When to Listen to Your Gut and When to Tell It to Shut Up

Many a business has been conceived, born, and grown on a hunch. Consider the typical story of the young rebellious founder who invested all of their time and effort into a risky idea and won out big. Or the precarious businessman who has somehow developed an intuition for the “ways of the business”. Or even the person who dreams of something and it happens.

Most of it is just residual from the time we needed instinct and intuition to navigate the dangerous lands and avoid animals that could kill us. But ever since we became intelligent and reasonable beings, the need for this “sixth sense” has been less pronounced. Nevertheless, it has stuck with us. Just look at the successful people who swear by it. Steve Jobs called intuition “more powerful than intellect”. Another intellectual who valued it was Einstein:

There is no logical way to the discovery of these elemental laws. There is only the way of intuition, which is helped by a feeling for the order lying behind the appearance.

So there is something there, something that invites a deeper look. In my own personal experience — which is not that much — I have found that not everything I consider a hunch is one. On the other hand, almost every time I’ve had a hunch and not acted on it, I’ve lost ground.

So should you listen to your gut? The answer: it depends. So what I’ll do is list five instances and go with either yes or no or both.

Ready? Go.

When It’s a Big Deal – Yes

So you have to buy a house. Or a car. Or there’s a big merger on the horizon. In other words you have to make a big choice, so you start weighing all the pros and cons. You ask your partner, your friends, your boss. And the more you think about it, the hardest the choice becomes. Stop.

What you have to do in this instance is trust your first instinct.

Science tells us that you’ll be happier if you decide quickly and intuitively. So when a bunch of car-buyers were choosing, the ones who took their time were on average less happy than the ones who chose quickly.

overthinking-gif

It has something to do with over-thinking — the more information piles up, the more confused you get, and your decision-making ability becomes stunted. It’s important to be able to decide quickly and firmly. Otherwise you’ll be like me — spending two hours on a birthday card.

When You Have a “Bad Feeling” – No

So you’re working at home, you’re tired and stressed, and you’re on the brink of a major deal… except suddenly you get the “feeling” that it’s not going to happen. It’s going to slip through your fingers.

Relax. This is a classic case of fear-induced inference. What your brain does is start worrying on a rational level, which then spirals into irrational fast. It’s because of the emotional feedback you’re sending to your brain when you worry continuously. Consider the jealous boyfriend who becomes convinced that his girlfriend is cheating on him, and the more he suspects, the more he thinks he “knows” that it’s happening.

Furthermore, when it comes to emotions (and stress), the brain can get easily confused — we all know it’s true when we’re in love. I mean, of course your brain will get confused — you feel the same in the gut when you feel scared and when you feel excited. Have you thought about that?

So next time you have a “bad feeling”, make sure it’s grounded in logic, not in your gut. The gut can be a deceiving devil.

When Something Could Harm You – Yes

Evolutionary speaking, we’re animals, and animals process cues from their environment to look out for dangerous elements, like bigger animals. When all signs lead to CODE RED, we crank up the biological alarm. Sometimes it’s not as bad as “fight or flight”, but just a tiny alert saying “something’s not right here”. Then you look around and everything seems fine.

My advice? Get to safety fast. Your brain is a complex machine. It’s able to process cues at a very fast speed, which sometimes get stuck in the unconscious part, but manage to manifest into a gut feeling.

One such example is the case of a Formula One driver, who braked just on time to save his life — without any initial warning, just a sense that something was wrong. What happened was that his brain processed the cue — the crowd not cheering — and “sensed” that something must be off.

Indeed, this very ability of ours to sense danger and act on it in a split second is what keeps us alive sometimes. So listen to your gut when it warns you about danger. They say, better safe than sorry, for a good reason.

When You Jump to Conclusions – Both

So you have just met a candidate for a job and something about the way they talk makes you “feel” uncomfortable. It’s a hunch.

If you have read Malcolm Gladwell’s incredible book Blink, you’d know that you’re actually amazingly good at thin-slicing — which means judging something without having any information about it. So, for example, you see a person and you can instantly judge what their personality is.

But there’s another side to this — stereotypes. Some preconceived ideas that we hold about certain groups can harm us or those around us. Even though these ideas are not true, we have the feeling that they are. So when you meet someone for the first time, give them a chance to show you what they’re like. Especially if you’re aware of any prejudice that you might have.

Also, Gladwell specifically stresses the danger of thin-slicing when you don’t have enough experience. For example, an experienced trader can immediately predict what’s going to happen before it does, and while some may call this a hunch, it’s just their mind thin-slicing — processing the information they have in a very fast, practiced way.

So the more experience you have, the more you can trust your gut. 🙂

When Someone Might Be Lying – Both

Sometimes you know in your gut something’s wrong with someone, but there’s absolutely no evidence. They act nice, they smile at you, and they’re nice to your friends. But your gut just won’t let go of this feeling.

Then it turns out that person is a psychological liar. Ouch.

It happened to me a few years back. One of my so-called friends was lying about literally everything, but instead of disappointment, I felt relief, because my gut had known it all along.

social_psychopath-vs-sociopath

If your gut tells you there’s something wrong with someone, you should listen. (Especially if this feeling lasts a long time.) Even if you can’t see any evidence to support your case, your brain is picking up cues — body language, visual discrepancies, mistakes — which it then processes and makes its conclusions on a subconscious level.

