Yet many managers have CNBC, Fox or Bloomberg on while they work.
You may think you’re able to filter the noise. You cannot; it overwhelms you. So don’t fight the noise — block it. Leave the television off while the markets are open, and at the end of the day, check the business channel websites to see if there were interviews or news events that are worth watching.
Don’t check your stock quotes continuously; doing so shrinks your time horizon. As a long-term investor, you analyze a company and value the business over the next decade, but daily stock volatility will negate all that and turn you into a trader. There is nothing wrong with trading, but investors are rarely good traders.
Numerous studies have found that humans are terrible at multitasking. We have a hard time ignoring irrelevant information and are too sensitive to new information. Focus is the antithesis of multitasking. I find that I’m most productive on an airplane. I put on my headphones and focus on reading or writing. There are no distractions — no emails, no Twitter, no Facebook, no instant messages, no phone calls. I get more done in the course of a four-hour flight than in two days at the office. But you don’t need to rack up frequent-flier miles to focus; just go into “off mode” a few hours a day: Kill your Internet, turn off your phone, and do what you need to do.
I bet if most of us really focused, we could cut down our workweek from five days to two. Performance would improve, our personal lives would get better, and those eventual heart attacks would be pushed back a decade or two.
Take the rope off your neck and wear comfortable clothes to work (I often opt for jeans and a “Life is good” T-shirt). Pause and ask yourself a question: If I was not bound by the obsolete routines of the dinosaur age of assembly-line manufacturing, how would I structure my work to be the best investor I could be? Print this article, take it to your boss and tell him or her, “This is what I need to do to be the most productive.”