BALTIMORE (Stockpickr) -- If your prototypical vision of a "trader" consists of someone hunkered over a half-dozen screens, frantically mashing buttons on a multicolored keyboard, you may be disappointed. The truth is that plenty of traders spend their days in careful, calm analysis of the markets, rather than constantly executing trades. It all comes down to timeframe.

Timeframes are a crucial element that traders focus on -- so much so that traders are often classified by the times they focus on. As you might expect, while their occupations may be the same, what those traders actually spend their days doing can be extremely different.

With terms such as "swing trader" and "scalper" being thrown around by Main Street investors, it's clear that understanding your "trader type" is more important than ever. Let's take a look at the three main trader timeframes -- and the implications of following any one of them.

To many people, timeframe seems like an afterthought to trading. After all, the trading strategy itself should come first, right?

In fact, trading strategy and timeframe are so interconnected that the duration of a trade has become the de facto method of differentiating between different trading styles. At its simplest, the market is made up of three kinds of traders: day traders, swing traders and position traders. Nearly all traders -- be they professional, institutional or amateur -- can be grouped into one of those categories.

Their timeframes can be broken down like this:

  • Day Trader: Holds trades between a few minutes and a few hours; portfolio is all cash by the market's close.
  • Swing Trader: Holds trades for at least a single day but no more than a month or so.
  • Position Trader: Holds trades for longer than a month.

Obviously these are rough guidelines -- day traders may occasionally hold overnight, and position traders may occasionally hold for weeks -- but the intricacies of each trader type are more significant than the dictionary definition.

Meet the Day Trader

In many ways, day traders have become the popular image of a "trader" that I mentioned earlier. Because both buying and selling in a position take place within a single trading day, this type of trading requires the most attention and the most speed.

Typically, day traders use technical trading strategies that take advantage of the market's behavior -- but unlike other strategies that allow for careful study of technical indicators and charts, successful day traders need significant "fluency" with the market.

Special subsets of day traders include scalpers and rebate traders, who earn money by taking advantage of market mechanics (or try to).

In day trading, your risk per trade is typically the least of the three, but compounding and margin make up for that. The difficulty of day trading, coupled with the risk of loss, is one of the reasons why this timeframe has such a notoriously high failure rate (less than 20% of day traders actually make money).

Swing Trading Strategy

While some sources relegate the "swing trade" definition to those taking less than a week, today's swing traders fit within a bigger window: typically holding for more than a day on average but less than a month. For that strategy to hold weight, bigger gains are required to justify the longer holding periods.

Because swing trading results in bigger percentage moves than day trading, it can produce equally impressive losses. As in day trading, strict battle-tested trading rules are a hallmark of successful swing traders.

Learning Patience With Position Traders

Many people don't realize that technical traders can -- and often do -- operate using longer time frames. In the case of position traders, positions can be held for a year or more. As a result, this isn't a strategy that's recommended for anxious would-be traders. Position traders often don't know whether a trade is on track on not for quite a while.

The term "trend trading" is sometimes used interchangeably with position trading, but that's a bit of a misnomer. It comes from the fact that most position traders take advantage of long-term market trends, one of the principle tenets of technical analysis. In reality, trend traders can fall along any of the three major timeframes.

Which Strategy Makes Sense for You?

Even though a big deal is made on and off Wall Street about these three "trader types," in the real world successful practitioners of all three timeframes can produce uncannily similar gains. Which one works best for you is largely a function of which market timeframe you're most able to wrap your head around.

That's not to say that you should limit yourself to a single strategy. While these monikers are useful ways of identifying similar types of traders, it's not uncommon for some traders to modify their timeframes of choice based on current market conditions -- hybrid strategies do exist. It's also not uncommon for a day trader to hire a position trading Commodity Trading Advisor to manage a retirement account.

More often than not, successful traders specialize in one single timeframe. The key to finding your timeframe is trial and error. Only actual trading will give you the ultimate answer.

This article is commentary by an independent contributor.