The Financial Noise

Every once in a while, I’ll flip on CNBC or Fox Business Network and just see what’s on there in terms of financial news. I used to do this much more often, but these days I rarely turn them on.

Why? When I do turn them on, I see and hear an awful lot of noise.

It’s often hard to instantly tell what’s a commercial and what’s actual content. The actual content itself often consists of self-promoting stock pickers. Much of the content is geared toward a very singular investment strategy of picking individual stocks. Everything is either extremely good or extremely bad – there is no “it’s doing okay” to be found.

In short, for someone like myself who is an individual person trying to keep my lifestyle costs low and invest with a sensible and clear strategy, there’s almost nothing actionable or nothing even really worthwhile to think about on those channels.

It’s just… noise.

Virtually my entire investment strategy comes from having read a few focused books on the topic, with The Bogleheads’ Guide to Investing probably being chief among them. Everything else regarding investing, for my purposes, is basically noise. It’s either truly junk information that’s not helpful to anyone (like ads or people promoting their pet stock or a pump and dump scheme or something) or information that’s irrelevant to me personally because I’m not a professional or institutional investor.

My personal finance philosophy was built out of a handful of books, chief among them Your Money or Your Life, and some reflection on my own life. Virtually everything else that I’ve read involving general personal finance, for my purposes, has been basically noise or a repetition of those core ideas. It’s either truly junk information that’s not helpful to anyone (like crazy expensive programs that might actually work or stuff like “how to become a millionaire by 30” that only works if you have a trust fund or something) or information that’s irrelevant to me personally because it’s not relevant to my life or my life’s goals.

What about things I might be interested in buying or spending my money on? The noise is loud. Every interest I might have is jammed full of products that I’m almost entirely not interested in and jammed full of people trying to make those products sound like something that I would be interested in. Virtually all of it is just noise. I walk into a bookstore and the whole place is set up to entice me to be interested in books I wasn’t aware of at all or wasn’t interested in when I walked in the door, for example. The grocery store props enticing goods at eye level everywhere, with end caps and various displays begging to grab your attention for just long enough for you to grab that item and toss it in your cart.

The reality is that the noise is everywhere. We are being constantly inundated with ideas and information that really aren’t helpful to us in terms of how we live our lives or what we want to do with our lives.

A lot of that noise is generated for the sole purpose of trying to separate us from our money. Yes, advertisements and marketing are the big culprits here, but there’s also a lot of well-meaning information that finds its way into our life that really isn’t relevant to us but is enticing nonetheless. Think of things like Facebook updates from your friends on a beautiful vacation or the family down the block with the brand new car.

Regardless of the source, however, all of that noise does nothing but distract us from the life we want to lead. It eats up our time and our focus and convinces us to use our money in ways that aren’t always perfectly in line with what we want for our lives.

Over the last year or two, I have consciously been trying to filter out as much noise as possible from my life for a lot of reasons, many of them financially related.

I want my financial choices – not just how I invest, but how I use virtually every dollar – to be meaningful and to be something I’m still happy with a month from now or a year from now.

I want my everyday decisions to be deeply meaningful and be something I’m still happy with a month from now or a year from now.

I want the ways I use my time to be meaningful and be something I’m happy with a month from now and a year from now.

Furthermore, I want to get rid of things in my life that are causing me to sap away that money or to make decisions that aren’t really meaningful or eat away at my focus or cause me to be distracted in the moment. Almost all of those things have some financial benefit, but they have a multitude of personal benefits too.

In short, I want to filter out the noise in my life and leave more of the signal. I want to get rid of the static so that I can hear the clear music.

I want to be less distracted in terms of my money use.

I want to be less distracted in terms of my time use.

I want to be less distracted in terms of my focus use.

I want to be less distracted in terms of my energy use.

And I believe all of these tie together pretty tightly.

Figuring out this challenge has been a big part of my focus for the last few months, and here are some of the conclusions I’ve come to and some of the things that really help.

Spend some time figuring out what you want out of life, so you have some guiding principles for how to spend your time, money, energy, and focus each day.

What do you want to do with your life? What things are actually important to you, and which things aren’t? Modern life begs us to be distracted and tries to convince us that a lot of things are important to us when they’re really not. Having a firm grounding on what’s really important to us matters deeply.

