My 8-year-old son Chaitanya, like most kids his age, paid little attention as I showed him how to make a paper elephant for what seemed like the hundredth time. I said, “Fold the paper into half, then fold here, and then here.”
As I was talking, he kept looking at everything except at what I was doing. He fidgeted and played with his pencil. I kept pulling his attention back to what we were doing and my constant refrain was, “Pay attention!”
Ultimately, I lost my patience, and moved on to reading a book.
It’s not that Chaitanya is uninterested all the time. He is completely focused when he reads his favorite books, or when he is playing with his Lego blocks. But at other times, asking him to focus is an exercise in frustration.
Now if you think kids with their terribly short attention spans are tough to deal with, consider this. In 2000, the average human attention span was 12 seconds i.e., we could focus on any one particular thing just for 12 seconds before being distracted or allowing our minds to wander. If you think that was terribly low, please note that this number has now fallen to just eight.
When I look back to that time when I lost my patience on Chaitanya and moved onto reading a book, I realize that I was onto a second book in the next five minutes.
As per scientists, the goldfish does better than humans on this account – it is able to hold its attention for, hold your breath, nine seconds.
Now, if you think that attention spans don’t really matter – after all who is bothered about what happens in a few seconds – note that the implications of having such a short attention span are immense.
Look at the stock market. As per the NYSE Factbook, the average holding period for stocks in 1960 was 100 months (8 years). By 1970 it had dropped to 63 months (5 years). By 1980 it had dropped to 33 months, by 1990 to 26 months, by 2000 to just 14 months, and in 2010 just six months.
Even in India, when I look around to see what most people in the stock market are doing, I see them considering two-three months of holding stocks as painfully long.
I met a gentleman in my Mumbai workshop who recently held on to his “high conviction” idea for five months, before losing patience as the stock cracked post demonetization.
Then I met a high net worth someone in Chennai, who has been “playing” the stock market for the past fifteen years, but has never held a stock more than six months. “I take concentrated bets,” he told me, “and then book my profits or losses in under six months. Beyond that is, like, painful.”
How much ever I wish more people would invest sensibly and for the long run, and whatever I want to drill into their minds through my posts, courses, and workshops, I deeply believe it’s a permanent change.
I can see no influence that would revive most people’s interest in holding stocks and mutual funds through times of trouble. Sure, the number of people who believe they would practice long term investing even through bad times has increased over the years. But most of such people just need one extended bad market to shake their belief.
If you think a long period of good market performance would lead more people to invest for an extended time, you are mistaken. We have had long bull markets a few times in the last few decades, but the decline in holding periods has been steady.
And this – reduced attention span and thus reduced stock holding periods – has led to a lot of people lose a lot of time (that they could have used to focus on lesser but deeper learning) and money (opportunities they may have lost out on by selling their high-quality stocks sooner).
So What’s the Solution?
Frankly, I don’t know a solution to help people improve their attention spans or increase their stock holding period. I mean, it seems asking a goldfish to stay with something longer is an easier task in today’s times than asking a fellow human to do so.
But still, here are a few things that I have implemented in my own life that have helped me improve my attention span at most times, and keep my stock holding period high –
- Looking at businesses from a 7-10 years’ perspective before and after investing in them, instead of how I may benefit from information asymmetry in the short term and how much money the stock may earn in the next 1-2 years. Read this post on how thinking and acting long term is your “only” edge as an investor.
- Not maintaining my stock portfolio online – I use Excel, where I must punch in the stock prices every time I need to update my portfolio. And because punching stock prices is hard work, I don’t do it often.
- Not reading newspapers – I find them a great distraction (I would rather set up Google Alerts to receive the type of news I want)
- Not having social media apps on my mobile handset – It becomes an issue at times when I wish to post something on Twitter etc., but the pros outweigh the cons.
- Not participating in any Whatsapp stock discussion groups – Vicarious experience tells me these are super noisy places, and induce a lot of greed and envy.
- Switching off all notification reminders etc. from my smartphone (which often induces me to dumbness with every beep it makes)
- Not checking my mobile first thing in the morning – helps my brain avoid exerting a lot of energy first thing in the morning. Instead, I start my day reading a book for around 30 minutes.
- Waking up early (between 5 and 5.30 AM) when the noise and distraction are at their lowest. Helps in building a greater focus.
- Meditation – Just the act of sitting and “doing nothing” for 30 minutes every day has helped me tremendously.
- Implementing one trick I learned recently from reading Roger von Oech’s book A Whack on the Side of the Head is to take an object about the size of an apple and then play with it, like flipping it back and forth from hand to hand. It helps me relax my mind. I often use tennis ball for this activity. You may use a Rubik’s cube. Try it. It may help stimulate a different part of your brain, and may get your creative juices flowing.
- Working some time standing instead of sitting. I realize that you are more focused when you are standing than when you are comfortable in your cushy chair. I don’t know how it works, but it has worked for me.
Despite doing all this, I am sure a goldfish would beat me on a few days. But the results I have received from practicing most of what I have mentioned above on most days have been amazing. Both in improving my attention span at most times, and also in my practice of being a long-term thinker and investor.
Over to you!
P.S. If you have read through this entire post, congratulations! You beat the goldfish this one time. 😉