Saturday, July 7, 2012

Aren't we all just so damn busy

On the bus from New York City last weekend, I read Bernstein’s Investor’s Manifesto and felt really inspired by his straightforward and extremely insightful thoughts.  There were so many things I wanted to write about – how great it is to be young, and what impact your age should have on your asset allocation.  I wanted to write about my financial advisor – an important figure in my life that I’ve talked to friends about, but never discussed in-depth on this blog.  These last few days I’ve tried writing but it’s gone nowhere.

It’s been another week of working 9 to 9 or so, riding my bike to work, with not too much else.  It’s not a bad life – work is interesting, biking is awesome, and I have a lovely apartment to come home to.  I had Wednesday off for the 4th, biked to the office to kick off an import, played tennis, lounged poolside with a friend, and watched the fireworks with friends in the evening.  In the middle, I had a few hours to kill and avoided the heat by staying in my apartment.  And I’ll be honest, without all of the busyness of plans, things to do, and people to see, I was really bored.  Even watched TV, which is really the worst because nothing good is ever on, and I end up feeling crappy for wasting time like that.  And I know this, so I don’t know why I watched any TV.  This morning I read an article that really spoke to how I’ve been feeling the last few days:

Kreidor writes about the ‘busyness trap’ we’ve created for ourselves.  To be clear, he’s not referring to the people working several minimum wage jobs, getting no sleep, the ones that are legitimately tired.  He’s talking about people, like me, who fill their time with plans and activites, who feel anxious or guilty when they haven’t planned out their time, and maybe are even uncomfortable without the distraction of the internet, TV, movies, and (in my case) books.  In the end, our inability to just be, to be quiet and comfortable with ourselves, to think and accept the lulls in life, is sad and unfortunate.  I often feel like life is training me to react to stimuli, catalogue information and then choose an appropriate response based on historical events.  It’s easier to go through life reacting rather than thinking and creating, but of course way less interesting.

I think that attitude can have really terrible consequences for your financial health.  Americans have been tasked with individually funding and managing their retirement.  That’s a lot of work, and honestly most people aren’t doing a great job.  Plenty of people aren’t well suited for investing, and unfortunately most people need to invest their money in order to fund retirement, because we need our money to grow, to grow faster than inflation and beyond that.  Being a good investor means recognizing that a good price is a reflection of a company’s value, that potentially anything could be a smart purchase, depending on the selling price and intrinsic value of a company.  The best times for investors can be when stocks are down, and everyone’s pulling their money out.  Buy low, sell high is the mantra.  Being able to take advantage of this opportunity goes against our emotional instincts, and there’s no way I can claim I’ll be ok with not only keeping my money in the stock market, but putting more in, if I was to see my assets reduced by 40%, as people have during the most recent recession.  You never know how you’ll react – it’s hard to act dispassionately, even if you know the correct course of action.  Oh, those pesky emotions.

But that’s reality – an allocation like mine (80% stocks, 20% bonds) does mean I’m accepting the risk of a 40% decline in assets.  Intelligent investing continues to be the only way most of us can fund retirement.  Intelligent investing is, of course, not always easy.  I guess what’s been on my mind lately is taking the time to make purposeful decisions.  This involves saving, thinking about what makes me happy and how to get there.  Trying to figure out, underneath all the layers of internet, books, bars, and work – what I would do if I had the luxury of free time.  That’s what we want, right?  The ability to pursue … everything.

Do you ever feel like busyness and daily minutiae are distracting you from thinking about the big picture?  Do you feel uncomfortable doing nothing?  Any tips?


  1. Good article (both the linked one and yours).

    The "busy trap" is a double edged sword. Weeks like this that are full of activities are my happiest, even though I feel "busy". Granted, in this case this includes little work and activities include lying on the beach. But then I love a day at home doing nothing to top it off. I generally disagree with spending all day working, but scheduling your day full of activities can be good, as long as it's not every day. The important part, as you touch on, is that these are activities you WANT to do and that the sheer amount of them don't stress you out so that you don't actually enjoy any of them. If "I'm busy" is anything but an expression of joy and satisfaction at how you've spent your last few days, then it's time to take some extended idle time to rethink the activities. The positive side of the busy trap is seeking out rewarding activities rather than wasting time doing things like staring at screens (TV, Facebook). The urge to not be idle sometimes needs to be squashed, but more often is the driver toward "purposeful decisions."

    1. Thanks! I feel you on the power of NVS (to steal from MMM). I guess what troubles me most is that I can be absolutely miserable if I want to do something and nobody is free to do it with me. I think I spend more time alone than most people (and generally like to be alone more than most people), but yet it almost feels like I don't exist/think unless there's another force (aka human) in the room to 'oppose' me. Definitely agree that being productive is an awesome feeling -- and going to the beach totally counts as an activity ;)