How Sharp Are Your Instincts? 3 Practices to Help You Hone Your Instincts
Originally written for and published on Collective Gain, an empowerment platform to live our best life.
“I rely far more on gut instinct than researching huge amounts of statistics.”
Sir Richard Branson
As I was helping my preschooler get ready for his first day of school this past August, he knew right away what he was going to wear on that first day—his shark t-shirt and aloha-patterned shorts. No comparing shirts, no changing outfits a bunch of times. He didn’t call in his brothers to ask them what they thought. He just instinctively knew the right thing to wear.
It made me wonder about instinctive thinking and action and how good we are as children at following our instincts and impulses (sometimes too good, sorry mom!). We hear all the time that successful people have great instincts. But what does that actually mean? And how do you get it? Is instinct something inherent to those lucky few naturally successful leaders?
What is Instinct?
Much of what we’re told would have us believe that instinct is inherent, but as with all important things, the expression and practice of using one’s instinct is far more complex.
Merriam Webster provides three definitions of instinct:
- A natural or inherent aptitude, impulse, or capacity
- A largely inheritable and unalterable tendency of an organism to make a complex and specific response to environmental stimuli without involving reason
- A behavior that is mediated by reactions below the conscious level
It’s obvious from these that instinct is inherent in all of us. Have you ever met a toddler who doesn’t know exactly what they want to eat (or not) or do (or not). We are all born with strong instincts—knowing what we want or need in the present moment and following that impulse in order to get it. How else do you explain the toddler who refuses to eat graham crackers that are broken (um, don’t they taste the same?)? Or, the pre-schooler who insists that she must sleep with the gorilla stuffie, not the bear stuffie?
Of course as we grow, our baser instincts are curtailed by socialization and maturation. But if you’re lucky, you’ve been able to retain that core sense of self that serves as a compass, a wise voice, an authentic guide.
What Gets in the Way of Your Instincts
Let’s be clear: everyone has the same potential to tap into the innate instinct that comes from living as a human being on our planet. But as with all things, what you practice, you get good at.
There are three decision-making habits that, if relied upon too heavily, will dull your instincts.
- Reliance on facts and figures
Are you the kind of person who makes pro and con lists for every decision that you make? Do you rely on an exhaustive fact-finding or research period? Today everything is quantified and we are swimming in data—it’s unavoidable and, frankly, useful. Don’t get me wrong, collecting data and thinking rationally about a decision is great, but if you rely too heavily on facts and figures and ignore what your gut is telling you, over time your ability to discern what you instinctually know will atrophy.
- Reliance on committees
It’s great to collect input from other people—multiple voices can add fresh perspective and ideas, especially when you’re dealing with complex problems. It can also be comforting to spread the responsibility (and credit) across a group of people rather than feeling like you are taking it all on yourself. But isn’t that what a leader does? If you rely too much on the input from the committee and ignore your own gut instincts, over time your ability to discern what you instinctually know will atrophy.
- Reliance on pleasing others
Many women (and men) that I work with have developed their instincts for fulfilling the wishes of others so strongly over years of practice, that their habitual first impulse is to do what’s best for others. This is often a highly validated way of operating in the world. But if you practice making your decisions based on what you think is best for others, or will please others, your own instincts will atrophy.
Did you recognize yourself in any of these three patterns? None of these tendencies are bad practices—who doesn’t want to think rationally, be a team player, and consider what’s best for other people? These are qualities of healthy, functioning adults. But these behaviors should serve your instincts, not override them. Do you think Richard Branson collects data about his business ventures, gets advice from trusted advisors, and thinks of what will serve others? I’d bet that he does, but all of those practices are meant to sharpen rather than deaden, his gut instincts.
How to Sharpen Your Instincts
I’m not asking you to revert to your tantrum-throwing, toddler-self, or to suddenly shun your advisory board and start throwing out your valuable data. That is not sharpening your instincts, that is recklessness.
As Malcolm Gladwell said in his seminal book Blink, “Truly successful decision-making relies on a balance between deliberate and instinctive thinking.” If you find that you could use a little boost in the instinctive thinking side of that equation, here are three practices to get you started:
Mindfulness is all the rage in leadership circles right now for a reason. Self-awareness and self-knowledge enhance performance, period. Taking the time to find a quiet space, even if it’s just a quiet inner space, is invaluable. It will help sensitize you so that you can discern your habitual impulses from your authentic impulses.
While our emotions can sometimes be a sign that we are moving in the right or wrong direction, they can often prevent a clear perspective. This doesn’t mean you have to shut off your emotional system, but if you practice mindfulness for awhile, you may start to find that you can take a step back from your own emotional response and find a place of neutrality. Not only will you feel your instincts more strongly from this neutral space, but you will find that your instincts are more accurate than when you are emotionally charged.
If you are very practiced at ignoring your instincts because of people pleasing, overly rational thinking, or advice seeking, it may take a lot of practice to get your instincts clear, and consistently accurate. So, start small. Stay curious, and see what happens.
Here’s an exercise I like to do: At the beginning of your day, sit quietly and visualize how the day will go. When you come to a point of decision, no matter how small (like what to wear for your presentation, where to eat for lunch), see if you can visualize two choices, and allow each one to play out in your imagination. Then see if you can think of one more choice, and allow that one to play out. Make the experience really vivid and have fun with it—it’s your imagination after all. Sometimes the first choice is immediately favorable, sometime it is often the third choice that really resonates, or a realization that all three choices are equally as good, which allows you to move through the decision with greater ease.
Either way, practice following what your instinct tells you with a sense of open curiosity at first. Don’t be discouraged if it turns out you were wrong, just keep practicing.
Now it’s your turn… How sharp are your instincts? I’d love to hear how you plan on sharpening your instincts and how the process is going.