Productivity: A Question Of Focus, Health, Politics And Money

January 11, 2018

Last week, I asked, “What would make 2018 more productive for you? Please email me the first thing that comes to your mind.” Before I summarize the responses, a big thank you to the 800+ people who sent me personalized responses. Someone pointed out that asking the question itself already helped because it motivated her to review her plans and targets.

My question had been intentionally open, and as such, I received feedback on productivity ideas pertaining to both personal and professional life. In some ways, answers were all over the place, including numerous answers that I had no idea were somehow related to productivity. That said, as themes emerged, at times, I could sense some respondents have their productivity initiatives under control with others strugganling. I’ll touch on the main themes below.

First off, to the classic definition of productivity. A lot of respondents mentioned they wanted more time:

My first thought was more time – but then I quickly realized that is the wrong answer - as it is not possible - and productivity is “return on time” not time itself

Well, there is no “wrong answer” and, as many indicated in their responses they were half joking about wanting more time in the day and/or week. The biggest time sucker judging by the lashing out by respondents appear to be social media enabled smart phones:

Great question and my answer is cutting back on my "time saving" devices, especially my phone.  I'm dealing with teenagers spending too much time on their devices as well so I'm leading by example.  I've found my productivity is up when I'm not checking it constantly and things are better in our family when we are unplugged.

Warmer weather and cutting off social media.

I already took the Facebook app off my phone. I'm hoping it helps me use my free time (including my 45-min commute) for reading books and magazines and listening to high-quality podcasts.

Everyone putting their phones down! 

My main thought is more quiet time without interruptions, not any gadget. 

To all those that indicated they want to get rid of their iPhone, I have bad news: someone responded he had an old flip phone and still received too many messages. High on the list was email management, with many hoping to receive fewer or more concise emails, less spam and, yes, fewer surveys such as the one I sent. But it’s not just in the INBOX, there is simply too much junk out there:

Making sure my emails don't manage my day

2018 would be more productive for me if I had a better strategy for taming my inbox.

One work day without e-mail per week

If I could get a ""bot"" to answer my email, I'd love it!

An EMP attack would make a nice break from email for 2 or 3 years

A better curating process for the information I consume

I think spending less time online would probably have the largest effect. ...the multitude of various channels signaling "hey look here" today -- it didn't use to be like that. It's getting too distracting even for a guy who's been exposed to the net for decades.

A thoughtful response explained we are victims of our own success in being more efficient at many daily tasks:

take business travel: 15 years ago, I called my travel agent and told her that I needed to go to Geneva on a specific date and needed a hotel. She would comply and come up with a complete (probably ridiculously expensive) itinerary. Who is using travel agents any more these days? I can do it myself and better, choose among the best flights etc and the whole package probably is a lot cheaper than a trip arranged by a travel agent.

... admin work that used to be done by assistants ... now is being done by a more and more limited group of people within an organization. It is more effective ..., but spite of digitalization and automation I spend more and more time doing “these admin” things and I have less time doing what I really should be doing: being creative and interact with clients

In that context, and going back to more traditional interpretations of productivity, there were calls to increase focus. There appears to be desperation to cut through the noise when it comes to any type of information:

Focus, Strategy and Discipline. 

More focused, less distracted…focusing on fewer things

Be better at doing the important tasks first, instead of the urgent

Better filters to figure out what not to work on, including those areas of such general interest, that we are very unlikely to attain an analytical edge.

More disciplined time management (stick to allotted times for meetings etc ). Having more time to think of really deeply about key issues, rather than just coping. Committing to a ‘mental reset’ session at least three times a week (sport, mediation, etc). Having a morning routine and end day routine (first hour, last hour) with no media, technology interference to allow focus

The ability to tune out "noise" both societal and in the investment world.

The confidence to pay less attention to Washington DC news

Regarding general time management:

Give up some of things that I like in order to focus on the things that I love.

Uninterrupted long-form blocks of time for reading and thinking.  

My goal is to read more books and have more patience with myself when working on bigger ideas that may take longer to deliver (and could fail), but will have more impact than a quick effort.

Getting Things Done (GTD) philosophy from David Allen’s book of the same name

There were multiple calls for administrative assistants; some included the call for an assistant at home:

An administrative assistant would make my life more productive. 

A butler, a PA (home and office) and a personal trainer.

While many looked for ways to squeeze more time out of a day:

2018 would be more productive for me if I spent less time in bed.

If I could get by with less sleep

Many more pushed in the opposite direction. The “mindfulness” bucket was large. More sleep was explicitly mentioned in many emails as a way to get more productive:

Productivity comes from a healthy brain, every decision comes from it. So cherish your brain and cut the sugars, alcohol and go to bed an hour earlier every day. And don't forget to exercise.

Talking about health, those with health issues (or knowing someone with health issues), realized that good health is key to productivity; here a selection of the responses:

Getting more sleep and staying healthy. 

Maintaining good health, in mind, and body.

A healthy back.

Continue maintaining good health

Healthier life style, (sleep better, eat healthier, exercise and channel positive energy)

More trips in the running shoes and more trips to the Gym.   Good health equals a clear head and an efficient means to focus on key concise nuggets of information and avoids delays in acting upon that information.

