Taking a leap of faith and trusting your gut takes courage, but it used to be standard operating practice. Intuition and instinct kept humans safe for thousands of years, but as we’ve evolved, we’ve learned to lean on data, learned responses, and education in decision making, discrediting our gut as dangerous, says Antonia Hock, global head of The Ritz-Carlton Leadership Center. “Instinct is a powerful data point that can be a treasure trove of untapped generational knowledge in decision making,” she says.
It’s important to point out that the alternative to trusting your gut isn’t making an infallible rational decision, says Dr. Tasha Holland-Kornegay, founder of Wellness in Real Life, a wellness tech site that addresses burnout in the healthcare industry.
“It’s just a decision that takes more deliberation,” she says. “Our brains always use logic and emotions to come to conclusions. We can’t escape the fact that we’re all prone to biases and fallacious thinking. That said, we all strive to make the smartest decision in any given circumstance, and sometimes trusting out gut feeling is the best way to do that.”
Learning to trust your gut takes intention and practice, and there are several things you can do to get better at it:
1. Understand what your gut reaction really is
The reason trusting your gut is often treated as an emotional and volatile strategy is that it’s linked to a prevalent myth in Western society’s view of reason that says emotions are dumb and must be canceled out by deliberate logic, says Holland-Kornegay. But this can’t be farther from the truth.
“A gut feeling is the result of a huge amount of cognitive processes occurring in your brain, sizing up new sensory information against past experiences and coming to a prediction,” she says. “If you ever got a gut feeling that you should slow down your vehicle and focus on the road more deliberately, that may have been your gut unconsciously registering the vehicle in front of you driving cautiously. While you were thinking about work, other parts of your brain were keeping you safe and communicating important high-level predictions to you via emotions.”
Realizing that your intuition has been trained over time can help you trust it as an invaluable guide.
2. Pay attention to your first thought in a situation
Become more aware of the messages your gut is sending you by actively acknowledging the first thought you have, such as your initial reaction to a new person, situation, or decision, says Hock.
“That data point is a valid input based on a lifetime of experience and innate knowledge, and that’s super valuable,” she says. “While you may choose to apply other tools to the situation or your reaction, take a moment to examine your gut. How else can you harness thousands of years of collective gut and a lifetime of knowledge in a moment?”
3. Distinguish gut from bias
In some circumstances, your gut feelings could be a reflection of your bias, says Holland-Kornegay. “If you experience a spontaneous emotional reaction to a political issue, for instance, then your conclusion may come less from a deep involvement and understanding of the political process and more from what falls in line with your existing beliefs and those of your peers,” she says. “In this way, it’s important to distinguish when coming to a quick conclusion is attractive versus constructive.”
4. Find opportunities to practice
Look for safe ways to test your gut. Hock uses athletics to hone her intuition. For example, is the weight too heavy for her lift, or should she run another three miles?” I practice listening to my body in these scenarios,” she says. “What is my first sense? What is my intuition telling me? This is a great place to practice and test my instinct versus using data to make the decision. Building a series of gut successes in these cases has allowed me to trust instinct in other ways.”
5. Keep a gut scorecard
After you make the decision, react, or move through the scenario, take a moment to reflect on how you would score your initial gut reaction, suggests Hock. Then determine if it was on target, and if following it would be a good choice.
“Make a mental note of situations where intuition was particularly valuable or when trusting it would have produced a great outcome,” says Hock. “That cumulative data will help focus your use of instinct as a tool in your decision-making processes.”
As a rule of thumb, Holland-Kornegay recommends trusting your gut when you have to make a fast choice under uncertain conditions. “However, if there’s time for deliberation and you require more information to make an informed decision, carefully attending to the nooks and crannies to come to a logical conclusion could be a good choice,” she says.