Bob walked the meeting with a vague sense that something was wrong. He had not slept well the night before and Stephen, his rival for CEO in another division, had set up the participants and the agenda. The critical players in the company would be there. Bob sensed that he had to be careful. His last project had not gone well, even though it wasn’t his fault.
When Bob walked into the room all the other players were already there, as if they had met earlier. All eyes turned to him. Out of his awareness, Bob’s brain downshifted into his limbic brain and sent an adrenaline cocktail instantly exploding in his body.
His field of vision narrowed so he only got visual cues from a sharpened, but narrow field. The sounds in the room went quiet as though someone had turned down the volume. He dropped his binder as the blood left his finders to focus on the major muscle systems. His breathing went shallow and rapid. His heart rate almost doubled in an instant.
He bent over to pick up his binder and he imagined he heard laughter. Bob was not consciously aware of any of this as his body went into fight/flight mode. As Bob straightened out from picking up the dropped binder, Stephen asked, “How ya doing Bob?”
Bob looked up, glared at Stephen and said “Screw you.”
Mind Muscles™ Neural Classroom
As we pick up cues from our environment or even just from watching financial and business news, it is common for our unconscious emotional state to shift from event to event, news story to news story – across a spectrum from joy to anger to fear – depending on the message of each story.
As these shifts occur, the brain shifts the center of its decision making from primarily neocortex based (analytical) to primarily limbic based (emotional). Most importantly, this shift to emotional decision making is unconscious.
After such a shift, our rational brain (neocortex) believes that it is responding to financial circumstances and information as before, but in actuality it has been“emotionally primed” and is reacting to events from within an emotional frame.
We can see the consequences of this effect in our own behavior. After hearing frightening news, we react with more caution, after joyous news, we take more risk. This effect is evident in our work with clients. When investors in aggregate are using their neocortices to formulate analytical decisions based on earnings and fundamental data, their forecasts are generally correct. When they use emotions to guide their decisions– making an investment because they feel good about it – they underperform.
Awareness of emotions, and their influence on decision making, is the foundation for improving business, personal and financial decisions. The brain has established neurological pathways (habits) that guide decision making toward the path of least resistance.
When emotions are high, these pathways are adopted as a rapid shortcut, and habitual decision patterns are utilized. Awareness of our emotion-driven habits is the foundation for behavioral change. Such awareness allows us to slow down habitual reactions, make conscious decisions, and create new habits that serve us better.
Awareness is a muscle. Like going to the gym to work out, neuroscience research with meditators shows that awareness can be built, expanded and accessed in real time with practice. And just like going the gym for the first time, the proper way to begin strengthening this muscle is to begin slowly and build up awareness over time.
For some, awareness may come easily. For others, building real time, neural pathways linked to new awareness may take more time. In either case, strengthening the Awareness Mind Muscles™ creates the potential for big change and more productive results. This makes the psychology of trading go from hard to easy.
Mind Muscles™ Exercise
At a variety of times during the day during work, play and in social engagements with a friend or spouse, set an alarm for between ten minutes to an hour. You can adjust this period with experience. The alarm can be set on your smartphone, computer or with a kitchen timer. You are likely to forget about the alarm by the time it goes off.
To be prepared for the following steps, create a form to record your observations. Include the date and time, context of what you are doing along with your observations. As the form grows with observations, you may notice personal habits and patterns that were previously out of awareness.
When it does go off, shift your attention to:
Your physical sensations
What sensations were present in your body? An easy way to do this is by taking a trip from your nose to your toes. Notice your breathing rate, tension level, physical discomfort, posture and tightness. If this awareness is challenging, you can use the checklist included in the form.
Next, record your physical findings – everything you notice.
Remember, this isn’t about judgment, right, wrong or changing anything! It is just about being curious and aware. Resist the urge to “fix” or change anything you notice. Simply become an anthropologist, a curious adventurer in your own body.
Continue to do this exercise several times a day until it becomes comfortable. This may be a couple of days, or it may be some weeks, depending on your own neural wiring. Once you are comfortable with physical awareness, you will notice that this awareness becomes “real time.” You will be more aware of your physical sensations as they happen. You may notice shifts, but again, just let them happen. There is no need to “change.”
Next, repeat the same exercise, but this time record feelings and emotions instead of physical sensations. What feelings or emotional tone are you experiencing? Pressure, stress, joy, sadness, anger? When the alarm goes off, you may be so involved in your work that you aren’t aware of any feelings. On the other hand, you may find yourself with intense emotions at the moment of the alarm. Again, don’t try to change anything, just increase your awareness in the moment.
For some, it is easy to identify feelings at any given time. For others, it can be bewildering at first. Practice makes perfect. Continue to use the same form to record your emotions.
Now repeat again, but this time when the timer goes off, record your thoughts at that moment. What were you thinking about when the alarm went off? Were you lost in the flow of work? Were you telling yourself a story? Were you listening to a internal critical voice?
The goal of this part of the exercise is to ferret out the stories you tell yourself, as evidenced in your repeating thoughts and feelings. The themes of these stories are evidence of your unconscious emotional state. If you find yourself rehearsing a stressful conversation with a client or colleague, then it’s safe to assume you have unresolved tension that your mind is trying working out. While this tension remains unresolved, it affects your decision process.
Just like the evening news gives us “stories” that shift our emotional responses, we have the ability to create our own internal “news channel.” What is on your internal news channel? What are the top stories of the hour? What teasers do you tell yourself? Again, there is no need to change. Just notice, become aware, and record the results. (Another Mind Muscle™ for later is the “Channel Changer”) Continue to use the same form to record your thoughts.
Awareness Mind Muscles™ Integration
All together now
After going through the cycle of increasing your awareness of your physiology, emotions and thoughts individually, now speed up the process by combining them. As your Awareness Mind Muscles™ strengthen, try noting your awareness in each of these areas together. Now when the alarm goes off, record your physiology, emotions and thoughts at the same time. Continue to use the same form to record your physical state, emotions and thoughts.
Create a new trigger so you don’t have to set alarms. The ring of the telephone is great because you can improve your awareness as you take that incoming call. When the baby cries, your spouse asks you a question, the boss sends you an email…all these are great triggers to do an instant awareness Mind Muscle™. In later newsletters and in our coaching practice, we introduce new Mind Muscles™ that give you the power to not only be aware of, but to create purposeful shifts in your internal processes.
As you fill in the exercise form, you may start to see patterns emerge of the kind of thoughts, emotions and physical sensations you experience. For example, you may notice that when watching an investment or trade that has lost money, you may have a tight stomach, critical thoughts, or angry feelings. Note consistencies, such as if you are unkind or self-congratulatory. Remember we are looking for habits and patterns. For Example, a particular trigger may consistently deliver a negative experience. This is a great awareness.
I can’t emphasize this too much – whatever you become aware of is OK.
Right now at this stage, the goal is just to become aware of your process, with self-acceptance. If you find yourself being judgmental, self-critical, or comparing yourself to the imagined states of others, note that also. This is all OK. You are just gathering data much as an anthropologist who is delighted to note the behaviors of a newly found tribe.
As you continue this exercise, your awareness of your internal process will sharpen.
Eventually, you will be able to monitor your thoughts, emotions and sensations in real time. In later newsletters and in our trader coaching practice, we will talk about building new behaviors that feel better and get you what you want. But for now, don’t worry about change. Just keep building those Awareness Mind Muscles™.
PS: The meeting Bob attended was to announce his promotion.