Friday, February 5, 2010

Interval training for the brain

I’m a believer in interval training, not that I have ever seriously trained for anything physical. No marathon on my c.v. At least I incorporate it into my daily exercise routine.

Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz, in The Power of Full Engagement: Managing Energy, Not Time, Is the Key to High Performance and Personal Renewal (The Free Press, 2003) extend the principle of interval training to mental tasks. Their basic hypothesis is simple: people need to cycle their mental efforts to achieve a balance between expending and recovering energy. Grinding is a death knell.

Loehr and Schwartz are writing primarily for the business community; they offer a “corporate athlete full-engagement training system.” But it’s easy enough to extrapolate their guiding premise to the trading world. The crux of the matter is that “thinking uses up a great deal of energy. The brain represents just 2 percent of the body’s weight, but requires almost 25 percent of its oxygen. The consequences of insufficient mental recovery range from increased mistakes of judgment and execution to lower creativity and a failure to take reasonable account of risks. The key to mental recovery is to give the conscious, thinking mind intermittent rest.” (p. 96)

The intraday trader is particularly vulnerable to the downside effects of not taking mental breaks. Staring at a screen all day, afraid that to turn away for even a few minutes will mean lost riches is in fact, according to the authors, a prescription for diminished performance. If your eyes start to glaze over, are you really at the top of your game? Better to take a break—whatever type of break works best for you.

If you’re the type of person who returns to the screen only to realize that you missed the perfect setup, keep a log of all these “lost” opportunities. I suspect you’ll find one of two things. Either you are overestimating the number of times the market came knocking at your door when you were away. Or you are avoiding good trades by taking breaks just as they are about to set up. If you’re not at your screen you don’t have to be afraid to trade. A log should make the difference clear.

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