(Warning, bike metaphors ahead).
Last weekend I went out for a nice long ride on the mountain bike as winter is threatening on the front range. I headed for Mount Falcon, which is one of the most challenging climbs on the front range on a bike. Steep, technical, rocky, fairly long. I am pretty competitive with myself on the bike so this is a climb I’m regularly trying to improve my time on. I didn’t expect Saturday to be one of those days. We had been out of town for Thanksgiving for a week, it’s the offseason and I had been eating pie and drinking beer and generally relaxing. So when I rolled up to the trailhead, I wasn’t planning to put in a big effort.
My plan was to simply keep my heart rate in check, not get too deep into the red zone and try to ride as much of the climb cleanly as I could. (For the uninitiated, a “clean” ride is one where you don’t put a foot down or have to walk through any difficult sections). I did alright, riding cleanly through more of the climb than I had before, riding smoothly over water bars and keeping my balance through all but a few of the rockiest sections. Near the top I was holding off a strong runner who I had passed on a less technical section.
I finished the climb and didn’t feel as exhausted as I often do when I’m trying to keep my effort pinned on that climb. I enjoyed the rest of the ride (this particular loop includes some of the most fun descending on the front range) and generally had a great day out. I got home and reviewed the ride (I am addicted to Strava) and was really surprised to see that I had taken 30 seconds off of my fastest time up the climb.
My lesson from Saturday is that if I dialed back a bit and focused on riding better instead of riding harder I could go faster. This goes against every part of my brain, which is convinced the only way to be faster to to make my lungs and legs scream at me for as long as humanly possible and then a few minutes more.
And investing successfully is the same. We (and I say “we” because I am truly included here) get distracted by shiny objects and new strategies and spend time looking for some secret sauce, “working harder” on our investment portfolios, when 90% of the time that’s a waste of effort and the wrong thing to do. If instead we could focus on doing things better – sticking to a pre-defined process, minimizing obvious obstacles like transaction fees instead of bashing into them full speed, we’d get there faster. So here’s permission: quit trying to hard. Spend less time every week researching some new investment strategy and spend a few minutes realizing where you could have been better in what you are already doing. When did you deviate from your plan? When did you burn mental energy (and most likely money) trying to outsmart the markets? When could you have reduced transaction costs or deferred taxes? These little, easy things that are much more in your direct control are doing to do more than you think, and they’re easier than you think. Just because they are easier doesn’t mean there’s something better out there you should be doing.