How To Apply Neutral Thinking

Most of the mistakes we make stem from misjudging a situation. We are either way too optimistic or categorically assume the worst.

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

Learn how neutral thinking compares against positive and negative thinking, where the idea comes from, and how you can 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 appropriate for problem-solving.

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 tries to withhold judgment. Instead, it focuses on collecting data.

What this allows you to do is to see the situation as it really is. It will give you a massive advantage over your competitors, be it in business, athletics, or the sexual marketplace.

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

You will end up on top.

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 mentioned how neutral thinking gave him an edge in winning the 2013 Superbowl.

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

Negative Thinking vs. Neutral Thinking

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

This is due to a fixation on the past. Numerous negative things have happened to them before. So, they must be having a bad streak. No point in fighting it.

Neutral thinking will interrupt this self-fulfilling prophecy. It will make you realize that what happens next is only due to our actions, not due to what we experienced in the past. It will pull you back into the now.

Neutral thinking will also give you back ownership of your life.

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

Positive Thinking vs. Neutral Thinking

Some people, when they seek an alternative to negative thinking, resort to positive thinking 

Now, suddenly, everything is always superduper. Whatever happens to you is an opportunity — you just need to take it!

Of course, that is self-delusional. When you get hit by a truck and end up in a wheelchair, few people would still consider this a chance.

The problem with positive thinking is that it’s outcome dependent. And in the real world, outcomes will sometimes be bad. When you subscribe to an overly positive worldview, the letdown will be all the harder.

Whereas negative thinking is stuck in the past, positive thinking is too fixated on the future. Everything will not be fine.

Neutral thinking will cure you of these self-delusions. It will make you focus on the facts, which sometimes will align with your wishes, and sometimes not.

But when they don’t, it is your job to create more favorable circumstances. Positive thinking won’t do that — acting strategically will.

Why Do We Struggle With Neutral Thinking?

There are three factors that 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 lenses through which we perceive what is happening around us.

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 we all should have everybody’s best interest at heart.

Having either of these biases, you will shoot yourself in the foot. You will miss out on opportunities or expose yourself to unnecessary dangers.

2. Emotions

Emotions overpower our ability to think critically.

For example, you might be fully aware 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 let your tendency to nag your partner run free, even though you always come to regret it. But it feels too darn good in the moment.

This lack of impulse control clouds our judgment. We are making decisions based on what feels good, not based on data.

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 things, like that smoothie maker you never use.

This is not just a sentimental attachment. What is actually going on is that we previously invested in these people or things. We spend some of the most precious resources we have — time, money — on them.

Letting go of them 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 for dear life, ignoring all reason.

How To Think Neutrally

Here is how you can learn to think neutrally.

1. Assume You Are Wrong

I regularly remind myself that I am wrong about a lot of the things that I think I am right about.

How do I know this?

Because 20 years, I was just as cocksure that I knew it all. But since then, it has become apparent that I didn’t.

When you embrace this, your intellectual flexibility increases. It allows you to root out personal dogmas that you weren’t aware of yet.

2. Be Wary of Groupthink

To a large extent, the beliefs we hold dear are a result of groupthink.

How we should live our lives, what we consider good and bad, our political convictions — most of that we have inherited from our parents, our friends, and the culture we grew up in. In a sense, our minds came preconfigured.

To become better at neutral thinking, you must overcome your factory presets. Practice to question anything and anyone.

A great tool for that is travel. By exposing yourself to a wide variety of cultures, you come to better understand the arbitrariness of “your” values.

Another fantastic tool is writing (or producing content in general). By talking about subject X to an audience, you start to think about it more deeply. This will help discern your cultural imprint from the inherent truth of the thing.

3. Monitor Your Emotions

Neutral thinking is not about pushing your emotions down. That never works. Rather it is about observing them as if you were a detached outsider. 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. There is now an intermediary instance that prevents rash decisions.

4. Build the Right Habits

You can have all the best intentions to make rational decisions. But when you are facing an opponent inside an MMA cage or calling the shots on a last-minute business deal, it is much harder to stick to your good resolutions. More often than not, we will get carried away by the moment.

That is why must build the right habits, aka automated behaviors that you can rattle off no matter what the circumstances are.

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

For example, I have conditioned myself to never look at my phone first thing in the morning, no matter how hectic my day will be. Instead, I spend at least a few minutes on my most important project at the moment.

This way, I have made sure I am always making process with what is most important to me in life. But I don’t have to make this decision consciously anymore; I have hardcoded it into my life based on previous neutral thinking.

In war, discipline can do more than fury.

Niccolò Machiavelli

5. Plan For Ups and Downs

A big part of neutral thinking is accepting that we are not robots.

We have good days and bad days. Sometimes, we are bursting with energy; sometimes, all we want to do is to hide under a rock.

External events are even less predictable. One day, out of the blue you get an amazing job offer; the next day, you are diagnosed with a rare auto-immune disease.

The key is to plan for these fluctuations.

When you find yourself low on energy, acknowledge the fact. Then try to be as productive as possible under the circumstances.

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

6. Focus On Reducing the Bad

Many people get way too hung up on thinking positive thoughts. For example, they will try to use only “optimistic” language or repeat positive affirmations in front of a mirror.

But much more would be won by simply cutting out negative behaviors.

Don’t eat processed foods. Don’t spend hours each day staring at a screen. Don’t go to bed too late.

Reducing bad habits in your life beats reprogramming your mind any day.

7. Communicate Neutrally

We are often required to collaborate with others, for example at work or as a member of a sports team.

When you communicate negatively with your team members, it creates an atmosphere of hostility. By letting your resentments run free, you will diminish your overall effectiveness.

Communicating overly positively is also not a good idea. The people around you know that things are not as great as you make them out to be. Secretly, they will think you are full of it.

What team members appreciate is neutral communication. Tell them exactly how you see, while at the same time making sure you are venting your anger.

When you get this balance right, everybody will soon be on the same page about what the problem is and how to solve it. It will skyrocket your effectiveness.

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