Going Neutral

Anika Hedstrom

ONE OF THE KEY skills I quickly learned as a new parent: how to curb some of my emotions. Take last night. We were enjoying our normal bedtime routine, including bath time, bottles and a few favorite books.

Then I was vomited all over.

Being vomited on was just another evening with our 16-month-old twins. If you dial up or down your emotions too much in response, they have you. Dial them a bit too high, and soon you’re down an internet search vortex that has you fretting over all sorts of obscure diseases. Keep your dial too low and you aren’t paying enough attention. So how do you become a Goldilocks in this scenario—not too hot, not too cold, but just right?

Trevor Moawad, a renowned mental conditioning expert and advisor to sports stars, preaches the power of neutral thinking. In other words, focus on the facts. Here are ours:

  1. She threw up.
  2. She needs another bath.
  3. Repeat bedtime routine, but this time give her water.
  4. The place stinks. Clean up after twins are asleep.

What dials are you turning up too high? Which are you ignoring? For those who immediately thought about their investment portfolio, how can you take some of the emotion—the dials—out of it? How can you turn a wild financial year like 2020 into facts? Consider the following, all of which are reasons for optimism:

  • The S&P 500 was up 18.4% in 2020, including reinvested dividends, despite a brutal bear market earlier in the year.
  • For the first time in more than 20 years—and probably ever, but the data only go back two decades—all S&P 500 companies have at least one female board member. We know from numerous studies that companies with more diversity at senior levels are more profitable and make better decisions.
  • Large companies like Google, Twitter and Microsoft have adopted some form of permanent work-from-home policies, widening their pool of potential talent by removing the limitations of geography.
  • More than half of small and midsized businesses report they’re likely to maintain remote work options for employees in the long term, indicating that remote work isn’t just a temporary shift.
  • The companies of the future are now being launched. Amid crises, new successes emerge. General Electric launched in 1892, right as the country headed into the Panic of 1893. Disney launched at the onset of the Great Depression and FedEx started at the end of the 1969-70 recession.

I can cite these facts, and yet you may still feel like you’ve been vomited on—that last year still stank. Partly, it’s because some terrible things did indeed happen. But partly, it’s because of negativity bias—the tendency to respond more powerfully to negative events and experiences than positives ones. We forget some of the good, allowing the bad to leave more of a mark. This is typical of human behavior. We are beautifully irrational. It’s much easier to dial up or down our emotions than to neutralize our thinking.

Moawad’s approach to neutral thinking is simple: Focus on what you say out loud, what you consume and what habits you form. Last year was overwhelming and exhausting for most people. For many families, it brought tragedy. But there are still reasons for optimism.

If you are reading this, you’re still here. To be vomited on, you have to be present. I was present for that, plus a whole lot of the twins’ firsts. For our family, 2020 brought many ups and downs, but staying neutral helped us get through it. It may help yours in the months ahead, as we struggle to escape the pandemic, and its ongoing impact on our communities and our economy. My advice: Keep a tight grip on the facts—and on those pesky dials.

Anika Hedstrom, MBA, CFP, is a personal finance expert and advisor. She writes on motivational and behavioral aspects of financial planning, and has been featured in USA Today, MarketWatch, Huffington Post, Business Insider and NPR. Always up for adventure, Anika can be found exploring new countries, whitewater rafting and chasing after her twins. Follow her on Twitter @AnikaHedstrom and check out her earlier articles.

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