Focus on what you can control

Sonnie Bailey

29 November 2019

In life, it pays to focus on the things we can control.

Of course, that’s not always the case: we like watching movies and reading novels, and follow sports teams, even though we can’t control the outcome. (As we’ve discovered, even the All Blacks lose occasionally.)

But give me some leeway here.

When it comes to the really important things that impact our lives, it pays to focus on the things we can control. Otherwise, we’re punching the ocean or throwing stars at the moon.

As individuals, we have very little impact on the broader economy and performance of any given company.

As a country, New Zealand has very little influence on broader international cycles that impact us.

Even the most powerful individuals in the world (I’m thinking of US Presidents, for instance) are limited in terms of how much they can tilt the world on its axis. They might be able to do a lot, but their influence is still limited.

So as interesting as these topics might be, it’s not necessarily something we should spend a lot of time and energy monitoring.

The only exception to this is if it impacts us directly, and impacts something we need to understand or have control over.

If you’re an economist, or a politician, or an investment manager, it may pay to keep on top of these things.

If you work in an industry where specific variables might impact you (for example, the price of milk or beef and/or exchange rates) then it’s worth keeping your finger on the pulse of these variables — and the variables that might impact these variables, etc etc.

If you’re a Government official it pays to keep abreast of external factors that might impact New Zealand and your specific areas of responsibility.

Your investment portfolio

You might think that this is true for your investment assets as well. Your KiwiSaver funds are important to you in terms of your likely retirement outcomes. This is the argument many people give for keeping an eye on their KiwiSaver balances and the balances of their share portfolio and/or managed funds they hold.

BUT! (There’s always a “but”, isn’t there?!)

Are changes in investment markets going to impact your decisions?

My hope is that they won’t. Your investment decisions should be guided by you your circumstances, needs, and objectives.

Sure, you should change your investment plan over time as your circumstances, needs, and objectives evolve. But if you’re changing your investment plan because of external factors, then you’re probably doing it wrong.

This being the case, checking your investment balance too often is counter-productive.

Think also of this: we feel losses much more heavily than equivalent gains. Let’s say that your investment balance rises 60% of days and falls on 40% of days. If you’re checking hourly, it’s probably closer to 51% versus 49%. From an experiential point of view, either way might as well be 50%.

And because we weigh losses more than gains, it will almost always feel like you’re falling behind.

Even if you check every month, there may be a 70% chance you’ll be up and a 30% chance that you’ll be down. The down months will resonate much more strongly with you.

What’s the point of checking so often?

The other factor is that this practice can lead you to make poor decisions. Like making changes to your plan when it isn’t called for.

Spend your time and energy on what you can control

There are other areas of your life which you can (and arguably should) focus your time and energy on instead.

For example, your professional life, which will impact your income, your savings rates, and the risks (and opportunities!) to which you’re exposed.

Likewise, monitoring your expenditure.

And more broadly, focusing on your health and your relationships.

My argument is that you’ll get a much better return on your investment of time and energy by focusing on these other things.

Heck, trawling your Facebook or Twitter feed is probably better than checking your investment balances. You may not get anything positive out of it, but at least it’s a distraction that will stop you from doing something negative.

“Hurry up and wait”, and all.

Do I contradict myself? OF COURSE I DO!

Personally, I don’t have any problem with forgetting about my investment balances. It’s something that has always been natural for me.

But there is a domain where I’m TERRIBLE and an utter hypocrite.

This relates to news relating to the vileness that surrounds Donald Trump.

Does it impact anything?


Can I expect a bombshell every time I check my Twitter feed?


Checking my Twitter feed every couple of hours expecting a new bombshell is useless. All it does is make me feel worse.

So if you have trouble stopping yourself from checking your investment balance, I’ll make a public commitment. Consider it a deal between me and you.

I’m going to cut down on following what is going on with Donald Trump and his cronies. I think it’s important, but it’s not something I can control.

I’m going to focus on the parts of my life which I can control and which are truly important. I hope you do the same!

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