Research suggests that we’re bad at spotting liars, but we’re better when we take away information. So if you know this person, you’re less likely to figure that they’re lying than if you’ve just seen their photo.

Moral of the story? Whether someone’s really lying to you or not, you should always listen to your gut when it nags you.

In conclusion,

A great rule of thumb: Trust your gut when you have no reason to believe it is deceiving you. And I’ve only shared a few scenarios here, but there are many more out there. What are your experiences of trusting or ignoring your gut?

I’m the founder of Amazemeet and like most people who’ve worked in professional organisations for the last 20 years, I’ve spent a lot of that time in meetings. And they mostly sucked.

I’m on a mission to help people and organisations do meetings better.

Why Walking Meetings Are Good for Your Brain, Your Life, and Your Job

What are you doing right now?

I bet my butt that you’re sitting. You might think I’ve gone bonkers, thinking ‘how is my sitting any of her business’. It’s not my business.

It’s your problem.

We sit for about 9.3 hours per day — that’s more than the 7.7 hours we spend sleeping. Sitting has also been found to increase the likelihood of developing some diseases like cancer and diabetes. Horrific, really.

In the words of Nilofer Merchant (from her TED talk):

Sitting is the smoking of our generation.

This is why people all over the world have been thinking of solutions like the standing desk — remember when that was trending? Another simple enough solution is: just stand up and walk about a bit. It’s a common practice at Wellness & Prevention, where employees are required to do so for one or two minutes every half hour. It was found to increase productivity.

Nilofer herself adopted the practice of walking in her busy schedule: by turning one-on-one coffee meetings into “walking meetings”, which were also popular with tech giants like Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg.

So let’s see why you should add walking to your busy schedule.

A change of scenery

Context shapes behavior. You’re like a walking reflection of your surroundings, and the more you stay inside the stuffy office or board room, the more you’ll feel stuffy and closed up.

If you’re looking for a re-charge or new ideas, walking outside can literally boost your cognitive function and even your memory. Furthermore, changing the scenery makes you snap out of your “work stupor”.

But beware, if you walk out into a busy street, you’ll probably start to feel stressed, so it’s better if you find a park. Stepping into Nature provides immediate relief, acting as a “reset” button. And because we spend our lives in artificial environments, our brains become even more eager to reconnect with Nature. This is why some people surround themselves with green — to trick the brain into believing it’s there, but the real thing is better.

A blast of fresh air

How many times have you taken a deep breath today?

Your brain needs tons of oxygen to operate properly. While breathing is mostly an unconscious process, you must remember that you CAN control it.

Like, for example, when you’re stressed. When you’re stressed your heart rate goes up, pumping blood like there’s no tomorrow, making you take shallow breaths. If you want to de-stress, you need to take deep breaths. Then the heart goes back to its normal rate, the adrenaline subsides, and the brain calms down, ready for the rest of the work day.

Obviously, the quality of air you inhale is also important — the stale, recycled air of the office is not good enough —  so I suggest taking a walk in the park (don’t forget the sandwich on your desk). And breathe deep.

A dash of creativity

Research shows that walking enhances creativity. In a study of students completing tasks, those who walked showed greater creativity than those who sat. When you walk, your mind naturally wanders and comes up with new ideas. Perhaps this is why so many famous creators of the past took long walks in Nature — to get their creative juices flowing.

It’s an amazing discovery, especially now that the bulk of our working lives is sedentary, both for office workers and remote workers. Also, this changes the game for brainstorming sessions. They shouldn’t take place inside the office, after hours and hours of work, they should follow a power walk!

Granted, I’m not impartial on this subject — I am an avid walker. Which is why this article — Why Walking Helps Us Think in The New Yorker — sparked the idea for my own. Give it a read if you’ve got the time.

A bit of perspective

This is where things get interesting.

Your brain makes powerful associations. For example, your desk screams work and your bed screams rest, right? Right.

What happens when you walk side-by-side to someone?

They become your equal. The brain automatically throws away the hierarchy, the prejudice, and just assumes that the person sweating and puffing next to you is someone who is working with you.

Perhaps this is why Mark Zuckerberg likes to walk new hires around Facebook Headquarters. Maybe this is his way of bonding with them. Whatever the reason, if you want to meet with someone face-to-face and drop the corporate mumbo-jumbo, try a walking meeting.

Just remember, walking too fast or too slow might not produce the best results. The perfect pace is your natural pace. Hopefully, your walking buddy will have one that’s similar to yours.

A few considerations

First of all, if you’re considering to pick up walking meetings, you know that they’re most effective when it’s just you and somebody else. A whole group of people walking together will never reach any consensus because they’ll have to out-scream one another and make a scene on the street.

Secondly, I have found that if you’re considering to taking these walks alone, the process itself is not only beneficial for creativity, but it can also act as an incubation period when you’re solving a problem or making a decision.

Finally, you need to stop making excuses — I’m not fit enough, I don’t have enough time, people won’t like that — and start taking care of your health. You don’t have to compromise your health for the sake of your job.

So start today. Set an example. And stay healthy. 🙂

I’m the founder of Amazemeet and like most people who’ve worked in professional organisations for the last 20 years, I’ve spent a lot of that time in meetings. And they mostly sucked.

I’m on a mission to help people and organisations do meetings better.