Intuitive decision making – using our inbuilt warning systems as our guide.

We all make decisions every day in our personal and work life, they range from profound life altering decisions like getting married, having a family, moving to another country to less impactful decisions like choosing a kitchen appliance. In a business context, ranging from whether to make a multimillion dollar business acquisition to whether to hire person A vs person B.

In some cases we don’t even realise that we have gone through the conscious process of making a decision, it just seems like the logical thing to do – a ‘no brainer’. In these cases it is more likely that we have had a longer period of time to internalise, research and assess options and then naturally gravitate down a certain path without realising we have consciously made a choice. Even though they may be big decisions they are easier because we have time to satisfy our quantitative and qualitative data requirements, seek inputs from others, and condition ourselves to be ready for the next ‘logical’ step.

What about those times that something presents itself to us when we are least expecting it, or when we are forced to make a choice in a very short space of time and we don’t have the luxury of time to do our homework? Often times we wish these options never existed because they throw our nice comfortable status quo out the window and force us into thinking about something different when we weren’t ready to. These decisions are probably the ones we struggle the most with, even though they may be small.

The good news is that we have an inbuilt guidance system, the bad news is that we don’t listen to or investigate what that guidance system is indicating. The Amygdala is a part of our brain that gives us the ‘fight, flee, freeze or appease’ response to stimulus. It’s what makes us feel fear and is an ‘always on’ threat detection system that operates exactly the same in a personal or business context as it did in our ancient predatory environment, where being eaten by something bigger than us was a daily potential threat. When something new is put in front of us – a new idea or option that we need to make a choice about, our Amygdala takes over and does an immediate threat assessment which in turn gives us an initial feeling, a gut reaction or an intuitive sense. At this stage we can’t explain why something feels right or wrong, but we just know it does.

In reflecting on the decisions I have made that I regretted, regardless of being big or small, I can unequivocally say that I went against or ignored my initial feeling about it, my gut reaction or my intuition. I have wondered why I chose to ignore and not investigate what my gut was telling me.

In the early years of my career I was more susceptible to being persuaded by the opinions of others, especially if I perceived them to be in a position of power or more experienced than I was. I was not as confident in my own perspectives, thoughts or beliefs, nor was I as confident in backing them up or debating with those I perceived to be more influential than I was. I didn’t spend much time thinking about my gut feeling not being quite right, because that became overridden by having to explain a rationale to others.

A range of learning experiences over time has changed that landscape however and I’ve become attuned to the initial feeling I have when I hear something or am presented with a choice I need to make a decision about. I’ve learned that my initial feeling is an early warning system and I have to investigate what doesn’t feel right and why. I recently was presented with a significant career decision that on the surface seemed like a ‘no brainer’ decision but didn’t feel right to me. After writing down the pro’s, con’s, facts and concerns I had I was able to make a decision that I felt wholly and completely comfortable with, I could explain the rationale to myself and other key stakeholders, it was not the ‘no brainer’ option but it was the right decision for me.

Key points:

  • Be attuned to your initial feeling about options you have to make a decision about
  • Act on that feeling, investigate it, don’t ignore it
  • Write down how you feel about the options and ask yourself why you feel that way
  • Ask yourself ‘why’, repeatedly until you can explain the initial feeling to yourself and others

These simple steps when practiced can help us to listen to and understand our early warning signals, translating a seemingly unfounded or irrational feeling into a meaningful way to make decisions you can understand, explain and stand by.


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