Sunday, April 1, 2012

Frequency, Not Intensity: Going Slower to Arrive Faster

“If hunger is a problem in America, then why do we have an obesity problem among the people who we say have a hunger program?                                                                                                                                                  -Rick Santorum
One day, I woke up way too fat because I was too poor to afford food, and far too preoccupied with that fact to know better. At 5’11”, I stopped measuring when the scale hit 250lbs. There didn’t seem to be any point.

Fast forward three years, and I had completed a marathon, could do 20 pull-ups easily, and ran 3 miles in just under 17 minutes. While not exactly easy on the eyes -- sadly, you can’t sweat out ugly -- at 165lbs, I was no longer immediately repulsive to my own mother. I had managed to lose a third of a me.

I had replaced said third-of-a-me with a nasty limp, various lower-back injuries, and a tendency to crackle while breathing (lung injuries are, at the very least, entertaining). But damnit, every morning, I was going to run my 5k. After work, I was getting my quick workouts done, come hell or high water. 



A few measly injuries weren’t going to stop me. Mind over matter! 

...until, of course, matter, being bruised, ripped and mostly sponge, finds itself no longer able to support mind. Tore up as a soup sandwich, I learned that limping up to a treadmill with a walking stick draws stares at the gym.

It was six months of painful, slow healing before I was able to walk normally again, ten months before I ran more than a few yards. My body fat crept back into the double-digits, and my Ironman hopes were set aside for some time.

My story, of course, is far from unique. I had fallen into the same trap so many of us do when we attempt long-lasting change. I had treated obesity like a one-off problem to be solved, a dragon to be slain. Neglecting feedback, mistaking stubbornness for resolve, I had ploughed ahead. That didn’t work, so I doubled it.

About now, this should start sounding familiar to traders.

How many times have we gone after a revenge trade, shorting after a rip with a flimsy story? Does “Yeah, it ripped hard, but now it’s made a doji on the upper bollinger band, it’s got to drop now!” sound familiar? That’s ignoring shin-splints and the knotted muscles and going for another morning run. That’s ignoring feedback.

How many times have we, in an attempt to make up for a red day, gone in with double or triple weight? If you’re having a red day or week or quarter, it’s probably because your read isn’t sighted in. It ain’t workin’. Don’t double it.

All of these mistakes come, in some part, from a short-term thought process. Like my (doomed) attempt at a 125lbs clean-and-jerk with no warm-up, they’re looking to take something that should be long-term and achieve it in the short-term. The way I see it, the only thing a short-term thought process leads to is a short-term trading career. 

As a trader, a plan for doing this for the rest of your life translates to managing risk in day-to-day operations. After all, if you don’t manage risk, say by doubling down when things aren’t working, then you reduce your chances -- exponentially, in fact -- of sticking around.

In the words of my co-worker and workout partner, on seeing me stumble into the gym: “You want to be in a position where you’re doing this for the rest of your life. You can barely stand. Take the damn day off.” We’re in this for the long haul. Optimize for frequency, not intensity. Manage risk: size trades appropriately, take cushion early, respect stops.

The alternative is to ignore feedback, and, when faced with a losing course of action, double up and try again. It’s what makes you push well past the boundaries of sense, well past where you’re coughing up red gibbets, keeping the needle firmly buried in the redline. Not surprisingly, the results will be similar. Like my lower back, the account will blow up. Much like me and my marathons, you’ll sideline yourself for months, maybe years, and perhaps even permanently.

Having realized that I had been confusing intensity for frequency, I have not rushed back into my training with the same reckless abandon. I am still running, thankfully, but rarely do I try for those 6-minute mile runs day after day after day. And while my 5k times are improving, I am still far, far away from that 17 minute mark. I am optimizing for frequency first and intensity second. I plan on taking it a little slower this time.

Funny thing is, if I had taken it slower the first time around, I would’ve arrived a whole lot faster.