Eating healthy foods and taking my vitamins regularly... it increases my energy, which allows me to be more productive.  

Health! Physical integrated with mental and is circular both ways!

Talking about health, lifestyle is on people’s mind:

A life partner!

Finding myself

Loving things as they are would make me more productive in 2018 and beyond. When “bad” things happen, I can resist reality (“This can’t be happening!”) or I can accept that they have occurred and move on from there. When I take the latter path, I have a greater chance of learning how to prevent the “bad thing” in the future. And, even if that’s not possible, I can tackle the mess from a more reasonable perspective (“OK. This happened. Now what can I do?”). I’ve been working on this for decades, but there’s always more to learn.

My solution is to focus on being more mindful - living in the moment

Being what I really love!

My focus is on other matters such as personal growth

Hope for more peace than hate

Investing in oneself

More time for myself, my family and my friends

If I can become much more consistent about meditation.

One small positive thought in the morning can change your whole day

 I think I should try getting an extra hour of sleep everyday for greater productivity. Currently get 6-7 hours. 

And some time to goof off.

While health in itself would get people to be more productive, several responded a job in healthcare would do the trick for them. A new job, a new challenge within a firm, a job at all, or more “gigs” for independent contractors were mentioned, with a few asking whether we had any job openings (no, we aren’t hiring, but if you have ideas how you can join us as a revenue rather than cost center, I’m always listening).

The “new job” bucket of responses was closely related to responses that suggested more revenue would increase their productivity; some sought to pursue specific marketing initiatives. And just as some asked me whether we had job openings, some smart cookies pitched their products to me as the appropriate response as to how they can increase their productivity.

For some, an increase in productivity requires an increase in revenue; many need cash for capital expenditures to make that happen. Indeed, many thought they could increase their productivity if they had a higher salary; several if they were able to raise money for a venture. And, of course, some suggest less conventional ways to raise money:

A winning lottery ticket so I could expand my business without debt.  

My query went out to people with a variety of backgrounds; notably, my circle of contacts includes many investment professionals, but also many who are not, but for whom investing is on top of their minds (at least when they get an email from me). Staying on the topic of money, many investment professionals indicated they would be more productive if volatility in the markets were to go up and, with it, equity prices were to fall. For those not in the industry, the reason is rather straightforward: investment professionals have a difficult time adding value when indices go up in a straight line. When it came to non-professional investors, several had very specific requests for the performance of what they were invested in, with many requesting the price of gold or silver to go higher. Beyond that, there was significant disagreement. Some want Bitcoin to soar, others want it to crash. And there were also those that wanted equity prices to be higher and volatility to remain low.

Many suggested their productivity would increase if there was less government interference in the markets; this covered the whole spectrum from low interest rates distorting asset prices to outright government interference and alleged manipulation in markets:

What would make 2018 more productive for me would be for the markets to cease being a political tool and return to being a 'free' market. Let me know if you see this happening, ever. Otherwise, the markets will remain a ... tool of the elite and participants in the Greater Fool School of investing.

In a multitude of ways, people requested to find clarity. There were lots of requests for high quality information, both for general news, but many specifically related to investing:

Improving the quality of my information sources. This means paying for the best research presented in the most intellectually clear, dense format. The free sources tend to be bloated with excess advertisements and coy “come ons” to join their pay service. I can understand that. I can relate to that. But it’s a time swamp that dissipates focus and distracts me from identifying core themes and crafting action plans to take advantage of the operational situation.

For me, it'd be a comprehensive single-stop, source for news and analysis. There's long been a bias in media, but after our most recent presidential election, it's hard to really get an unbiased and analytical perspective on current events and even business-related news.

An understanding of the Federal Reserve's monetary policy roadmap for 2018.

A service that makes specific sector recommendations on a regular basis (perhaps weekly or monthly?), along with brief rationale.  I know lots of newsletters offer this, but I don't trust them. I read a lot of macro analysis, but I have trouble putting it into action.

A quarterly chartbook of key market/economic indicators would be helpful.  We see lots of these data books but we are always open for another one - particularly one that focuses on the most relevant or key signals for asset allocators like us.

More relevant market insights

Any insights you have on inflation, inflation data, or expectations in the coming year

Insight on the yield curve.

It would help to be able to listen  to your commentaries while driving, as podcasts, instead that having to read them, as I always do.

Knowing the 10 best data points the most successful investors use (and how they combine them) to understand the global macro environment.

Continued analysis of "if this happens, then do that" with respect to the market.  No one can forecast the market but we can be prepared to respond to situations.

Effective tail risk hedging.

From an investment standpoint, more concise one stop summary of what market or stocks are high recommendations

Having more all- weather strategies available (lower returns/risk profiles with ability to make money in different markets).

Some are working on or desire investment software:

Better investment technology.

A better investment algorithm

Getting my current trading systems completely automated and integrated is priority one right now.

I'd be more productive if I could get my hands on some investment stochastic modelling software.

