Here’s another blog from DH on how to make yourself infinitely happier in life. In response to Crispy Doc asking, “What’s the nicotine gum equivalent for portfolio OCD?” DH wrote an entire blog on habit change to answer this question as a follow-up to his blog from last week about why you should only be checking your portfolio every six months:
Here’s a summary of the steps I would take:
First, invest serious time into understanding what your habit is—then define what benefit will occur when you change that habit.
Example: I check my portfolio weekly. I’d be happier if I changed to every 4 or 6 months.
But why spend time thinking about your habit? Because habits are powerful and have a great purpose. Good habits allow you to accomplish much with little conscious thought, giving your brain a much-needed rest. For example, imagine if you had to consciously think about brushing each tooth every morning? Exhausting, right?
But back to checking your portfolio balance: the more I consider it, the more I’m convinced frequent checking hurts you. Unfortunately, there’s a plethora of financial marketing urging you to use their product to help you “stay on top of” your portfolio.
Does anyone ever ask whether or not this is even beneficial?
One thing is near certain—if you check your holdings too frequently, there is a much higher chance you will 1) make changes, 2) trade (thus incurring transaction costs), and 3) be on the wrong side of that trade. Yet there is virtually no balance on the other side from the finance world’s marketing: no one tries to convince you not to check. I can only think of one such person: the late John Bogle (search keywords: “John Bogle don’t peek”).
To summarize why I don’t look but twice a year: better returns, more happiness, and above all, more time.
Now, back to stopping your habit.
1) Develop a system to track it. Low tech is usually best. My wife uses an old-fashioned log to record her daily exercise habit—thus tracking her successes and failures.
(Editor note: and the injuries I usually sustain as a result of doing foolish things) 😉
2) Get a small notepad and keep it with your phone or computer—just whatever device you check your portfolio on. Mark the date and then, each time you check your portfolio, document the time. Then review it before you go to bed, perhaps jotting down a brief note to yourself on what you learned or how you think you did. That’s it. Very easy.
Above all: no harsh self-judgment, no beating yourself up over the results. The truth is, the mere act of doing this will markedly decrease your frequency of habitually checking.
3) Identify the triggers that lead to your habit and put those in the notes too. Where are you when you feel your urge to do something? What time of day is it? Are you tired? Who are you around? Does your brain just need a break and you should provide it with the rest it needs? If so, I highly recommend using the Insight Timer app and doing a quick 5 to 7-minute meditation. Works wonders for a brain reset (not to mention how much calmer you feel throughout the day).
4) Now that you know your triggers consider them. Habits are built on triggers, and this cannot be emphasized enough. When X-trigger happens, you do habit-Y.
Example: For me (it was a while ago) perhaps going on Bogleheads would trigger me to check my portfolio. Maybe seeing a news headline about the stock market is yours. Or sitting in a particular chair. Figure it out—a trigger is nearly always there. Your low tech data tracking will be helpful if you can’t figure out your trigger.
5) Create a new, more positive habit you plan to do in response to your trigger.
Example: Say you love coffee. You need something roughly equivalent, like hot water. Drinking Le Croix just won’t work for a habit replacement.
So invent a new action with which to replace your habit. Do this well in advance. Hmmm. If X happens, instead of doing Y, my plan is I will do Z instead. Perhaps instead of checking your portfolio, you will read a Physician On Fire blog and learn something. Or create a list of topics you want to learn more about and go searching for those for a few minutes. Or maybe go for a walk. Or do a chore, like the dishes. The possibilities are endless.
(Editor’s note: Yes, dishes. Always do the dishes instead.) 😉
6) Continue to monitor your tracking system to see how you do. Again, paper and pen might work best. For the techs out there, check out the free “Coach Me” app my wife uses for habit formation to check-in for daily writing sessions.
By monitoring, you see how you’re doing. With the steps taken above, I think you’ll be surprised how quickly you can turn off this habit and reap the rewards. Oh, and feel free to use the above and apply to any habit.
(Editor’s note: Please be aware that there are affiliate links in this blog that, if you click, could bring us a commission, but at no extra charge to you.)
My wife wrote a 2 part blog series series on habits when she reviewed Gretchen Rubin’s book on habits. Duhigg’s book on habit is very useful for understanding how habits work. The Great Courses The Science of Human Decision Making was also helpful to me for habit change.
I wish you all the best on your journey.
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9 thoughts on “How to Make Yourself Happier by Stopping Yourself from Checking Your Portfolio too Often”
BC and DH,
What a delight to have you both in my corner, rooting for my success in changing a stubborn habit. I feel like we are steps away from your cutting my swollen eyelid with a razor blade so I can get back in the fight a la Rocky.
I’ve lately been using a small notebook for my to do list (helps me avoid hopping on the phone as my default to do list, which is another bad habit), and it’s been a successful agent of change, so I think I’ll reserve a few pages to track how often I log onto Personal Capital.
When we make monthly 401k contributions I tend to log on to see what’s lagging and rebalance with new contributions – so I’ll target monthly logging on for that explicit purpose.
Thank you for the actionable, step by step guide to breaking a bad habit! I’ll report back from the trenches with my n of 1 when there’s a story to tell or some data to present.
With gratitude for your support and encouragement,
Ha Ha! Love Rocky! Another analogy may be Ben Kinobi placing a helmet on young Luke Skywalker so that he couldn’t see and tells him “Your eyes can deceive you. Don’t trust them.”
Sounds like you have a good plan in place – please let us know what you find!
Great advice! 👍
Thank you, Divcome!
Good advice. Atomic Habits is a great book about creating healthy habits and replacing unhealthy ones with healthy ones.
Thank you for the recommendation – it’s now on hold at the library. 🙂
Follow up for you:
I’ve checked my portfolio 29 times between October 2019 and February 2021 according to the notebook, which I continue to keep diligently up to date. Considering that we’ve refinanced our home, made an offer on a rental property, and done annual rebalancing, that’s a huge improvement on the compulsive checking I’d been doing before.
Plan worked – hat tip to you for the blueprint for success!
CD, yay for you for cutting down! And that’s a lot of financial stuff you’ve done in the meantime. Thanks for the update!