Trusting your gut isn’t woo-woo: it’s a science-backed skill that you can develop. Here’s how.
Have you ever had the experience of knowing that a situation just doesn’t feelright? You know — that nagging feeling that something is off?
My gut instinct began whispering to me early on in my previous career. At the time, I rationalized that the extreme pressure I felt was a side effect of my own inadequacy, not the result of a toxic office culture. “If I just work harder and stick it out, it’ll get better,” I told myself.
But as the months went on, I developed a deep knowing that it wasn’t the right path for me until I couldn’t ignore my intuition any longer. A sense of nagging dread followed me everywhere. No surprises here: leaving that job to start my business was absolutely the best choice. I knew that my gut could be trusted to guide me.
Research shows that using intuition helps us make better decisions, as well as gives us more confidence in them. This might surprise people who dismiss intuition as a woo-woo, spiritual concept. In reality, it’s a powerful scientifically-backed skill. Learning to trust your gut can be a competitive advantage in both business and life.
What is intuition?
Psychologists define intuition as “immediate understanding, knowledge, or awareness, derived neither from perception nor from reasoning”. It’s an automatic, effortless feeling that often quickly motivates you to act.
As an entrepreneur, I rely on my gut instincts all the time in my work with clients. Part of my job is to bring order and structure to the thoughts and behaviors of others. To do that, I channel my tendencies as an empath and a highly sensitive person. I also tap into my intuition, which helps me get to the source of what’s troubling someone –– even if they can’t find the words themselves.
You can experience benefits from honing your intuition. For instance, if you’re giving a speech or presentation, getting a “read” on a room can help you tailor your points so that they successfully resonate with your audience. Or, if you’re deep into developing a new product and you aren’t sure how to choose between solutions, doing a gut check can steer your creative process in the right direction.
What you may be surprised to learn is that intuition is a deliberate skill that can be developed. Once honed, it’s applicable in many situations — from helping you choose a career path, to making snap judgments under pressure, and much more. If you have a question to be answered or a decision to be made, intuition can help.
The gut as a “second brain”
Intuition involves trusting the collection of all your subconscious experiences. It draws on everything you’ve experienced for all the years you’ve been alive, which means it’s constantly growing and evolving.
It’s no wonder that scientists have started calling the gut (in the literal sense) our “second brain.” Researchers have discovered a vast neural network of 100 million neurons lining our entire digestive tracts. That’s more neurons than the spinal cord has, which points to the gut’s incredible processing abilities.
Like our conscious mind, the gut is teeming with information. Everyone knows what it feels like to have a pit in your stomach as you weigh a decision. That’s the gut, talking loud and clear.
But does the gut know what it’s talking about? And can it really compare to the conscious mind? Amazingly, the gut doesn’t just compare to the mind: it rivals it.
Follow your hunches
Anecdotal evidence reveals that scientists often make discoveries “accidentally.” When scientists maintain an open, curious mind, they’re better able to spot patterns and make creative connections. This type of innovation-by-hunch is responsible for incredible discoveries like penicillin and Teflon.
Another study demonstrated the power of using intuition, rather than ignoring it and using only rational information. Though many people say they prefer to make decisions rationally, it’s easy for the mind to get overwhelmed with data. In this study, car buyers who relied on analysis of the available information only were ultimately happy with their purchases about a quarter of the time. Meanwhile, those who made intuitive purchases were happy 60 percent of the time. That’s because relying on smaller samples of data, called thin-slicing, allows our brains to make good decisions even in the absence of lots of information.
The gut does make decision-making faster and easier, but that alone isn’t why it’s so powerful. Relying on your gut can also lead to decisions that result in better outcomes.
Balancing heart and head
One of my clients, Norah, told me that she was considering leaving her job, but that she couldn’t make a final decision. She didn’t want to do something she would regret, and she had gone through every analytical exercise that she could think of: a pro/con list, talking to a friend, and envisioning what it would be like if she stayed versus if she left.
The one thing she hadn’t done, though, was tune into her intuition. She was surrounded by the stress and noise of analyzing the situation. She hadn’t stopped to do a gut check. When she did, she found that her intuition was signaling loud and clear.