How to get started: Start by asking yourself what kind of life you want to have five years from now. What elements of that vision of your life pop up first? Free time? A close relationship with certain people? A deep investment in certain hobbies? Consider the first five elements that pop up in that picture and drop the rest. They’re not important. Focus your energy on hitting a home run with those five things that you first visualize. What can you do to take those things from where you’re at now to where you want to be with them?

Schedule uninterrupted blocks of time for things that are genuinely important to you.

Once you’ve figured out some of the things that are genuinely important to you, block off walls of time to make those things happen. Literally add them to your calendar and identify them as non-interruptible. Treat them as the “rocks” in your schedule and let other things fill the space in your life like “sand” around them.

If you “don’t have the time,” make the time, because if you don’t give time to those genuinely important things, they will never happen. Plus, having that devoted time means that you’ll focus on the task at hand rather than being distracted by the noise in your life.

How to get started: Simply block off time as needed for each of the important things you identified earlier. If you want to learn something, block off time each day or at least each week for learning. If you want to make something, block off time to make it. Add it to your calendar and then figure out how to make do with the time that’s left. If you have to leave some dishes in the sink, that’s fine. If you find yourself watching less television or checking social media less, that’s definitely fine.

When you make a choice, consider your ‘future self.’

Your “future self” should be one of your main considerations in every decision that you make. Look at every choice through the lens of what you would think of that decision five years from now when looking back on it.

What would your future self think about you eating a bunch of junk food while sitting at home alone? What would your future self think about you staring mindlessly at a Friends rerun while half-awake instead of going to bed? What would your future self think of you spending money on a new piece of clothing or a new hobby item when your closet is already overstuffed?

Most of the marketing messages that come along with products today are aimed directly at pleasing your present self – your future self sees right through them.

How to get started: Whenever you think about spending money, make an effort to consider yourself five years down the road. Would that future self think that this purchase was sensible? Get in the routine of using that idea of your future self as a filter for lots of decisions, starting with every time you spend money.

If you’re tired, go to sleep.

Don’t sit in a chair half-awake staring at your phone or at the television or at a computer screen. During those times, you’re incredibly susceptible to noise because of your tiredness level; not only that, you’re cutting into getting a full night of sleep, which weakens your ability to focus and concentrate and feel energetic the next day.

Sitting in a half-awake slump is just a losing proposition all around. Go lay down in bed with the lights off and your cell phone in “do not disturb” mode and get some actual rest.

How to get started: If you feel yourself slowing down in the evening, go to bed. Don’t measure it by the clock or by some sense of how late you should stay up. Don’t talk yourself into staying up for some unplanned entertainment. Go to bed. Get a good night of rest. You’re getting very little value out of anything you do while making yourself stay up.

Cut down drastically on social media time.

In the last few months, I’ve cut back drastically on my social media time. I rarely look at it any more aside from checking messages from Simple Dollar readers or communicating directly with friends about upcoming face-to-face events.

Why? Virtually everything on social media is noise. It’s not relevant with what I want out of life and it’s not a reliable source of information in any way. It’s just noise that I don’t need.

How to get started: Delete your social media apps from your phone. Hang onto direct messaging apps like Facebook Messenger if you need them to contact people; aside from that, drop all of it.

Put your phone in ‘Do Not Disturb’ mode by DEFAULT – or better yet, turn it off a lot.

Unless you have an active purpose for your phone, turn it off or put it in “do not disturb” mode. The messages you get can wait an hour or two – they don’t have to interrupt what you’re doing to be dealt with immediately. Very, very few things in life are that urgent, and they typically don’t come in via a smartphone notification. If you’re wanting to focus on something – a task, a conversation with a friend, a book, whatever – just turn your phone completely off and consider putting it in another room.

How to get started: Give it a try for the next few hours. Turn your phone completely off and get some stuff done. If you find yourself reflexively grabbing for it, you’ll notice it’s off. Putting the phone in the other room makes it much harder to reflexively grab for it. You’ll also start noticing how often you grab for it without thinking.

Don’t consume any kind of media without intention.

Don’t sit down and start watching television or looking at social media or browsing websites without a specific purpose in mind for doing so. If you’re doing it to contact someone, contact that person and move on. If you’re doing it to obtain a particular piece of information, obtain that piece of information and move on. Don’t sit there and let computer algorithms or television networks fill your mind with noise.

