Here’s a question from Suzanne, a reader from Brisbane. “You’ve talked before about intuition. Any tips to improve how I use my own?”
Similar to creativity, intuition is something everyone understands at a basic level because we’ve all used it – probably without thinking about it. But, when pressed about how to bring it to the front of our consciousness to apply it, or to improve our own skills using it, it’s easy to stumble for the right words.
A Useful Definition to Start
Ask around and you’ll find intuition is described in conversational synonyms. A sixth sense. An instinct. A psychic ability. A hunch. Gut feelings. My inner voice.
They’re all correct, yet they each miss a comprehensive understanding. If you like neat and tidy definitions, try this one:
Intuition is the ability to understand a topic, a situation or a person without the need for conscious thinking or logical reasoning.
Easy to Define, but Confounding in How It Works
Again, there are parallels to my favourite topic of creativity.
- Intuition isn’t deliberate. We can consciously force our brains to think. Not so with intuition. There are no steps or instructions to turn it on.
- Intuition isn’t a single, specific action. It’s actually a result of several elements working together, namely a mash-up of our experiences, memories, senses and emotions.
- Intuition isn’t linear because it’s a product of our subconscious. More often than not, intuition is illogical, random and abrupt – and yet, dead-on accurate.
Like creativity, the power of intuition is immeasurable and invaluable. The lateral structure of intuition expands upon, adds depth and complements the traditional, rational intelligence used in business. In fact, research suggests intuition operates on a parallel track to cognition. This reciprocal aspect is particularly vital in decision making when a topic or situation isn’t fully defined, or there’s no experience or precedence to base a plan of action.
A Formula and Framework
If you could boil all of these contradictions down, you might get a recipe like this.
Strategy + Experience + Senses + Feelings = Intuition
- Strategy: What am I trying to accomplish?
- Experience: What do I know about the topic, situation or person?
- Senses: What is my mind experiencing?
- Feelings: What is my body experiencing?
Using this formula as a framework, here are my suggestions to strengthen how and when you use your intuition.
1. Expand your experience.
Either in your current role or through personal interests, seek out and offer yourself to new opportunities or special projects. Challenge yourself with growth opportunities which both add to your expertise as well as allow you to engage with others. (See #2 below.) Immerse yourself in different, new or unusual experiences. Look for opportunities to get out from behind your desk and walk in the real world.
2. Broaden your network and your exposure.
You can’t always experience something directly. Even if you do, another person’s point-of-view can be as insightful as witnessing it for yourself. Build your network – in person, on social media – to feed and nourish your intuition. Mentors are a perfect place to start if you’re not sure how to begin.
Join a club, or attend a talk or debate. Link to/follow influencers on platforms like Twitter, Snapchat, Webo, Wechat or LinkedIn. Subscribe to RSS feeds from journos/bloggers in consumer, news, trade and tech in your relevant areas. Use apps like Pocket, Flipboard and Evernote to help manage information, if not the bookmark features on key websites. Comment on posts to engage and stimulate your analytical thinking.
3. Learn, observe and listen.
As necessary as experience, intelligence must be kept fresh to be of use. Read as much as you can on topics which are relevant to you, and preferably, challenge what you think you know. Continue to educate yourself in training workshops and hands-on learning opportunities. Look for an online training courses to take. MOOCs are ideal for this.
4. Be aware of what your senses tell you.
Your unconscious brain perceives information significantly more than your conscious mind. It’s important to pay attention and recognise these non-verbal cues to stimulate your intuition.
Here’s an example I use in my creativity workshop – which is also a fun/easy distraction during your morning/evening commute. Use your senses to ‘examine’ your fellow commuters. Consider their body language, cologne, snippets of conversation, carry-alls and accessories. What’s your intuition tell you about their back story? Make up stories in your head which stokes your intuition further. The trick – besides not staring and getting an earful – is to isolate any specific action or behaviour. Think about why your intuition has connected a behaviour and a decision about that behaviour. It’s good practice for when the real need for using your intuition comes along.