I asked her simply, “Does the idea of leaving feel like a ‘hell yes’ or just a ‘yes’?”.
When she thought about staying at her job, she felt warning pangs go off, and she even had a physiological reaction. When she thought about leaving, her demeanor did a 180. She sat back in her chair. She felt an utter sense of relief come over her.
Soliciting your intuition’s help in huge decisions like this might seem illogical, but it’s actually the perfect time to listen to it.
Even while your mind has been rationalizing all the reasons you should stay in a job or a relationship, your gut has been listening and cataloging every sign and red flag.
How to holistically hone your intuition
Intuition can be developed as a decision-making skill. To refine your sensitivity to gut instincts and intuitive nudges, it’s critical to make space for intuition to grow — and to practice techniques to pay more attention to it.
Some people are born with great intuitive abilities. There’s evidence that women, in particular, have strong intuition because (from an evolutionary perspective) they needed a strong sense of awareness to protect their children from danger.
Intuitive abilities can also be affected by experiences that occur during periods of emotional growth. If someone experiences a traumatic childhood, it’s likely that they’ll experience excessive doubt and squash their inner voice out of self-protection. They might need to learn to trust their intuition again.
For most people, however, the work of honing their intuition requires only small, habitual changes. Here are a few ways you can practice developing your skill:
1. Put intuition front and center.
Companies that say they embrace intuition don’t always account for it logistically. If you’re a leader who wants to let intuition have a role in your organization or on your team, adjust your timelines accordingly. If deadlines are rigorous and fixed, creativity can’t thrive.
Then, encourage your team to begin to think intuitively and perform gut checks. To tap into what this means, consider changing up the way you make decisions. If a decision usually comes after intensive analysis, experiment with using a combination of data and intuitive thinking.
Brainstorming is a powerful technique if done well. Try IDEO.org’s Brainstorms Rules to avoid missteps that kill creativity.
In particular, help you and your team make a collective effort to listen more. Don’t discount feelings or hunches. Any team naturally has a mix of more and less intuitive people. By expanding your collective intuition, you bolster your individual skills as well.
2. Use the snap judgement test.
Try this exercise to practice making a snap decision with a question you are deliberating on:
Write a simple yes/no question on a piece of paper. Make sure the question is actionable and not theoretical. For instance, rather than, “Do I dislike my boss?” you would write, “Should I quit my job?” Write yes/no below the question and leave a pen nearby.
Then, go do something else for a couple hours. When you next come across the piece of paper, grab the pen and close your eyes. Then open them and immediately circle your answer.
This exercise relies on the quick-thinking accuracy of the gut. It might not be an answer you like, especially if the question was a big one, but there’s a good chance that you forced yourself to respond honestly. It’s a good way to get some clarity on the situation, regardless of how you ultimately decide to act.
3. Make space for reflection.
Intuition can’t flourish in busy, noisy, environments — whether at work, during your commute, or at home. To really hear the insight that comes from inside, you have to build in time to reflect on your experiences. That often seems easier said than done.
Because I recognize that intuition plays a powerful part in my life, I build reflection time into my schedule. I book buffer time between meetings and adjust my morning and evening routines so I have time to decompress and reflect.
Other tools for reflection include journaling, taking walks to clear your head, and cultivating a meditation or mindfulness practice.
On simple meditation technique is to simply use a moment to get awareness of how you feel. By regularly scanning your body and checking in with your feelings, you can get in touch with what your gut is saying.
The transformative and expanding nature of intuition
Your intuitive capacity is growing as you read this. It never stops. That’s the beauty of this incredible tool.
When we harness and apply intuition, we’re able to make decisions faster and more comfortably. Many times, we make decisions that have more successful outcomes. And over time, our ability to notice and use our intuition increases—and so do the benefits.
Whereas I used to feel ashamed of how much I trusted my gut, now I see my intuition as a core differentiator in my work. A huge body of growing scientific research shows that intuition is more powerful than most of us could have ever imagined.
Of course, you probably had a gut feeling about that all along.