Sunday, July 13, 2014

Cultivating Winning Habits

While posting to the blog the other day, I noticed that TraderFeed is closing in on 4000 posts.  It struck me that 4000 is a large number.  If I wrote a blog post daily for 10 years, I still wouldn't accumulate 4000 posts.

Now someone observing that amount of writing might marvel at the level of motivation, passion, and discipline it takes to maintain such a blog.  In point of fact, however, motivation, passion, and discipline have little to do with the writing productivity.  And therein lies an important, but underappreciated reality for trading psychology.

The recent posts on turning success into a habit and the importance of small wins suggest that the right habits are crucial in cultivating a positive sense of self.  Many small wins, strung together, become winning habits.  When we have winning habits, we don't need to rely on discipline or passion or motivation to do the right things.  I take a shower every morning without fail.  No one lauds my motivation or my passion for cleanliness.  The truth is that taking a shower in the morning has become an automatic act...the day wouldn't feel right if not begun with a shower.

That makes sense from an evolutionary vantage point.  Habits enable us to do what we want/need to do in more or less auto-pilot mode, while saving limited attention and willpower resources for novel tasks and demands.  Because of that, we can engage in relatively complex tasks--driving in NYC traffic, for example--while carrying on a conversation with a passenger and watching for the next freeway exit.

A look at my recent blog posts reveals the times at which they were written (Central, US).  Going from most recent to older posts this month the times have been:  1:41 AM; 4:24 AM; 3:53 AM; 4:01 AM; 3:05 AM; 3:25 AM; 2:07 AM; 5:14 AM; 4:38 AM; and 6:40 AM.  You get the idea.  I start my day with writing, just as I start my day feeding my cats and taking a shower.  It's not the result of coaching, counseling, journaling, discipline, motivation, or any of those other staples of trading psychology.  It's the result of cultivating positive habits.   

We can create habits for productivity, habits for happiness--habits for most any positive outcome we care to generate, according to recent research.  Charles Duhigg, who wrote the excellent book The Power of Habit, suggests that there is a "golden rule" of habit change:  retain the cues that trigger a habit and the rewards that sustain the habit and find fresh, constructive routines to link these.  I used to write journal articles and books while at home, but I found that when I needed to take breaks, I inevitably drifted mindlessly to the refrigerator.  I got my writing done--and I put on the pounds to prove it!  That's when I hit on the idea of doing my writing at coffee shops and grocery stores.  My breaks consisted of coffee and whatever small snack I purchased--no more grazing at the fridge.

When I first began attending open AA meetings as a community psychologist in Upstate New York, I joked with a colleague that the members had retained their drinking habit:  they had simply replaced alcohol with coffee.  Little did I appreciate that habit truly is the backbone of 12-step programs.  Does AA seek to cure alcoholism with willpower, motivation, or planning?  Not at all!  Indeed, one of the prime tenets of AA is the member's declaration that they are powerless against alcohol.  It's not about willpower.  

So how to AA members overcome their destructive habit?  They start with 90 meetings in 90 days.  "Bring the body and the mind will follow," is a popular slogan.  By the time 90 days are over, the coffee urn has replaced the barstool and AA buddies have replaced the drinking ones.  One member put it very well:

"What I’ve learned is that taking action is almost always the gateway into feeling better. Rarely have I been able to think my way into different behavior or results, instead it’s only when I take action (especially when I don’t want to) that things begin to shift, and I begin feeling better.The program, like life, doesn’t work when I’m into thinking, only when I’m into action."

It isn't that we think ourselves into new action patterns.  Rather, new ways of acting create new ways of experiencing ourselves, which cultivate new--and potentially constructive--habits.  Doing changes our viewing.  Action, harnessed to routine, is a gateway.

Further Reading:  Turning Goals Into Habit Patterns