5. Focus on ‘feeling’ and not ‘thinking.’
If senses influence how your mind thinks, your emotions influence how your body behaves. You can strengthen your intuition by being more receptive to how and why your body reacts physically to new situations, people or topics. In a new situation, notice your energy levels and behaviours. What caused a specific positive or negative reaction, and why? Think about why certain concepts, thoughts or ideas return to you over and over. What makes the idea attractive to you from a physical point-of-view? Think of the AHA! reaction when you get a good idea. What’s your variation for both good and bad ideas? Learn to understand how your body reacts will give you clues on how your intuition presents itself.
If you don’t have an immediate situation or topic at hand, you can try this same technique using a magazine, website, even Google Images. While you’re flipping/scrolling pages, consider how you react: what do your eyes do, how does your body change, do you get tingles on your skin, is your mouth dry? The point is not what you’re looking at. The point is how you react. Understanding your actions on a general topic will help you understand them better and faster in real situations. You might even find yourself connecting disassociative thoughts to something real in your unconscious.
That said, for tip #5 to be effective, you need to simultaneously …
6. Quiet your mind.
Because your thinking brain is typically in control, you need to quiet the cognitive mind to allow the intuitive mind to speak. Meditation is the best solution (see below). If that’s not for you, try physical actions which can also stop the mind from thinking. Your focus should be on the here and now. As your mind quiets, your intuition connects with greater knowledge. Because your intuition doesn’t appear like a conscious thought, you need to be more aware of your feelings and emotions, perhaps even symbols, to help understand what they might tell you.
To quiet my mind, I swim, cook, garden or play the piano. For you, stick to things you ‘automatically’ do – not something new, because your mind will focus on performing correctly instead of just doing without thinking.
7. Try to solve problems.
Like any skill worth learning, you need to practice using your intuition. Similar to the creative exercises in #4 above, look for problems around you. Ask yourself how you might solve them. Come up with as much solutions as possible. If you can solve the problem, great – but that’s not the purpose here. You’re primarily looking to exercise your intuitive muscles. Focus always on your reactions and process, not the outcome itself.
8. Immerse yourself, then take a step back.
The worst researcher I ever worked with was a master of printing out pages of data that she’d gathered, but at no point took the additional step of reducing the information to her top 10 conclusions.
Try doing this yourself. Take any large volume of reading materials. Perhaps something on your desk now, or pick up a lengthy article from a magazine, blog or website. Read it from start to finish. Write down any notes you want. When finished, put away the research and your notes. Without plagiarising, outline or prioritise in 10 steps what the material recommends. Focus on specific actions, not general statements. What does your intuition tell you through your responses, emotions and experiences?
9. Capture your insights.
As you do with creative ideas, write down your intuitions. The physical act of writing forces more areas of your brain to fire up. By doing so, it can trigger intuitive thoughts. I can never stress enough the need to keep a journal, either a physical one on a notebook or a digital one on a smartphone or tablet. Most of all, don’t censure what you write!
10. Schedule time to proactively think.
In other words, daydream. Sadly, it’s a word that triggers many negative stereotypes. Yet, in a world where we create and are bombarded with more and more information, we rarely stop. We need to turn off the noise and let our brains perform it’s most amazing function: to think and imagine. Don’t let it be a casually determined effort. Plan for it. Put it in your diary. Keep the date with yourself.
A Final Word about Meditation
Before I close, allow me a moment to talk about meditation. Like daydreaming, it carries unfortunate baggage in the professional sense. But consider this. If daydreaming is a chance to allow your conscious/unconscious mind to imagine what’s possible, meditation is allowing your mind a chance to stop, rest and recharge. It sounds easy, but in fact, it’s one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done. I work at it every day. The rewards are amazing. It not only connects me to my intuition, but to my imagination and creativity as well.
I’m not an expert at meditation. If you’re interested, start with this excellent blog post, courtesy of Mary Jaksch.
Any other tips or thoughts on how you strengthen your intuition?
As always, thanks for reading. If this topic interests you, you might take a moment to read some of my earlier posts.