Why We All Should Practice ‘Neutral Thinking’
The long-held belief is there are two states of thinking—negative and positive—but there’s a third, more practical middle ground called ‘neutral thinking.’ Neutral thinking is a high-performance strategy that emphasizes judgment-free thinking, especially in crises and pressure situations. It is the cornerstone of what I teach the athletes and teams that employ me. The thing about neutral thinking that resonates with so many elite athletes, most of whom are deeply skeptical of any self-help, is that it’s real. It’s true. It acknowledges that the past is irrevocable, that it can’t be changed with mantras or platitudes.
Neutral thinking shuns all attempts at illusion or outright self-delusion, which are often the foundation of other motivational systems. Neutral thinking strips away the bull and the biases, both external and internal.
There are more biases in this world than there are fruit flies and gnats combined. They’re everywhere you look, many of them buzzing around your own psyche right now. Confirmation bias, selection bias, negativity bias, recency bias, gender bias, optimism bias, pessimism bias— it’s hard to clearly perceive reality when your subconscious is busily prejudging it.
Don’t feel bad. It’s not just you. Bias is an inherent part of nature, among humans and animals. (Yes, animals are shown to have cognitive blind spots, too.) Much of the animate world—heck, maybe much of the inanimate world, according to some philosophers—filters and alters reality.
Even your naked eyes, scanning this page, aren’t giving you the unvarnished truth. They’re taking two flat images and sending them separately to your brain, which is then fusing and remaking those images into one three-dimensional image, while also independently choosing which colors to use in painting that image. Your eyes are telling a biased story to your brain, which then tells you another biased story, and each stop along the way in this optical-neuronal game of telephone gets you a little further away from reality.
The most dangerous bias when discussing performance is our innate privileging of the past. We elevate the past. We give it too much importance. We serve the past when we should be giving it a wide berth.
Below are my pro tips on how to be neutral at home and at the office:
Neutral at home:
I’m a working parent juggling kids’ schedules and my own job. How can neutral thinking improve my day-to-day?
Neutral thinking is ideal for working parents. In fact, it’s probably the only way to thrive while juggling so much. The key is to focus on each task at hand and remember that you already have the competence to complete them.
Don’t think this: I have to…
- Get the kids ready for school.
- Get myself ready for work.
- Drop the kids off.
- Finish my proposal before my 11 a.m. meeting.
- Answer 100 emails.
- Go by the grocery store after work to pick up stuff for dinner.
- Pick up the kids.
- Make dinner.
- Make them do their homework.
- Get them to bed.
If you try to think about all of that at once, you’ll get overwhelmed.
Think about it like this:
- I am packing my daughter’s lunch, which takes 30 seconds. After that, I’ll pack my son’s lunch. After that, I’ll drink my coffee.
Neutral in the workplace:
I sit in an open floor with a boss that’s a challenge and my review is coming up. Any tips?
Focus only on each task at hand. Don’t worry about the review. If you complete each of your tasks well, the review should take care of itself. As for your boss, take the pieces of criticism that can help you improve your work performance and discard the rest. We all have to deal with jerks sometimes, but if we keep our own standards high and meet them, then those people can’t stand in the way.
Is there an operating neutral strategy I can use for board meetings or weekly staff meetings?
Take a lot of notes. Also, don’t zone out if something doesn’t seem relevant to your role. Think about how it fits within the company’s mission. Then think about how your department might also be able to help. Remember, if you intend on moving up within the company, you’re going to need to understand how everything works. The sooner you do, the sooner you can contribute more great ideas.
Not only can neutral thinking raise your performance level—both at home and at work—it can transform your overall life. You just need to learn how to let go.
His new book It Takes What It Takes: How to Think Neutrally and Gain Control of Your Life, will be released on February 4th and can be pre-ordered here.
This essay was featured in the January 5th edition of The Sunday Paper. The Sunday Paper inspires hearts and minds to rise above the noise. To get The Sunday Paper delivered to your inbox each Sunday morning for free, click here to subscribe.