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I started my 2011 financial resolution early -- sometime in the middle of last year. So I guess it wasn't a New Year's resolution. But it's worked so well that I want to share it. Almost everybody can better their financial performance by following it.
I'm tuning out the noise and focusing on what matters.
The first thing I did was abandon cable TV. All of it. This was long overdue. TV is quickly losing relevance to the Internet.
More importantly, ridding TV from my life freed me from one of the great addictions of the investment world: cable news. Particularly CNBC.
The value of cable investment news was best summed up by The Daily Show's Jon Stewart. While interviewing CNBC's Jim Cramer in 2009, Stewart poked fun at the constant stream of empty chatter that flows out of the network.
Cramer tried to explain. "We have 17 hours of live TV a day to do."
Stewart shot back: "Maybe you could cut down on that."
I cut back completely. And you know what? I'm a better investor because of it. I've written this before, and I'm absolutely convinced it's true: There's a negative correlation between investment results and time spent watching investment news.
It's nothing against CNBC, really. They do a good job at what they do. The problem is the beast that CNBC -- and many others -- feeds: investors' unhealthy addiction to information. This is an addiction that's turned hazardous over the past decade as the Internet mushrooms the volume of information exponentially.
How can more information be a bad thing? As Black Swan author Nassim Nicholas Taleb recently wrote, "The calamity of the information age is that the toxicity of data increases much faster than its benefits."
Here's a good way to understand what he means: Track news headlines throughout a trading day. You'll be amazed at the inanity. I remember a particular day in late 2009. Markets were down in the morning, and a headline read "Stocks down on disappointing jobs numbers." Markets then rebounded in the afternoon, and a headline proclaimed, "Investors turn bullish on job numbers." Stocks finally ended the day flat, and along came the headline, "Investors uncertain about jobs numbers." The more you paid attention to news headlines this day, the less informed you became. This is becoming standard in the journalism world.
Should you just ignore all information then? Probably not. The trick is separating the noise from the relevant. That's the key that distinguishes successful investors from the crowd.
Take Walter Schloss, an investing legend and longtime friend of Warren Buffett. In a famous 1984 speech, Buffett said of Schloss: "I don't seem to have very much influence on Walter. That's one of his strengths; no one has much influence on him."
Adam Smith elaborated in the book Supermoney:
[Schloss] has no connections or access to useful information. Practically no one in Wall Street knows him and he is not fed any ideas. He looks up the numbers in the manuals and sends for the annual reports, and that's about it.
Schloss ignored the noise and focused only on what was important to him: the fundamental value of the companies he invested in. That's what made him a great investor.
Buffett himself has a similar story in creating the success of Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE: BRK-A ) (NYSE: BRK-B ) . "I find it an advantage to be in Omaha instead of New York," he once said. "I worked in New York for a few years, and people were coming up to me on the corner and whispering in my ear all the time. I was getting excited all the time. I was a wonderful customer for the broker." By stationing himself in Omaha and ignoring Wall Street's noise, Buffett can focus on what's relevant to him: buying cheap companies and holding them forever.
So how do you separate the noise from the relevant? It's something very few ever master. I won't pretend I have. But here are a few tips to keep in mind.
1. Realize the difference between learning and acting
I read a lot. It's my hobby. Books. Blogs. Papers. You name it. Almost all of them tempt me to act on something. I try not to. I realize that most of what I read is simply to learn. That's it. When I want to actually do something -- like buying or selling a stock -- it's a separate ordeal that involves analyzing information I've already read and acting independently of others' opinions. There's a subtle but important difference between the two.
2. Go for a walk
There's typically a legal "cooling off" period required when buying guns. There should be for investments, too. Whenever you're tempted to act on investment news, stop and go for a walk. Sleep on it even. Given the chance to think things through with a cool head, you'll be surprised how often you change your mind and realize you were tempted to act on an irrational impulse.
3. When all else fails, become blissfully unaware
Buffett tuned out New York. I tuned out CNBC. If market noise is consistently getting the best of you, there's no shame in tuning it all out. Stop reading financial news. Buy an index fund. Dollar-cost average every month. Come back in 10 or 20 years and see how you're doing. With your new free time, go to the beach. Odds are you'll still do better than most active investors.
I'll be ignoring the noise in 2011. How about you?