Talking about distractions: politics appears to be a major one. If our politicians stopped bickering, many respondents write they would be more productive.  Some are genuinely concerned about North Korea and say they are less productive because of it. Some of the juiciest comments I received lashed out at President Trump, arguing that the noise created by his comments are a distraction; that said, as you might imagine, not everyone agrees, and others see their productivity increase through the President’s actions. Either way, please don’t shoot the messenger, I’m merely reporting.

Let’s take a step back and look and answers addressing general office efficiency:

Quicker meetings.

A limit on the number of meetings that can be scheduled in a week.

Thank you for including me in this survey! My 2018 will be more productive as I streamline my onboarding process and clarify expectations with new and old clients.

A better way to incorporate new tasks that arise when out of the office into the workflow

Less bureaucracy and administration with our group of companies. Easier access to the relevant information and people to reduce the energy and time.

For head hunters and lead selling companies to not bother me.

I would have to say work on getting rid of unnecessary tasks on my to-do list or consolidating tasks!

More efficient onboarding of new client accounts comes to mind first as my firm's biggest issue.  

The biggest thing would be my own office. we have an open architecture plan, which is great for ... communicating with each other but makes it hard for me to work...

Spending more time with clients as a result of improvements in our service platform

Only one person chose what might have been a common answer some years ago: cleaning up his desk.

Learning new skills, or through technology, including:

 I'd appreciate better productivity tools and software to help organize my thoughts better. Maybe a new notepad

Better use of technology, it’s always the best way to become more productive.

New technology that works together

If I trained myself to use the technology I have better

Completing the automation of the software on which my RIA is based.

AI and search

Better software (and a Bloomberg terminal)

Better integration of my software. Access to my CRM via iPhone app.

As an RIA, more efficiency from our custodian brokerage firm would help the most. RIAs are very dependent on their custodians and they are very helpful, the investing world evolves quickly and anything they can do to better keep up, helps immensely.

Make better use of tech tools like Evernote

Adoption of a new laptop/tablet/device to increase capability of mobile updates and unchain me from my desktop. 

My request for 2018: Better telecommuting technology. I spend an hour and a half in the car everyday to get to and from work. I can work from home and complete all of my daily tasks from there, but I miss out on the ease of collaborating in person. I would love to be able to FaceTime my colleagues desk phones and to have cost effective video conferencing technology in every conference room.

Better infrastructure:

Better transport infrastructure in greater NYC

A shorter commute

better broadband

That said, more technology for the sake of it isn’t always wanted:

Less technology , not more ... ... ... too cluttered

Software vendors stop changing their formats/skins. I learn to do things quickly, then they change something and I have to relearn or find a work around.

One thing that comes to mind is not having to cope with various web site "improvements."  The less time I have to spend on re-learning how to use a web site, the more time I will have in 2018 for other things.

I should not forget to mention compliance overhead. Given that many of my contacts work in the investment industry, one of the key impediments to their productivity is complying with regulatory overhead – if you haven’t heard of the acronyms used below, consider yourself fortunate:

Less regulation burden frees resources that are very expensive.

Less regulation...

Dodd Frank, EMIR, now MIFID II have created an enormous drain on resources. No new regulation will allow us to focus on the business once again.

More changes in DOL requirements for 401K and IRA etc. accounts-so far small accounts$25m or less are disadvantaged, paperwork for others is too cumbersome and investment guidelines are wrong.

Repeal DOL

My 2018 would be more productive if we could reach a final decision/outcome on the "fiduciary rule" for financial advisors (i.e., is it ever going to be fully implemented or not?).

Clarity around regulation would increase my productivity.

Less compliance documentation requirements

A removal of the barriers that stand between products and buyers to allow all ETF providers to be on equal footing

Government clarity! 

More regulatory clarity in our industry, which could include a re-visit to Glass Steagall. It feels like the Wild West again coupled with redundant documentation required by regulations. Glass Steagall might clear the ever rising financial ambiguity in financial regulation by reducing the investment banking money flow to banks with depository accountability, as the gambling in housing etc continues. Regulation only mucks it up, and never clears up or enforces the root bad behavior, but a law dividing the banking industry into depository and investment banks again would reduce overlapping regulation, and give me more time to work with my clients.

Less bureaucracy (read: stupid regulations from Mifid II). 

Less paperwork!

Reduction in the overwhelming regulatory oversight from government and it’s trickle down and interpretation at firm level.

Some emphasized working less to achieve more:

Get rid of difficult clients - Get rid of them quickly - Oil and water does not mix

A reduction of my work load/stress

More vacation

Give up a couple of titles!

Less travel!!! 

More productive for me would be less time spent on business travel.

Longer holidays

6 hour workdays….it works for the Swede’s

Take all my paid leave 

I had four respondents reference religion to improve their productivity. And some pushed back altogether, arguing that increasing their productivity is not on their agenda for the year.

Finally, some think big:

A flying car

A teleportation device

Here you are; maybe there’s a suggestion or two in here to make your year more productive. If so, consider sharing this with your friends. In the meantime, follow me on LinkedIn and Twitter.  

Axel Merk

President & CIO, Merk Investments

The word ‘silver’ originates from the Old English Anglo-Saxon word 'seolfor'

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