How To Apply Neutral Thinking

We are all prone to misjudging a situation. We are either way too optimistic or categorically assume the worst.

This is where neutral thinking comes in. By focusing on the data, you refrain from rash decisions.

Learn how neutral thinking compares against positive and negative thinking and how to train yourself to think more neutrally.

What Is Neutral Thinking?

Neutral thinking strives to look at reality as it is. It rejects both negative and positive thinking as not productive.

Let’s say it’s raining outside.

If you are prone to negative thinking, you might say, “This sucks. I was really looking forward to going outside. Now my whole day is ruined.”

When you practice positive thinking, your response might be, “This is great. It gives me the chance to finish some projects at home. Who wants to be outside anyways?”

The reaction of the neutral thinker? “Oh look, it’s raining.”

Neutral thinking withholds judgment. Instead, it focuses on the facts.

This allows you to see the situation as it really is. It will give you a massive advantage over the competition, be it in business, athletics, or dating.

Where most people will resort to a “glass half full vs. glass half empty” logic, you will be able to see the nuances. You will respond to the situation appropriately.

The Origins of Neutral Thinking

The term “neutral thinking” was popularized by the late performance coach Trevor Moawad in his book “It Takes What It Takes: How to Think Neutrally and Gain Control of Your Life” (2020).

His pupil Russell Wilson, star quarterback for the Seattle Seahawks, has repeatedly stated how neutral thinking gave him an edge in winning the 2013 Superbowl.

However, the idea itself is much older. It is a central concept of Stoic philosophy and plays into Nietzsche’s “revaluation of all values.” Withholding judgment is also an important teaching in many Eastern philosophies, like Zen Buddhism.

Negative Thinking vs. Neutral Thinking

For many people, negative thinking is their default mode — “Bad things always happen to me.”

This is due to a fixation on the past. When bad things have happened to you before, you start to believe there is a pattern.

Neutral thinking interrupts this self-fulfilling prophecy. It makes you realize that what happens next depends on your actions. It pulls you back into the now.

Whereas negative thinking cultivates a victim mindset (“Why me?”), neutral thinking promotes agency. If bad things keep happening to you, it is due to your choices. Start making better ones, and you will see better results.

Positive Thinking vs. Neutral Thinking

Some people are married to positive thinking. 

Everything is always super-duper. “Whatever happens to you is an opportunity!”

The problem with positive thinking is that it’s outcome-dependent. And in the real world, outcomes will sometimes be bad. When you get hit by a truck and end up in a wheelchair, few people would consider this a chance.

Whereas negative thinking is stuck in the past, positive thinking is fixated on the future. Supposedly, all your problems will somehow fix themselves.

Neutral thinking will cure you of these delusions. It is your job to create opportunities for yourself.

Why Do We Struggle With Neutral Thinking?

Three factors impede neutral thinking:

  1. Our cognitive biases
  2. Our emotions
  3. Our previous investments

1. Cognitive Biases

We all subscribe to particular worldviews. They are the filters through which we perceive the events in our lives.

For example, if you grew up in a cut-throat environment, you might now operate under the assumption that everybody is out to get you.

But if you grew up overly protected, you might think that the world is all peaches and roses.

Having either of these biases means shooting yourself in the foot. You will either miss out on opportunities or expose yourself to dangers. Your thinking is not adequate to the situation.

2. Emotions

Emotions overrule our ability to think critically.

For example, you might understand that getting drunk with your friends the night before your big interview is not a good idea. But you do it anyway because it feels so good.

Likewise, you might constantly nag your partner, even though you understand it will destroy the relationship. But you get carried away in the moment.

We are making decisions based on what feels good, not based on reason.

3. Previous Investments

Often, we will hold on to certain people in our lives, even though they are objectively not good for us. Similarly, we won’t let go of certain material items, like that exercise bike you never use or that dress you never wear.

The problem is that we previously made an investment. We spent precious resources — time, attention, money.

Letting go would be admitting defeat. We would have to acknowledge our investment was misguided in the first place.

This we cannot have. So, we hold on to these malinvestments, ignoring all reason.

How To Think Neutrally

Here is how you can train yourself to think neutrally.

1. Assume You Are Wrong

I regularly remind myself that I am probably wrong about many things.

How do I know this?

Because 20 years ago, I was cocksure that I knew it all. But since then, I have been proven wrong many times.

When you embrace this, your mind becomes more flexible. You will take on new perspectives more easily.

2. Be Wary of Groupthink

Many of our most cherished beliefs are a result of groupthink.

How we should live, what is good and bad, our political convictions — most of that we inherited from our parents, our friends, and the culture we grew up in. Our minds came preconfigured.

You must overcome your factory presets. Question anything and anyone.

Travel is a great tool for that. By exposing yourself to various cultures, you realize how arbitrary your values are.

Producing content is another great tool. By talking about a subject to an audience, you think about it more deeply. This helps you discern the inherent truth of the thing.

3. Monitor Your Emotions

Neutral thinking is not about pushing your emotions down. Rather, it is about observing them. Emotions are data.

Treat your emotions as if they were the subject of a scientific study. “Oh, that is interesting. Why am I showing this reaction?”

The better you become at observing yourself, the less you will act on impulses.

4. Eliminate Bad Habits

Many people get way too hung up on positivity, like repeating affirmations to themselves in the mirror.

But much more would be won by eliminating negative habits.

For example, don’t smoke. Don’t check social media. Don’t spend more than you earn.

If you do these things, your life will instantly improve. Cutting out bad behaviors beats thinking positive thoughts.

5. Build the Right Habits

To not get carried away by emotions, you must build the right habits. When you automate positive behaviors, you will execute them under any circumstances.

Decide on these habits when you are at your cognitive best — calm, relaxed, well-rested. Also, discuss them with other people to make sure you are not overlooking something. Then, drill them into your muscle memory.

For example, I have conditioned myself to never look at my phone first thing in the morning. Instead, I will always work on my most important project first.

I don’t have to make this decision consciously anymore. Based on previous neutral thinking, I have hardcoded this behavior into my life.

In war, discipline can do more than fury.

Niccolò Machiavelli

6. Plan For Ups and Downs

We are not robots.

We have good days and bad days. Sometimes, we burst with energy; sometimes, we want to hide under a rock.

External circumstances are even less predictable. One day, you win the lottery; the next day, you are diagnosed with a rare disease.

The key is to plan for these fluctuations.

When you find yourself running low on energy, acknowledge it. Then, do what you can with the resources you have.

If life throws you a curveball, don’t go into denial. Accept that you were dealt a bad hand. Now, make it better.

7. Communicate Neutrally

By communicating negatively with others, you alienate them. This diminishes your effectiveness. Nobody will want to cooperate with you.

Communicating too positively is also not a good idea. The people around you know that life is not peaches and roses. They will think you fake.

You must communicate neutrally. Tell them exactly how you see it, but without attacking them personally.

When you get this right, people will happily assist you. It will skyrocket your effectiveness.

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