How to get started: If you find yourself watching television or visiting social media or reading a website without intention, stop. Turn off the device and go do something else. Train yourself to stop using such noise generators as a reflex in your life.

If you’re bored, do something rather than consume something.

People often try to plug a sense of boredom by turning on some sort of entertainment or media to take away that sense of boredom. For many, it’s almost a reflex – they turn on the television or grab a phone the instant boredom begins to tickle them.

Rather than turning on something unplanned to watch or look at or listen to, get up and do something. Do a household chore that needs doing or spend some time doing something intentional that’s in line with your long-term goals. Cut out the noise and replace it with purpose.

How to get started: If you notice yourself getting bored, intentionally choose a response that doesn’t involve media or entertainment. If you’re actually more tired than bored, go take a short power nap.

Practice your ability to focus on the moment.

The ability to focus on the moment and really dig into the task at hand is a great way to cut the noise out of your life, but focus is a skill that many of us don’t actively work on and have likely atrophied over the years in this era of easy distraction. It’s so easy to have our focus broken and to have a distraction take over, so giving our focus ability a bit of “exercise” is a great way to nudge the balance in the other direction.

How to get started: The easiest way to do this is to exercise your focus just like you’d exercise your body. Take a moment, close your eyes, and just focus on your breathing. Breathe in, breathe out. It’s like doing a bicep curl, except for your mind’s ability to focus. Do it for a minute or two.

Make a long-term financial plan and stick to it.

Invest according to your personal goals and not what the talking heads are saying on CNBC or on websites where they have to come up with endless content about the economy and about investing. Figure out your target date and a sensible plan for investing for that target date, initiate that plan, and leave it alone. There’s really no need to read the financial news at all if you’ve done this – it’s all just noise at that point.

How to get started: Figure out what your main financial goals are – retirement, etc. – and what you need to do to get there. Set up that financial plan through automatic transactions and just sit back and let it happen.

If something you’ve read or heard has just nudged you toward spending money, ask yourself whether that source really has a useful role in your life.

For example, let’s say you read an article on a news website and afterwards you’re feeling strongly urged to go buy a new product that you hadn’t considered buying before. Obviously, that’s not a great impulse. Rather than just talking yourself out of that impulse, step back even further and ask yourself whether that source of information is a good presence in your life.

Is that website or television program really giving you any positive value along with those messages to buy, buy, buy? If you can’t grasp a strong benefit, then cut that website or television program or magazine or whatever out of your life.

How to get started: When you have an impulse to spend money, consider where that impulse came from. Where did you learn about that thing you’re desiring? Does the source of that information have a meaningful place in your life, considering it’s nudging you to spend money on stuff you don’t need?

Do more things with other people, face to face, without technology and without spending money.

What can you do with other people that involves actual face-to-face interaction and doesn’t involve spending money? The more you can fit that into your schedule, the easier it is to avoid a lot of the noise. Face-to-face interactions are about as meaningful as you can get.

How to get started: Go to community events. Check out Meetup. Invite your friends over. Invite your friends to toss a Frisbee around at the park. Think of something to do face to face with your friends and family and then make it happen rather than sitting at home.

Automate as much of your finances as possible.

This is the final piece, and perhaps the most important one. Make your core financial decisions with as little noise and interference as possible, after really studying and learning about personal finance. Set up a financial plan and then automate it as much as you possibly can so that you don’t have to make conscious decisions about it later. This also makes it more resistant to snap decisions you’ve made due to the noise in your life.

How to get started: Think about your financial goals and how you can approach them using automatic transfers. For example, you can save for retirement by automatically contributing to your 401(k) or to a Roth IRA. You can do a form of budgeting by transferring money automatically from your checking to your savings account each week, or by having your check deposited into one account and then having money transferred automatically from that account to your primary checking. This gives you fewer opportunities to disrupt your finances as the result of impulsive decisions you’re nudged into by the noise.

Choose from this menu of tools, apply the ones that make the most sense for you, and cut some of the noise out of your life so that you can connect with the real big picture of what you want out of life.

Good luck!

More by Trent Hamm:

Trent Hamm

Founder & Columnist

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 and still writes a daily column on personal finance. He’s the author of three books published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press, has contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and his financial advice has been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.