Friday, March 14, 2008

Using Trading Journals to Identify and Change Your Patterns

In my last post, we took a look at trading journals and how those can be used to improve performance. The report card format for journaling is particularly helpful for goal-setting, tracking progress, and recognizing patterns in our own trading. In this post, I'll review some of the patterns that most often appear across journal entries--and that are important to work on.

1) Patterns of Negative Self-Talk: These occur during frustrated moments in markets. We miss a trade, a trade blows through our stop, we give back our money on the day: all of these create frustration. This frustration then triggers an anger response that we direct toward ourselves. For example, we might find ourself saying, "Here it goes again! Other people are killing these markets, and I can't get it going." At that point, your frustration is no longer about the specific trade or market event, but is directed to *you as a person*. Trading should be about trading; not about you. After all, you wouldn't be boasting and crowing in the journal if the trade went your way. If you wouldn't like to hear your message coming from someone else (imagine your buddy at the workstation next to yours saying, "Whoa, dude, other people are killing these markets, and you can't get it going!") and if you wouldn't be speaking that way to your trading buddy, then you shouldn't be speaking that way to yourself. Interrupting that negative self-talk and turning your frustration toward a constructive kick in the pants ("C'mon, Brett, you know you shouldn't be trading so large in the chopfest. Let's stick with the rules!") can be very helpful in preventing frustration from snowballing.

2) Patterns of Impulsivity - Out of excitement, boredom, desire to regain profits, or overconfidence, you find yourself trading too frequently or with too much size. This, in turn, leads to uneven performance and outsized trading losses, which then produce discouragement. Many traders keep their goals--and their trading rules--taped to their screens; this helps keep them in the forebrain as a check on impulsivity. One trader I worked with actually had a brief checklist that he had to check off before placing any trade. This prevented him from acting hastily. If you can figure out the triggers that make you impulsive (sometimes these are winning trades, where you start playing with "house money"), you have a good chance to put on the brakes before you act on impulse.

3) Patterns of Fear - Particularly after losses, but sometimes after making money and being afraid of losing it, traders fail to act on good signals or do not size their trades adequately. The result is missed opportunity. Often this occurs if the trader is engaging in "catastrophizing": making a normal potential loss into something much larger. Worry, physical tension, and feelings of nervousness are great clues to track in a journal. Once you recognize your fear patterns, you can take some deep breaths, calm yourself, and focus on assessing opportunity (and focus on those trading rules). One way of breaking overwhelming fear after large losses is just to put on some small trades when your signals are good and get your rhythm and confidence back. Then you ramp back up to normal size in a gradual, but steady manner. Playing defense is not giving into fear: having rules about risk control and hanging onto a day's profits can help you distinguish the two.

Once you notice your patterns, it's easier to construct specific goals for the next day's and week's trade. The overarching goal is changing your patterns: controlling how you think and feel rather than having them control you. It's difficult to imagine changing your patterns if you're not aware of them in the first place!


Using Emotion to Change Emotion

Some 2007 Posts on Trading and Emotions