It was yet another cold and rainy January morning in New York City and the NYSE's morning bell would not be rung for another hour. I sat in my office waiting for my client — let's call him Joe, a top producing financial advisor for a major firm in the city. Like so many of my other successful advisor clients, Joe would be working on setting some goals for the New Year with me. I do this exercise with clients every year — but this year is different. With so much money lost in both their clients' and their own portfolios, my advisor clients are desperate to make positive changes. They don't need to be pushed.

Joe arrived just after 8 a.m., looking tired, frazzled and beaten down. He sat down on my black leather couch and took a deep breath. Joe wants to give new life to his business in 2009, but he hasn't historically stuck to discipline when it comes to accomplishing his goals. In fact, despite being a top performer in his branch, he frequently falls well short of his stated targets. And that's because he's a perfectionist whose goals are typically lofty and unrealistic. This is hard on his ego: He gets impatient about missing the mark, becomes self-critical and ends up feeling like a failure. With each benchmark he misses, he gets increasingly frustrated, apathetic and sloppy in his practice: His production drops and his client-centered service deteriorates.

DIAGNOSIS: Joe is not unusual. In fact, as a performance coach, I work with countless advisors who experience an emotional letdown at the end of every year due to deficiencies in their performance and a lack of goal attainment. For some of these advisors, the emotional letdown leads to a phenomenon I refer to as “behavioral paralysis.” This is particularly common among perfectionist personality types, who engage in black-and-white success/failure thinking. They often develop apathy and obsessive bearish thinking as a result, digging themselves deeper into a rut.

THE PRESCRIPTION: The key is to be flexible and reasonable with yourself. Here are some of the suggestions I made to Joe and to other advisors like him:

  1. Chuck Rigid Time Tables: We are working in such uncertain times that there is no way to be assured that your plan will work perfectly without a hitch. Instead of beating yourself up for not reaching your goal by year end, focus on achieving the goals within a flexible time frame. Remember that one bad month may be meaningless within the scope of a year's opportunities. Give yourself room to do everything you need to do to meet the goal. Don't rush it.

  2. Enjoy the Process: Too often, advisors become so focused on getting from point A to point B that they forget to enjoy the ride. Allow yourself to celebrate whenever you recognize that you have overcome some obstacle on the road to attaining your objective. When you do reach the goal, take note of the mistakes you learned from and relish all that you did right.

  3. Think Bullishly: When times are tough, many advisors inevitably fall short of their goals. Some respond by getting caught in bearish and self-defeating thought patterns: “I will never get through this market meltdown,” or, “My clients will never trust me again after all the money they lost with me.” The only way to break free of the cycle of negative thinking is by identifying the negative thoughts, reassessing the accuracy of these thoughts and then challenging them with more positive rational thoughts. It is best to write it down. It's also important for the advisor to focus his positive thoughts on parts of his business over which he actually has some control. (In other words, it doesn't make sense for an advisor to tell himself the market is going to go up for the next three months. It does, however, make sense for him to think, “My clients may be frustrated with me now, but I can regain their confidence.”) Top-performing advisors are able to see setbacks as temporary challenges rather than permanent signs of incompetence. They are able to move past recent months of poor performance and seek new strategies for attacking present challenges and preparing for future ones.

Dr. Alden Cass is a New York City-based clinical psychologist and performance coach for Wall Street advisors, traders and bankers. He is author of Bullish Thinking: The Advisor's Guide to Surviving and Thriving on Wall Street, and is a motivational speaker for a variety of national financial association venues. For more info on Dr. Cass, email him at acass@competitive-streak.com or visit competitive-streak.com.