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Distraction sickness. How to maintain focus while trading

Learn what distraction sickness is and how to avoid it. Discover tips and tricks to stay focused on when trading financial markets.

Reading time: 6 minutes

Trading level: Beginner


Distraction sickness. How to maintain focus while trading Source: Shutterstock

Many, many years ago, Charles Schwab, president of US Steel, told an efficiency expert that he didn't have time to listen to his full presentation, but asked the man for his top suggestion for him.

The expert said: "Every morning, make a list of the things you have to do that day in order of importance. Concentrate on the first task until it is finished, without diverting your attention to anything else. Then go onto the second task, and so on, completing as much as you comfortably can in the course of the day. Try it for one month and then pay me what you think it is worth to you".

Thirty days later, Schwab sent the man a cheque for $25,000.

If it's good advice for Schwab, it's good advice for all of us.

The only thing is, these days, everyone is so distracted.

It’s happening to all of us. Distraction sickness. It’s the enemy of deep work and achieving anything of real value in our lives. Plus, according to some researchers, it might even be getting worse. Many of the distractions you are facing are cognitively engaging, and research has found that this is a risk factor, increasing the chance you will deviate from focusing on the task at hand1.

Trading requires a high degree of focus and concentration – firstly to learn about the markets, and secondly to maintain your performance once you’re trading. If you struggle to concentrate without getting distracted, it’s unlikely you’ll ever develop the trading success you are seeking. So, why is this is happening, and what can you do about it?


People are hooked on information. It springs from evolutionary biology. Back in the caves our ancestors needed gossip, songs, dramatic stories and art to tell them what was happening with their family and friends.

However now… you have a constant source of information, news and gossip at your fingertips. Your mobile phone. Humans are almost helpless to ignore it.

Mobile phones are a distraction to drivers, and they’re a distraction when seeking to achieve appropriate high performance success habits.

It’s almost like you’re training your attention span to be in the region of seconds instead of hours. You get a little endorphin rush, reinforcing your behaviour and cementing the habit even further every time you get distracted.

Sometimes you don’t realise you’re in trouble until it’s too late.

A small but revealing study showed that many young adults were looking at their phones 85 times a day, for around 30 seconds at a time2. That’s around one third of their waking hours. Plus, they didn’t even realise that’s what was ruling their life. They actually used their smartphones around twice as much as they estimated.

Another study revealed that 62% of people pulled out a device while waiting in line, and more than 80% of those people took less than 20 seconds3. So, we’ve impacted our threshold to put up with boredom to around the 20 second mark. Shocking.

What’s the impact?

Without being able to focus and go the distance, as a trader, you just won’t get the results in the markets you’re seeking. As with any skilled performance endeavour, there are so many moving parts. However, with good planning, you can get your most important tasks done each day and hit your trading goals.

Plus, it can even be more difficult depending on the time of day and how you’re feeling - tired, hungry, stressed? Social psychologist Roy F Baumeister who focused on decision fatigue says, “Even the wisest people won’t make good choices when they’re not rested, and their glucose is low.”

Decision fatigue impacts your decisions most significantly in the pre-AM break, pre-lunch and late PM. Even judges vary their behaviour significantly. When looking at prisoner paroles they granted fewer paroles during these low blood sugar times. Judges gave more lenient decisions at the start of the day and immediately after taking a scheduled break4.

Jonathan Levav, associate professor of business at Columbia University said:  "You are anywhere between two and six times as likely to be released if you're one of the first three prisoners considered versus the last three prisoners considered." The likelihood of a favourable ruling peaked at the beginning of the day and declined steadily over time from a probability of about 65% to nearly zero, before spiking back up to about 65% after a break for a meal or snack.

The paper speculates that breaks may replenish mental resources by providing "rest, improving mood or by increasing glucose levels in the body".

It's been shown that distractions also impact our levels of happiness. Interestingly, even leaving your phone face up when you’re having brunch with a friend has been found to distract you and diminish your enjoyment of being with your friend5.

What can you do about it?

Your challenge is to make your most important task for the day your absolute top priority. Here’s a step-by-step guide to help you do just that.

Create a success environment

Find out the things that distract you the most by watching your own behaviour for a day or two. This will help you ascertain your personal hot buttons that make you lose focus.

For example, if you work with all your computer notifications on, you’re subject to other people’s whims and agendas. When you sit down to trade, if you’re trading from your computer, turn off your phone. Minimise the chance that you’ll get distracted.

Gary Evans, an international expert on environmental stress, found that noise interferes with children’s ability to learn6. "Noise exposure is consistently linked to reading deficits and may interfere with speech perception and long-term memory in primary school children," says Evans. "But it wasn't until we had this unprecedented opportunity to study children near the simultaneous opening and closing of the new and former Munich airports that we could actually find stronger evidence for a causal relation." There’s evidence that if you have fewer annoying sounds nearby, you even become a nicer person, you’re less likely to be distracted, and you’re more likely to focus on the task at hand.

Plus, it takes much longer to regain your focus once you’re interrupted. A research study at the University of California at Irvine found that it takes around 23 minutes for most workers to get back to full concentration on their initial task7. Every interruption you receive robs you of 23 minutes. So, it makes sense to limit your potential for getting distracted.

Build your schedule around when you need to do deep work.

Block out your time

Most people have trouble maintaining focus for over one hour at a time. Put segments of time in your calendar to work on your personal areas of focus, and even consider setting an alarm clock to tell you when that time is up and now you need a break.

For example, if you need to work out how your charting package works? Book a specific time as a recurring event in your calendar for a time that you know works for you. You’ve planned it in advance. You’ll concentrate on just this topic, and you’ll have a goal that is specific, measurable and achievable.

Have a ‘power hour’ once a week

Give yourself one hour each week to plan what you need to do, and how to minimise your main distraction hot buttons. That extra bit of planning will help you stay focused, and you’ll work in alignment with your goals.

The problem is that everyone experiences inattentional blindness. You’re unable to see the things that you’re not directly concentrating on. You only see the things that you’re really concentrating on. So, if you’re concentrating on your phone, you’re not able to think of other matters with any area of clarity. Everyone thinks they can multi-task. However, research shows that when you bounce between different tasks you become less efficient and are more likely to make a mistake8.

Attention is like money. It’s finite. We need to be careful about how and where we spend it.

Have a good hard look at all the areas where you think you’re being efficient, but where you’re not performing at 100% of your capacity. Guard against distractions and you’ll be in a better position to trade with focus.

Louise Bedford is a full-time private trader and author of The Secret of Writing Options, The Secret of Candlestick Charting, Charting Secrets, Trading Secrets and Let The Trade Wins Flow.

This information has been prepared by IG, a trading name of IG Australia Pty Ltd. In addition to the disclaimer below, the material on this page does not contain a record of our trading prices, or an offer of, or solicitation for, a transaction in any financial instrument. IG accepts no responsibility for any use that may be made of these comments and for any consequences that result. No representation or warranty is given as to the accuracy or completeness of this information. Consequently any person acting on it does so entirely at their own risk. Any research provided does not have regard to the specific investment objectives, financial situation and needs of any specific person who may receive it. It has not been prepared in accordance with legal requirements designed to promote the independence of investment research and as such is considered to be a marketing communication. Although we are not specifically constrained from dealing ahead of our recommendations we do not seek to take advantage of them before they are provided to our clients.

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