Saturday, May 12, 2018

Cognitive Behavioral Techniques for Changing Your Trading Psychology - Part One: Overcoming Procrastination

I recently had the pleasure of joining four accomplished colleagues in the psychotherapy world for a presentation on brief therapy for the American Psychiatric Association's annual meeting.  One of the presenters, Dr. Seth Gillihan, was kind enough to pass along a copy of his recent book, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Made Simple.  It's a self-help text detailing specific, research-backed techniques for changing patterns of thought and behavior.  

As I read the book, I was struck by how relevant many of the exercises are for traders in financial markets.  In this short series of posts, I will outline several common areas of challenge for traders and techniques for working on those, as outlined in the book.  We will begin with procrastination, the tendency to avoid things that we know we need to do.

Dr. Gillihan points out that many factors can contribute to procrastination, including fear of falling short in our performance and avoidance of discomfort.  One common area of procrastination among traders is putting off the work of preparing for the trading day, whether it's completing a journal or laying out plans for the coming session.  Some of the techniques Dr. Gillihan outlines in the book for overcoming procrastination are:

a)  Using a Calendar - The more specific we are about the work we want to do and when we want to do it, the more likely it is that we'll get the tasks done.  I like scheduling daily activities for the same time each day, turning work routines into positive habit patterns.  Scheduling activities a day ahead and reviewing the coming day's calendar in the evening helps prime us for action.  For unpleasant tasks, I schedule a reward period following the completion of the task.  

b)  Working in Shorter, Uninterrupted Segments - Dr. Gillihan points to what is known as the Pomodoro technique, in which work is broken down into 25 minute segments that are uninterrupted.  This has the natural advantage of making a large workload more doable and it provides mini-breaks for renewing our energy and willpower.  I use the breaks between work segments as mini-rewards, when I can take a snack, play with one of the cats, etc.

c)  Mindfulness - Many times procrastination results from distraction and (negative) thoughts about the future.  We tend to avoid what we anticipate will be uncomfortable.  By bringing our attention and awareness to the present through methods like meditation, we can remove mental clutter and focus on doing one thing at a time.  Very often, breaking through and completing one or two subtasks can lead to momentum and completing a larger project.

d)  Self-Reminders - A powerful technique is to vividly remind ourselves of the negative consequences of behaviors we wish to avoid.  This works well in alcohol treatment, where the mental rehearsal of the negative consequences of drinking helps a person avoid relapse and helps them reach out for support.  Reminding ourselves that procrastination prevents us from being the best traders we can be can become a helpful prod toward action.

Another technique that works well for me is a shift of environment.  When I want to complete a difficult task, such as editing a writing project, I will bring my computer to a Starbucks or the food court of a large grocery store and I commit to not leaving until the work is completed.  In the new environment, there are no other distractions (phone, emails, interruptions from people) and I find it easy to enter into a focused work mode.  Sometimes the environmental shift is as simple as playing music in the background while I work, providing stimulation that doesn't distract.  (I'm listening to JWeihaas as I'm writing this).

Our actions play an important role in shaping our experience of ourselves.  We cannot act as decisive traders if the majority of our time is spent in procrastination mode.  Avoiding any single task may seem to have few consequences.  A pattern of avoidance, however, reduces our productivity and effectiveness.  Ultimately, we are either in control of the time and challenges of life or those control us.  How we approach our efforts daily shapes the mindset that emerges in our trading.  

There is much to be said for using daily calendars as repeated experiences of efficacy.