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I went to college, getting a BS and MS in engineering from two top schools. But I spent most of my 20s bartending and waiting tables, and it was during this time that I started trading.

Since we are somewhat a function of our circumstances, working in the restaurant industry molded me. In fact, I may operate differently had I had an engineering job.

The nature of a restaurant job is: sometimes you work lunch, sometimes you work dinner, sometimes you work both and sometimes you work neither.

This meant there were two distinct environments I traded in. There were days I was in front of my computer all day and other days I was only there for the open.

After several months and nearly 100 trades executed, I compared my results and was shocked with my findings.

Actually I wasn’t shocked — I had a hunch — but the hard numbers forced me to meet my issues head on.

I wanted to be a full-time trader. The money, location independence and freedom were all obvious draws. I figured the only thing standing in my way — anyone’s way — was screen time. I just needed to be in front of my computer enough days to “get it.” Then I’d be set.

I was so sure of this that at one point I quit my restaurant job, figuring that if I missed out on 200 bucks working a Thursday night, I’d make it back the next day trading — but at the last second a manager convinced me not to quit, and I’m glad.

It was an eye-awakening moment when I realized I made more money being away from my computer than I did sitting and staring at the screen all day.

How I operated when I couldn’t be in front of my screen all day:

I tended to back up and consider the bigger picture. I really wanted to be in concert with the intermediate and long term trend. I wasn’t going to be in front of my computer all day, so I wouldn’t be able to react to anything that happened. The odds needed to be heavily in my favor — the best way to do that was to be in sync with the big picture.

I restricted myself to only trading the highest quality setups. Average or below-average setups just wouldn’t cut it. At most I would enter one trade each day in the opening half hour, and on average I’d only do 2-3 each week. I wouldn’t be able to manage trades intraday — using hard stops instead — so there was no room for anything but the very best.

I had to plan the entire trade and think it through. Why did I like it? Where would I enter? How would I enter? What would I do if the stock gapped up or gapped down? Where was my exit? How much was I willing to risk? I had to think through each trade in fine detail because I wouldn’t be in front of my screen all day. This forced me to be very mechanical. There could be no “let’s see what happens.” I could physically enter a trade in the morning, but a hard stop had to do the managing for me.

So when I was to work a measly $30 lunch shift at the restaurant, I was patient and selective, and I restricted myself to only the very best setups. I planned trades in detail, and was very mechanical with my operations — there could be no micromanaging.

 

How I operated when I could be in front of my screen all day:

I was excited. This was my dream. I’d get to sit in front of my computer all day, look at many stocks on multiple time frames, trade more often and really accelerate my learning. The more days I could do this, the better.

Because I’d be in front of my screen all day, this was my chance to trade higher beta names. Forget Oracle or Lucent, which I traded over and over for small profits each time. Now I could trade Infospace and get a chunk of a 5-7% move each day.

There was no need to plan trades. After all, I’d be staring at my screen all day. If a stock went against me, I could just exit.

And there was no reason to consider the bigger context. I was only going to execute short term trades for big profits. The 30 bucks I’d forego by not working at the restaurant would be easily made up for in the market.

So when I could be in front of my screen all day, I traded much more often and routinely played lower quality stocks, I never considered the bigger picture and I’d pretty much wing it without much planning.

I instinctively knew what my results were. By working a 30-dollar lunch shift, I did better, but this was not easy to grasp. I wanted to be a full-time trader, and I thought the more time I could be in front of my computer, the more money I’d make, but that’s not what I was being told by the data. Less time in front of my screen forced me to be more patient and selective. I was restricted to trading only very good set ups. I operated in higher-quality names and traded very mechanically — no micromanaging.

I carry this lesson with me today. If I’m in a little slump, I’ll pose the scenario: what if I could only be in front of my computer for the first 30 minutes, what would I do? This inevitably leads me to taking a deep breath, eliminating all but the highest quality setups from my list, planning my trades in greater detail and being more mechanical. And then during the day I’ll force myself to step away from my computer. I’ll go pick weeds in the back yard or empty the dishwasher — anything to get away from my screen. Knowing that I’ll be stepping away influences what I do. Stepping away prevents me from stressing about positions and micromanaging them.

This was hard to grasp at first. This is America — we’re brainwashed into believing more time equates to more money, but I was being told to have patience and pick my spots.

Those 30-dollar lunch shifts were a blessing.

What’s your blessing? What blessing can you create that will move you in the direction you want to go?

Jason Leavitt is founder and head of research at LeavittBrothers.com and LeavittBrothers.net, boutique research firms that offer market analysis and trading ideas to investment advisors, hedge funds and full- and part-time independent traders. Aside from his research duties, he trades in his own account full-time and has numerous contributions to the trading community in the form of podcasts, webinars, research reports and essays. He can be contacted at jason@leavittbrothers.com.