Having recently engaged in a little self-reflection about my productive and unproductive habits, I thought I would share with my readers what I think are constructive habits, and which habits are counterproductive at best. Here are a few:
Criticizing someone (unproductive) without instructing (productive) him or her. It is easy to be a critic, but as my wife (a teacher of Spanish) will attest, it is very difficult to instruct someone, for example, in learning how to speak a second language. It is equally difficult to teach someone a new skill, or even a new and superior methodology. By merely criticizing without instruction, we merely flatter our egos by pointing out the flaws in others and their work, but we do them a disservice by not correcting the error. In this way, nothing is taught, nothing is learned, and neither the critic nor the criticized has benefited.
Being sensitive to correction (unproductive) versus being able to be coached (productive). This is an obvious corollary to what I stated above. In all facets of life, we have to educate ourselves constantly, and that requires the humility and willingness to learn from others. This can be an obstacle for some who think they are above instruction, but superior students and athletes know that they are continually being instructed and coached by mentors, trainers, and the like, who hold them accountable and help them stay focused. In sum, if you refuse to be taught, you probably will never learn.
Obsessing over things you cannot control (unproductive) versus focusing on what you do control (productive). This is hardly an original statement, but it warrants being stated again, particularly to investment readers. For whatever reason, investors seem to be obsessed over things over which they have absolutely no control, – stock market valuations, central bank policies, etc., – and in doing so, they run the risk of neglecting the few things they can control, such as costs, savings rates, and allocation decisions. The irony of course, is that this neglect will likely have a far more deleterious effect on their portfolios than the out-of-reach preoccupations of their fears.
Ingesting information (unproductive) versus digesting information (productive). I am as guilty of this as anyone. I have a tendency to read a lot of articles and books, merely focusing on the quantity of information consumed, but often without making the effort to understand fully the ideas and concepts presented. This unconscious neglect of the true purpose of reading, – learning something useful, – comes at a high price in the form of wasted time. It is far better to find an informative article or book and read it slowly and carefully, perhaps even multiple times, to reap its full benefit.
Soliciting many opinions (unproductive) versus soliciting relevant opinions. Perhaps I am just getting a little old and cranky, but as I have aged, one of the things I have noticed about myself is a tendency not to care too much about the opinions of the majority of people I know, instead focusing on the opinions of those who have an expertise or experience with a given subject. To seek the wisdom of a few over the approbation of the many, I like to think, is a product of maturation, but I can see where it might come across as aloofness. The reality, however, is that we are all constrained by bottlenecks, of which the most restricting is time. In order to maximize ours, we have to be careful how we allot it in our interactions with others, particularly when it comes to feedback and opinions. Restricting your close advisers to a few trusted friends and family members will prove far more beneficial than having a host of uncommitted acquaintances.