Saturday, March 15, 2008

Formatting Your Trading Journal for Success

My recent posts have focused on using journals to improve trading. Everyone has a journal format that (one hopes) works best for them. Here I'll suggest a format that I find particularly useful.

The reason I'm offering the suggestion is that I continue to find that traders use journals in ways that are less than constructive. The greatest mistakes in journaling, I find, are:

1) Lack of Specifics - The journal contains vague, general intentions such as, "I need to trade less aggressively", without any indication of how the trader will accomplish this. If the intent is to trade less aggressively, then the journal should create a specific goal. An example from my own trading would be: "I'll enter positions with one unit and scale in with a second unit on the first pullback in NYSE TICK when my position is profitable." Notice how this makes the general intention so much more concrete. Now I have something constructive to implement and can grade myself on the implementation. If I only say, "I need to trade less aggressively", that's not goal-setting. That's Monday-morning quarterbacking, or me just wagging my finger at myself. Self-criticism by itself never improved anyone: it's self-criticism followed by constructive problem solving that does the trick.

2) Focus on Negatives - The worst journals are the ones that simply vent fear or frustration. They recite every bad or missed trade, everything that went wrong during the day. Not only is there an absence of constructive suggestions for improvement, but there is also an absence of ideas re: what the trader has done right. The idea is to learn from what you do right, not just what you do wrong. Indeed, focusing on strengths will enhance motivation and the sense of competence and efficacy. By staying exclusively problem-focused, it's all too easy to drain motivation and optimism.

So, how can we improve the above in a format for a trading journal?

My suggestion is starting the journal with a listing of your specific goal(s) for that trading day.
Those goals should be: a) chosen from your previous day's or week's trading; and b) taken from your trading rules. The goal should be either to improve a mistake you made, or to build upon something you did right. The goal should state specifically what you expect yourself to do during the coming day, so that you can rehearse the goal in your mind before the market opens and so that you can evaluate how you performed on the goal at the end of the day.

Notice that, before creating the journal, it's important to write out your trading rules in advance: everything that you want to follow to trade well. You can't hold yourself accountable for a rule that you don't create; that's perfectionism, and it's not helpful either. Rules should clearly state how you want to size positions, enter them, exit them, set stops, set exits, scale in and out of trades, etc. Your journal will track how well you follow these rules, not just whether you make money or not.

So you start with rules, notice when you do a particularly good or poor job following the rules, and then set goals for the next day based on the good or poor performance. The journal entry then gives yourself a grade at the end of the day for how well you performed on your goals and why you earned that grade. Include your daily P/L with your grade, so that you can quickly see how your performance rises and falls with your grades.

The journal keeps you constructive, keeps you learning, and keeps you working on the things that are most important. It is not a tool for simply rehashing the day or voicing your feelings; it is your tool for self-development: your means for coaching yourself.


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