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On Focus Level and How You Spend Your Day

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Grahamites
May 18, 2015
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One of my biggest takeaways from this year’s Daily Journal meeting is that

Charlie Munger (Trades, Portfolio) has a very very long attention span he can stay focused for an extended period of time. Then I read another quote from Warren Buffett (Trades, Portfolio) that goes something like this – one of the biggest changes that happened during the past few decades is how people spend their time.

The more I think about it, the more intrigued I become. Therefore, I decided to intentionally observe my focus level and how I typically spend a day. The goal was to get some insight and narrow the gap between me and the great Buffett and Munger of Berkshire Hathaway (

BRK.A, Financial).

To observe my focus level, I decided to read a book and record the number of interruptions, total time I spend on it before I lose my focus, and the longest attention span. I did this experiment in my office on a normal work day. What I found out is truly surprising. To use a succinct yet accurate summary – I failed spectacularly.

I spent a total of about 90 minutes on a book, which by itself is not too bad. What’s striking me as unacceptable is the number of interruptions. During this 90 minutes, the following interruptions happened:

  1. I got a phone call, which went directly to my voicemail.
  2. Two of my colleagues stopped by my office for a quick chat.
  3. I was distracted a few times by work emails. (let’s call it 3)
  4. I checked my smartphone 2-3 times.
  5. I treated myself to a nice cup of green tea and a cup of veggie juice.
  6. I paused reading to search something on Google (GOOG, Financial), which then led to more browsing on finance news.

I would have not guessed that there were 10 interruptions during this 90 minutes reading activity – a clear sign of overconfidence. The longest attention span was about only 30 minutes, which incidentally was towards the early period of the 90 minutes.

After I was done with the experiment, I got very frustrated at the result. To find a solution, I immediately thought of one of the most important mental models from

Charlie Munger (Trades, Portfolio) – inversion. All I need to do was to take some preventive actions so that I can insulate myself from all the interruptions. So I got rid of my phone and computer, went to a room at the very corner so that no one could find me, made my tea beforehand, and only took the book, a pen and a notepad with me. The result – I was able to concentrate like a champion for more than two hours with two short breaks in between.

Then I thought about how I typically spend my day. What I like is that I do get to spend a few hours reading consistently every day, which includes 30 minutes to 1 hour in the morning to study one big idea from other disciplines such as physics and biology. But that’s probably the only thing I’m satisfied with. I used an app to track the time I spent on browsing the web and the number of times I checked my phone. Over a period of a week, I checked my phone about 60 times on average a day. Assuming on average I spend 1 minute every time I check my phone, I spent one hour every day on this ultra-low value adding activity. The result of the time I spent on the web is also uninspiring. On average I spent about 1.5 to 2 hours every day on the web, not playing bridge like Buffett. I know for a fact that at least half of the time I spend on the internet is not value-adding, call it another hour.

Compared to Buffett and Munger, I spend at least two hours less on thinking and studying every day. This equal to 60 hours a month and 730 hours a year. If we think about it, when Buffett and Munger were in their late 20s and early 30s, they weren’t facing the distractions of smartphones and internet.

Therefore, maybe what Mr. Buffett was referring to when he said people spend time differently is that our generation spends more time on smartphones and internet, which is addictive and distractive and less time on thinking, reading and writing. If we tie this to my epic failure of focusing, we may find it scary how the modern world has widened Buffett and Munger’s moat while narrowed our generation’s moat day by day with the smart machines. Of course you can argue that smartphones and tablets do offer benefits such as the convenience with which we can look up information and get answers right away but overall, I think there is a good chance that the slow and gradual deterioration of our attention span outweighs the convenience they bring to our lives.

I am not suggesting that we abandon the smart phones and tablets. What I wanted to try is to get another old-fashioned flip-phone with only text and call functions. I will keep my iPad and smartphone but instead of carrying them with me all the time, I will set a designated period of time to check them.

Of course in theory it sounds pretty good but in practice, it will be hard. I am still in the process of implementing the changes but I can already feel the gradual improvement in productivity. Little details can add up to a tipping point. The little things that Buffett and Munger do every day solidify their moats day after day, and it’s scary to think about how wide their moat has become after multi-decades of accumulation. Our generation of young investors are up against a fast-moving and distracting world, which encourages multi-tasking and more activities. Guarding ourselves against those temptations and reverting back to the old-fashioned way may be a personal moat that is vastly underappreciated.

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