In the fields of clinical and counseling psychology, there are many evidence-based techniques that help people overcome mood problems, anxiety, anger issues, addictions, and much more. But what about people who don’t have diagnosable clinical and counseling issues? Can psychology help them perform more effectively at home and in their work? In this post, we will explore a powerful principle and see how psychological methods can benefit all of us.
The Principle Of Continuity
Most people–including mental health professionals–think of problems as distinct entities. The DSM system of diagnosis is based on this framework: either we possess a psychological/psychiatric problem or we don’t. A different framework locates these problems along a continuum, from normal everyday life challenges to difficult emotional disorders. Let’s take the example of depression. We may feel depressed because of a loss that we experience, such as the passing of a loved one. We could also feel depressed on a more ongoing basis, as part of a chronic, inherited disorder. In that event, we might seek the assistance of medications as well as longer-term therapies. In everyday life, the dynamics of depression can also affect us, taking the form of discouragement and negative thinking. These dynamics are not as severe as the more “clinical” manifestations, but they share important characteristics.
Similarly, a person might have an anxiety problem in social situations, making it difficult to meet people. A more challenging anxiety problem would be an obsessive-compulsive disorder that interferes with broad areas of life. At the workplace, we might observe similar dynamics of anxiety, as performance pressures lead us to make impulsive and suboptimal decisions. The trader in financial markets, for example, who displays a “fear of missing out” when chasing a moving market experiences an anxiety problem, but not one that would be diagnosed by a clinician.
Anger, too, exists on a continuum. It may be episodic and lead to arguments and difficulties in a marriage, or it could be part of a more pervasive syndrome associated with rage and violent behavior. In the performance situation, anger manifests itself as frustration, as events interfere with the achievement of our goals. A portfolio manager may become frustrated when days of intensive research fail to pay off, thanks to a random tweet that moves the market. That frustration can also lead to undesirable behavior, albeit not as dramatically as in the clinical situation.
In all of these cases, we observe continuity. The problems and challenges that we face in day to day life are not wholly different from those that affect people with diagnosable emotional disorders. They exist on a continuum and display similar dynamics. For this reason, the techniques that have been found to be effective in counseling and clinical situations possess tremendous relevance to our day-to-day performance challenges. This suggests that some of the most powerful “coaching” techniques for peak performance are adaptations of “clinical” methods that have been studied and applied for decades.
Two Promising Methods For Improving Our Performance
In a recent podcast, psychologist Seth Gillihan, Ph.D. and I explored applications of evidence-based therapy for performers in financial markets: traders, portfolio managers, and investors. Specifically, we focused on two evidence-based methods: behavioral and cognitive. Behavioral techniques are based on the notion that what we do impacts how we think and act. By changing our behaviors, we create new patterns that we internalize and ultimately extend. Cognitive approaches seek change by helping us alter our ways of thinking about problems, opening the door to fresh solutions. Here are some noteworthy examples:
- Behavioral Methods: Using Feedback To Change Performance – I recently purchased and started using a device that provides continuous readings of blood sugar levels. The idea is to keep levels within an ideal range, much as a runner on a treadmill might sustain a target heart rate. In order to achieve that range, it’s necessary to alter eating patterns: what one eats, how one eats, and when one eats. Those changes to eating patterns have resulted in weight loss, and the combination of improved blood sugar levels and weight loss have led to better energy levels during the day and greater productivity. As in the use of monitoring devices such as Fitbit, the feedback leads to change in behavior, which in turn fuels self-mastery and fosters wider levels of change. Such feedback can also help performers master such skills as meditation, as in the case of the Muse device that monitors brainwave patterns in real time. Mike Bellafiore at SMB Capital has found that breathing and meditation skills help traders gain control over their decision-making by facilitating mindfulness and rule-following. Once again, this leads to wider psychological changes associated with improved confidence and risk-taking. Changing individual behaviors can ultimately change our psychology–and our performance.
- Cognitive Methods: Using Preparation To Change Self-Talk – From a cognitive perspective, our construing impacts our doing: how we think about situations shapes how we respond to them. Most performers, whether in athletics, performing arts, or financial markets, go through warm-up periods prior to engaging in competition. This preparation helps get them in the right mindset for putting their practice into practice. In my work with high-performing money managers, we have dedicated a portion of the preparation period to a rehearsal of self-talk. Specifically, the performer focuses his or her attention on the problem patterns that have negatively impacted decision-making and visualizes those patterns as an enemy. The idea is not only to think of those patterns as self-defeating, but to actually summon the emotions associated with a hated enemy who stands between oneself and success. When performers actually feel a degree of hate and disgust toward their problem patterns, it triggers a competitive response: a desire to defeat the enemy. In shifting the self-talk from battling markets to battling one’s worst tendencies, traders feel empowered. This directs one of their greatest strengths–their competitive drive–constructively.
- Combining Behavioral And Cognitive Methods: Creating Better Work Processes – A valuable performance practice is to identify your best practices–what you do when you are most successful–and turn these into repeatable processes. One way of accomplishing this is to combine behavioral methods with cognitive techniques. In an insightful video, Peter L. Brandt walks listeners through his daily process, from generating trading ideas to managing existing positions. What is clear from his presentation is that his daily routine truly is a routine. In reviewing many charts and distilling the list to a few areas of opportunity, he has found ways to make sense of markets and achieve a high degree of consistency to his investing. The creation of routine is itself a behavioral method that reinforces patience and discipline. During his routine, Brandt rehearses a way of thinking about markets that reduces pressure by emphasizing that not having a position in markets is itself a position: it is OK to be uncertain. In following his process, Brandt conducts both behavioral and cognitive “therapies”, giving him greater control of his work efforts and a mindset favorable to proper decision-making.
The beauty of these methods, behavioral and cognitive, is that they are skill-based. As Dr. Gillihan notes in his book, the techniques can be learned, rehearsed, and “made simple” in the course of daily life. Moreover, it is possible to achieve changes in a relatively short period of time through repetition. Research in outcomes in psychology suggests that it is much easier to initiate change than to sustain it. All of us are prone to relapse. When we engage in skill practice on a daily basis, we develop new habit patterns that become ongoing parts of us–and our performance. As James Clear has illustrated in his book on habit formation, it doesn’t take a life-shattering experience to create significant life changes. We can reach peak levels of performance one thought and one behavior at a time.