Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Turning Goals Into Consistent Habit Patterns

My recent post took a look at setting effective trading goals. Properly formulated, these goals focus our development, bridging our real selves--who we are now--with our ideals. Setting goals, however, is easy compared with acting upon them over time. Many of us set well-meaning goals at the start of a year, only to forget our resolutions.

So how do we make goals actual tools for self-development? One answer that I came to in writing my new book is that goal setting must be a process of emotional commitment, not just an intellectual exercise. "The secret to goal setting," I note in the book, "is providing your goals with emotional force. If your goal is a want, you'll pursue it until the feeling of desire subsides. If your goal is a must-have, a burning becomes an organizing principle, a life focus."

In Alcoholics Anonymous, the goal is sobriety. Members spend a great deal of time sharing their stories of lost relationships, lost jobs, and lost health. They openly talk about the horrors of their relapses. Why? Because this keeps them emotionally connected to their goal. AA focuses on the reasons for the goal; every single meeting members remind themselves that they are alcoholics, powerless against alcohol. They can only find sobriety in their connectedness to others and in their relationship with a Higher Power. Next to that, everything else seems inconsequential.

An effective trading journal is like an AA meeting. It is an emotional communication that reminds the trader why he or she is seeking particular goals. The vision of success, the horrors of going through massive drawdowns, the feelings of disgust at missing opportunities due to a lack of nerve or discipline: these keep us connected to our goals.

Once you're emotionally connected to a goal--clearly seeing its necessity--discipline is not necessary. You will automatically gravitate to doing what you know you need to do. It's a bit like the procrastinator: when the assignment is due in several weeks, there's no urgency. When the assignment is due the next day--with one's bonus on the line--the drive to work kicks in with full force.

It is when the perception of "Reach your goal, or else!" arises, that we act decisively. Often it's the "or else"--the clear awareness of the consequences should we not fulfill our aims--that helps turn goals into consistent actions. The man who has had a heart attack may have struggled with his diet for years. Now, aware of his mortality, he has no problem following a heart-healthy regimen. His goal, under the pressure of necessity, becomes a habit pattern.

It helps to clearly visualize what would happen should we fail to meet our goals. What would happen to us? How would we feel about ourselves? Many a drive for greatness was sparked by the hatred of mediocrity. We will ourselves forward only when stasis becomes more uncomfortable than the efforts demanded by self development.


IDkit aka Ana said...


Speaking of goals, I have just listened to a video of Eben Pagan and Joe Polish on the best ideas and philosophies for growing a business to the $10 Million level - and beyond.

Joe Polish commented on "intrinsic driver" characteristic of good employees.

As in trading, we need to be driven.

Marc said...

Hi Brett,

Thanks for the recent posts on goal setting. I'm currently working on my goals and business plan for the coming year and so I find them very useful.

All the best,

Audacity17 said...

Brett, have you read the Ant and the Elephant?

Brett Steenbarger, Ph.D. said...

Hi Audacity17,

No, I will look into that one; thanks--


Audacity17 said...

I've had some moderate success after reading that book but would like your opinion when you do read it.

dannielo said...

If you'd like a tool for setting your goals, you can use this web application:

You can use it to manage your goals, projects and tasks, set next actions and contexts, use checklists, schedules and a calendar.
A mobile version is available too.

Rick said...


You continue to identify essential themes with amazing regularity. I would bet the best traders score high on self-efficacy and that for many of us, self-development is higher-leverage work than "working on trading". I am inspired by your posts and look forward to more!