(Editor’s note: one of the most common enemies of getting quality cognitive exercise is being on “mental autopilot”. I recently came across an excellent new book, titled The Daily Trading Coach: 101 Lessons for Becoming Your Own Trading Psychologist, by trading performance expert Dr. Brett Steenbarger, which explicitly calls for addressing the “mental autopilot” problem in his Lesson 4. Even for those of us who are not traders, Dr. Steenbarger advice provides excellent guidance for peak cognitive performance. Dr. Steenbarger graciously gave us permission to share with you, below, Lesson 4: Change Your Environment, Change Yourself. Enjoy!).
Human beings adapt to their environments. We draw on a range of skills and personality traits to fit into various settings. That is why we can behave one way in a social setting and then seem like a totally different human being at work. One of the enduring attractions of travel is that it takes us out of our native environments and forces us to adapt to new people, new cultures, and new ways. When we make those adaptations, we discover new facets of ourselves. As we’ll see shortly, discrepancy is the mother of all change: when we are in the same environments, we tend to draw upon the same, routine modes of thought and behavior.
A few months ago I had an attack of acute appendicitis while staying in a LaGuardia airport hotel awaiting a return flight to Chicago. When I went to the nearest emergency room at Elmhurst Hospital outside Jackson Heights, Queens, I found that I was seemingly the only native English speaker in a sea of people awaiting medical care. After some difficulty attracting attention, I was admitted to the hospital and spent the next several days of recuperation navigating my way through patients and staff of every conceivable nationality. By the end of the experience, I felt at home there. I’ve since stayed at the same airport hotel and routinely make visits into the surrounding neighborhoods—areas I would have never in my wildest dreams ventured into previously. In adapting to that environment, I discovered hidden strengths. I also overcame more than a few hidden prejudices and fears.
The greatest enemy of change is routine. When we lapse into routine and operate on autopilot, we are no longer fully and actively conscious of what we’re doing and why. That is why some of the most fertile situations for personal growth—those that occur within new environments—are those that force us to exit our routines and actively master unfamiliar challenges.
In familiar environments and routines, we operate on autopilot. Nothing changes.
When you act as your own trading coach, your challenge is to stay fully conscious, alert to risk and opportunity. One of your greatest threats will be the autopilot mode in which you act without thinking, without full awareness of your situation. If you shift your trading environment, you push yourself to adapt to new situations: you break routines. If your environment is always the same, you will find yourself gravitating to the same thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. We are mired in repetitive patterns of thought and behavior because we are mired in routines: the same emotional and physical environments. Indeed, we repeat the same patterns—for better or for worse—precisely because those patterns are adaptations to our current settings.
So how can we change our trading environments? The key is recognizing that our physical settings are only a part of our surroundings. Here are a few routine-busting activities that can alert us to risks and possibilities:
1. Seek Out Divergent Views. Conversations with traders who trade differently from you—different time frames, markets, or styles—can often help cement your views or question them. Similarly, reading materials from fresh perspectives puts your ideas in a different light and pushes you to question your assumptions. I remained relatively bullish on the stock market’s longer-term picture into the final quarter of 2007. Only when I pushed myself to read informed views that clashed with my own—and consulting data that did not fit my framework—did I modify my perspectives and avoid significant losses.
2. Examine the Big Picture. It’s easy to get lost in the market’s short-term picture; how it is trading that minute, that day. I find it important to periodically zoom out to longer-term charts and place the current action into context. Indeed, some of the best trading ideas start with a big picture view and then proceed to shorter-term execution. I especially find this to be the case when looking at longer-term support/resistance, trading ranges, and Market Profile value areas. Often, shifting my field of vision will help me avoid an ill-informed, reactive trade based on the market’s last few ticks. If something seems obvious in the market, switch time frames and generate an entirely new perspective. What looks obvious from one view may well be obviously wrong from another.
3. Examine Related Views. Sometimes the action of a single stock or sector will illuminate what’s happening in the broader market; one currency cross will break out ahead of others. Are we seeing a broad fixed income rally, or is the yield curve steepening or flattening? Looking across instruments and asset classes keeps us from getting locked into ways of thinking. I find myself tracking sector ETFs during the trading day to see if stocks are moving in a single direction (trending) or are taking different paths within a range. If I see bond traders fleeing to safety or assuming risk, I can anticipate selling or buying stocks. Seeing the entire financial playing field helps keep us from becoming wedded to preconceived ideas.
4. Take the Break. Just as we take vacations to return to work refreshed, a break from the screen can help us generate fresh market views. It is easy to become focused on what is most dramatic and salient in markets. Pull back and clear out the head to help you see what’s not obvious and then profit by the time it’s recognized by others. I find breaks especially helpful following losing trades, enabling us to reflect on the losses and what can be learned from them.
In short, it’s the mental routines—the mental environment—that we most need to change to break unwanted and unprofitable patterns of thought and behavior. When you’re your own trading coach, you learn to think, but also to think about your thinking. Incorporate a fresh look at self and markets each day to inspire new ideas, challenge stale ones, and tap sources of energy and inspiration that otherwise remain hidden in routine. As with my adventure in Queens, you may find that the most exotic changes bring out your finest adaptations.
C O A C H I N GÂ C U E:
Many times it’s the market views we most scorn that we need to take most seriously, because at some level we’re finding them threatening. Seek out commentary from those you most disagree with and ask yourself what you would be seeing in the markets if that commentary proves to be correct. If you’re quick to dismiss a market view, give it a second look. You wouldn’t need to be so defensive if you didn’t sense something plausible—and dangerous—in the views you’re dismissing.
– Brett Steenbarger, Ph.D. is Clinical Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at SUNY Upstate Medical University in Syracuse, and the author of The Psychology of Trading (Wiley, 2003) and Enhancing Trader Performance (Wiley, 2006). His latest book is The Daily Trading Coach: 101 Lessons for Becoming Your Own Trading Psychologist. A coach of traders and portfolio managers at hedge funds, banks, and proprietary trading firms, Dr. Steenbarger blogs at TraderFeed.com