A couple of years ago, Thanh coined the term “Clear to Neutral” to describe the process of resetting things to a Ready state either right after you were done with something or right before you started on something.
In this article I want to expand on the original concept and look at some real-world examples of Clear to Neutral – and how everyone can apply it in their daily lives.
So why do we Clear to Neutral (CTN)?
The idea boils down to having no mess, which means no mental mess, which means that it’s easier to focus and get things done.
More than anything, Clear to Neutral is a productivity habit. And the thing about habits… is that how you do one thing, is often how you do everything. And the more you implement a habit in different contexts in your life, the more it sticks and becomes instinctual.
Now you can Clear to Neutral after completing something, or right before starting something. I personally prefer after completing something – but it is really up to you.
Let’s get into those examples.
1. The Gym
This is where I originally got the idea for this article from.
So there’s a crossfit/black iron gym that I go to in Bangkok.
And because I go at the same time, on the same days with regular consistency (habit!), I often get to observe what other regulars are doing. One thing I noticed is that the gym manager has a peculiar habit of putting plates back onto the weight stand right after they’ve been used.
He may be training a client, or working out himself – but whenever he’s done with a set, he’ll unpack the plates, and put them away.
At first I thought this was incredibly inefficient. After all, if you’re doing 3 sets of say squats, you’ll probably leave all the plates you need on the hooks of the squat rack until you’re done.
But then I thought about it a bit. And it turns out, it’s his version of Clear to Neutral.
As the gym manager, he isn’t just thinking about his own sets – he’s thinking about the collective exercise sets of the entire gym. So after each set, he’s resetting the gym environment as a whole to neutral, so that everyone in the gym can effectively train, rather than have to hunt down plates across the gym floor.
Note: You may notice that he’s also using a concept from lean manufacturing known as one-piece flow.
2. The Journal
A lot of people start journaling with good intentions… but never get the habit to really stick – why is that?
It’s usually because they only do 50% of what a journal entry should be, and find out that it isn’t useful for review at all.
So what’s the solution?
Make sure that you both start AND finish your journal entries daily.
You should start your journal entries the night before, and plan out what you’re going to do tomorrow. And then you check-in in the morning, start your day, and check off items as you go along.
And then you need to make sure that you close up our journal entries at the end of the day, to review and reflect on what you’ve done – this is the clear to neutral part.
And then you need to start tomorrow’s journal entry.
Think of “neutral” when it comes to journal entries as having a plan for tomorrow, ready today.
Journaling is so key to productivity, that every team member at Asian Efficiency does it daily – and logs their updates into our team wiki.
3. The Kitchen
The kitchen is the classic Clear to Neutral analogy.
After you’re done cooking and eating, what do you do?
Do you clean things up, or do you leave all your dishes in the sink for the end of the day?
Well, it really depends. If you have a dishwasher, it may be better to leave everything for one batch at the end of the day.
But if you’re hand-washing, it’s actually more efficient to clean each set of dishes with each set of cooking/eating that you do – because in the next set, you may need some of the cookware that’s currently sitting in the sink.
Special tip for people who work from home – don’t have a messy kitchen. As mentioned in the introduction, a physical mess is a visual mess which becomes a mental mess which messes with your sense of order and focus – and that’s bad for your productivity.
4. The Computer
OK, so the computer isn’t really “real world” but it is the place where people don’t Clear to Neutral the most.
There are some simple guidelines for Clearing to Neutral on your computer.
The first, is that when you’re done with applications – close them. In Windows this is pretty straightforward as you can see what you have open in your taskbar. On Mac, make sure you go to App Name > Quit or use Command + Q – clicking the little red circle doesn’t quit the app, it just closes the window.
A good test of this is if you go to Mission Control (or the Windows equivalent), you shouldn’t have dozens of screens open – only the things that are relevant to what you’re doing right now.
Here’s a list of apps that I have open when I’m working:
- Evernote. This is my journal entry where I tick things off as they happen.
- BusyCal. Runs in the background, serves calendar reminders.
- Browser. This is open at the issue page of what I’m currently working on. We track our stuff via JIRA.
- Spotify. For great work music.
- HipChat. For team connectivity. If I’m busy, I’ll set it to DND.
- The app I’m working in (usually a text editor, or Mind Manager).
And that’s it.
The second, is browser tabs. Don’t leave Facebook open. Don’t leave Twitter open. Don’t leave Reddit open. Don’t leave email open. When you’re done with a particular browser tab, close it.
People wonder why they have trouble focusing on a singular task at their computer… but then they like to leave 12 different tabs open while trying to work.
Here’s a list of browser tabs that I usually have open at any given time:
- My daily update page in Confluence, our team wiki.
- The issue page of what I’m currently working on in JIRA, our project management system.
- A reference page if needed.
The third, is what you do at the end of the day. Now most people just close the lid on their laptop and that’s it.
Yes, I know that OS X was built to let you do that – which is awesome, and great if you’re working on something and need to take a quick break to get on an airplane.
But if that isn’t the case, then you should really Clear to Neutral and close all the applications you have open – and then close the lid.
The more you can practice Clearing to Neutral, the more it becomes habitual – and the more productive you’ll then become.
5. The Workplace
The original intention of Clear to Neutral was to apply it to our workplaces – our work desks, our work environments.
Essentially, our workplaces should be clean. There should be no physical clutter or papers piled up or anything similar. If you have a physically clean workspace, you’ll have a mentally clean workspace.
There’s a traditional Chinese practice called Feng Shui – it’s about manipulating your physical environment to facilitate the harmonious flow of chi (energy), which in turns bring luck into your life. Basically, it’s about arranging things in your environment so that they’re clean, orderly and visually appealing. And Clear to Neutral is part of that.
So how do we go about applying Clear to Neutral to our work environment?
Well, when you’re done working with papers or items or objects – put them away in their proper place.
A quick hack for this is to clear all flat surfaces of objects – this can help give the illusion of order in a pinch.
This is really a habit that you need to build. I find it crazy that people will spend $50-100 a day for a kitsch co-working space… and yet their at-home working space (or their office) is a mess.
Clear to Neutral is a habit that you can take and apply to a lot of different contexts in your life. And the more you do it, the easier it becomes, and the more productive you become.
It’s one of the foundational habits of productivity – and one of many that is featured in the Asian Efficiency Primer.
Have your own examples of clearing to neutral? Let us know in the comments!
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