Knowing when to trust your gut, and when to make a decision in a different way, is incredibly important for entrepreneurs. In entrepreneurial circles, it’s common for people to advise “just go with your gut” or “follow your gut, you’ll always do the right thing”. It’s almost a badge of honor: that an entrepreneur can shoot from the hip, act quickly and be right most of the time.
While it’s an incredibly powerful decision making mode in many circumstances, going with your gut is not always the best thing to do. Gut instinct is based on the human brains magnificent pattern recognition system, embedded in the oldest parts of the brain, that draws on associative memory. However, it’s most useful for decision making if you can recognize a pattern, either consciously or subconsciously, that is formed from the body of your directly relevant past experience. The difficulty is, how often do we face a tough decision that we have direct experience in, particularly when things are happening quickly? If we did, the decision would be easy wouldn’t it? Just going with your gut is not guaranteed to lead to the right result every time you need it – particularly when you’re facing something new, innovative, or complex.
There are many times when trusting your gut-instinct before you make an important decision will serve you well – but it’s very important to know when not to rely on it. Here are 8 signals your gut instinct is about to fail you. They’re signals that are telling you to pause, think again, and look for another way to decide what to do.
1. You can’t sleep at night
Ever had one of those sleepless nights when your brain is working overtime to solve a problem. During the REM part of our sleep, our brain rests and resets, and we experience dreams. But if that time is overtaken by your subconscious trying to solve a problem, it may be a signal that you don’t already know the answer. This is a signal that your subconscious is not recognizing solution from the patterns of your past experience, but is instead identifying a danger sign that you need to address. In these situations, it’s very powerful to pay attention to the problem, but not necessarily listen to the solution your gut feeds you. In these circumstances, going with a gut instinct creates a risk that you’ll make an emotional and/or biased judgement.
2. You’re pacing around
Some people associate pacing with anxiety, which is essentially a fear signal. If you’re pacing, you are probably drawing on some fight or flight response (not freeze, or you would be doing nothing!), but once again, you are recognizing a signal of danger, not the solution. The anxiety is being driven precisely because your subconscious mind doesn’t know what the answer is, so listening to your gut feel on the solution might take you astray.
3. You want to ignore the problem
If there is a little voice in you saying “it’ll go away”, that’s probably your freeze instinct kicking in. If this is happening, once again, your gut is giving problem signal, but not showing you a solution. To find the solution, you may need to stare the problem in the face, get calm, get creative, and explore future options with as much flexibility as possible. Listening to your gut’s freeze instinct will keep you static while risks grow around you.
4. You’re calling your friends for advice
If you jump on the phone to ask a friend, college or advisor for some guidance, what’s happening is you are asking them to share their gut feel with you. There’s a saying I love “Let your advisor’s hindsight become your foresight”, but by asking for advice the reality is you don’t have the answer yourself. There was a time I called 8 of my most trusted advisors on a very important decision I needed to make, and I got 8 completely different responses. Why? Because their experience was completely different from each another and their personalities lead them to handle the situation differently. Getting different advice doesn’t help, and its even less helpful to resort to “just follow your gut” because I wouldn’t have made the phone call in the first place if I had past experience.
5. A single option isn’t jumping out at you
If you ever experienced a time when you’re trying to solve a problem, but there are multiple solutions in your mind, none of which are instantly springing forward as the single answer, then you may be facing a complex situation you have not previously encountered. In these circumstances, picking one of the options that “feels right” is a risky strategy. If you’re facing many possible options, your pattern recognition system is probably untuned to this new set of circumstances, suggesting it’s not a good time to trust your intuition. Instead, each option should be evaluated, perhaps using a scoring matrix, to get some clarity about which one will lead to a better outcome. Drawing on the expertise of your team and advisors to properly score a solution is a great way to capture multiple sets of experience into the decision.
6. You’re looking for examples or case studies
This is another example of looking for patterns in past events, just this time it’s stories of other people’s actions. Case studies are incredibly powerful as a way of observing what has worked in the past, but they should be treated as data points. If you’re looking for case studies, you’re probably trying to complement your own pattern recognition system with new patterns from other people’s experiences. It’s a valuable exercise, but treat it for the research that it is.
7. There’s math involved
If a decision is quantitative, it’s best to resort to proper logical thinking and not following the intuitive judgement. Our brains are much better at recognizing patterns than doing hard math. If you’re looking at the size of a market, the profitability of your customer base, or the return on an investment, going with your gut risks leading you astray. This is a decision for logic, not ‘sense’ or ‘feeling’, and in situations like these it’s necessary to take the time to properly look at the data and run the numbers. Interestingly, doing the quantitative work will help you identify and learn new patterns which will improve your gut-feeling in future situations.
8. You can’t see ahead and know you need to
If you’re looking far into the future, for your company or yourself, and know you need to look around corners to spot the opportunities that will take your company to the next level – making a gut-feel decision will keep you tied to the past. Having a gut instinct relies on historical patterns, i.e. things that have already happened. This is very different to an intuition of what is coming up, which is just a “guess” that will either be right or wrong. Such guesses can be explored and may be connected to new trends which have just formed. If you want to invent the future, trusting a past pattern might not be the right head space. It’s more powerful to look at the trends, see what’s changing today, explore how they project into the future, and get creative about what you can do about it tomorrow. This is the place for strategic intuition, not gut instinct.
Whole industries have formed to support, enhance and often challenge gut-feel judgement. If gut-feel was always 100% correct, the management consulting, business intelligence and analytics industries would not exist. The good news is a plethora of tools and techniques are available, and savvy decision makers know when to use them.
Using gut feel properly may help you make high-quality decisions quickly. The trick is to rely on it at the right time and know when to look for another way around the problem.
If you like the theme of this post, I recommend a great book on the topic called “How We Decide” by Jonah Lerer. He argues we use our gut feel for many of our decisions and gives many examples of how it’s powerful, but only when we can recognize a reliable pattern.
Another very good book on the topic is “Thinking Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman. He won the Nobel Prize in Economics and the book is a New York Times best seller. Otherwise, you can watch Daniel talk about his book with Charlie Rose in this video where he talks about the pitfalls of following intuition.
What do you think? How do you know when to question your instinct?