It’s one of the most commonly doled out nuggets of professional advice: “Go with your gut.” But it’s a very challenging system to consistently implement.
“We spend our workdays in our outer world. We’re interacting with our team members and clients. We don’t have enough time in our inner world where we can reflect on those experiences and listen to what our gut might have to say,” says Hana Ayoub, a professional development coach.
Why is trusting your gut so powerful? Because your gut has been cataloging a whole lot of information for as long as you’ve been alive. “Trusting your gut is trusting the collection of all your subconscious experiences,” says Melody Wilding, a licensed therapist and professor of human behavior at Hunter College.
“Your gut is this collection of heuristic shortcuts. It’s this unconscious-conscious learned experience center that you can draw on from your years of being alive,” she explains. “It holds insights that aren’t immediately available to your conscious mind right now, but they’re all things that you’ve learned and felt. In the moment, we might not be readily able to access specific information, but our gut has it at the ready.”
“I’ve never heard a client say, ‘I regret going with my gut,’” says Ayoub. Think of all the time and mental energy that can be conserved by not having to overthink your next move. Here’s how you can start right now.
After a meeting or interaction that requires a decision on your part, give yourself mental space to reflect. “Instead of grabbing a coffee in the kitchen, take a walk around the block. Spend time alone. Even if it’s just a minute,” says Ayoub.
If it’s a bigger decision you need to make, Ayoub recommends creating a larger window before you need to respond. “Start telling people: ‘I need to sleep on this, I’ll get back to you tomorrow.’ Start building that response into your conversations, especially with the people you work with most. It’s telling people that’s how you work.”
“You have to create space to listen to what your gut is saying. That’s why people say they get their best ideas in the shower,” says Wilding. “Start to think back and do an audit of your day. It’s intentional mind wandering.”
Lou Leone, the founder of Leadinary, a management consulting and executive coaching firm for startups, has an exercise for those who overanalyze. Every time you have a big decision or tough choice to make, give yourself a half hour window to make it.
“At the end of that half hour, you’re going to have to use your gut. That forces you to be more instinctive,” says Leone.
Did you say “should?” “Whenever I hear clients say ‘I should,’ I say: ‘According to who?’ They usually say, ‘family pressure’ or ‘I guess I’m making it up.’ The ‘should’s’ help people tune in to when they’re not listening to their gut,” says Ayoub.
Wilding recommends developing an awareness of how you feel during work situations. “Do a body scan of what’s going on for you. You may think, I feel nervous right now, or I feel like I’m not sure what’s coming next. Use those skills of emotional labeling to get in touch with what your gut might be saying to you,” says Wilding.
Being instinctive isn’t simply an innate trait: It’s a quality that increases or decreases given how much we practice doing it well. Lou Leone recommends listing all the times you trusted your gut and whether the outcome was favorable.
“By going through the exercise, you’ll see, ‘When I trusted my gut, I always felt good about the decision I made,’” says Leone. He says that with repetition, “Your gut starts getting better at doing what’s right for you.”
“As similar situations arise and you have an instinct, you realize you had this instinct before, and it’s that much stronger,” he explains. “Your instinct gets sharper and more reactive. Then, when you experience positive outcomes, it creates a positive feedback loop.” With time, you can comfortably defer more and more of your decision-making to your gut instinct.
Liz Funk is a freelance writer and author who covers entrepreneurship, productivity, careers, and how professionals can figure out what they’re passionate about. Her website is www.lizfunk.com