Why you should trust your gut (and why you shouldn’t)

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[Photo by Paul Bence. Some rights reserved. https://flic.kr/p/qzJZJ%5D

The idea of ‘gut instinct’ or intuition is not something I’ve felt that comfortable with. To be guided by the gut smacks of laziness: don’t get into the detail, don’t overthink, just trust that your intuition knows the right way to go. This way we get to skip the hard stuff, gloss over complexity, and just get on with things.

(Apparently one of Donald Trump’s cardinal rules is to: “listen to your gut, no matter how good things look on paper.” The fact that Trump’s ‘gut’ is telling him to build a wall between the USA and Mexico does not exactly help the case for intuition for me).

And then there are the mystics – the ones who suggest that ‘intuition’ is merely our Divine wisdom, a psychic ability we all possess. We need only tap into it to achieve all we desire. Do a quick search in Amazon for books about intuition, and you’ll see what I mean.  In this world, intuition is a form of magical thinking, innate in all of us if we’d only open ourselves up to its truth.

And yet… how often do we find that our intuition appears to steer us right? What about those times when your gut tells you that there is a disconnect between what someone is saying and what the truth is?  Or that moment when you know that even though all the rational evidence says you need to say yes to that promotion, that new client,  that new job, something inside you is saying no. 

If you wade past the hyperbole, you’ll find psychological research that shows how intuition very much exists and is critical to our ability to make decisions. Gary Klein is a research psychologist and author of The Power of Intuition, and Intuition at Work. He defines intuition as “the way we translate our experience into action.”  Yes, we all have those good hunches that appear to come from nowhere, but they only appear that way; we’re just not “aware of the associations and connections that came from these hunches” (The Power of Intuition, 4).

When we’re listening to our guts, far from tapping into some sort of psychic wisdom, we are in fact noticing subtle cues without even realising it. Our intuition is based on very “large repertoires of patterns acquired over years and years of practice” (7). There’s nothing innate about it.

Klein says that when we don’t trust our intuition, and rely on analysis – i.e. gathering all the facts, weighing all the evidence, so we can feel certain in a decision – we are likely to be far less effective decision-makers, and suffer instead from “paralysis through analysis.”

For Klein, intuition isn’t a bias that needs to be suppressed and replaced by rational analysis. But at the same time, this doesn’t mean we should throw out analysis and go with our guts – this way impulsive and likely disastrous decisions and outcomes lie. Instead, intuition needs to be balanced with rational analysis.

The key term here being ‘balance.’ One major risk, if we start to romanticise intuition, is that we use analysis to merely back up what our guts are ‘telling us.”

And while intuition can be an invaluable data point, it is also where our ingrained, unconscious biases live.

As Daniel Kahneman explains in Thinking Fast and Slow, we are led by the biases of our intuition far, far more than we might like to think. Even when we believe we are being at our most analytical and rational, we are often instead going on our guts – or working via what he refers to as System 1 of the mind, not System 2.

(System 1 “operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort and no sense of voluntary control” while System 2 “allocates attention to the effortful mental activities that demand it…” 20-12).

It’s this System 1 that desires clean, neat answers. It is “not prone to doubt. It suppresses ambiguity and spontaneously constructs stories that are as coherent as possible.” Our intuition, then, is a “machine for jumping to conclusions” (114).

And so we are right to be cynical about intuition, but not because it doesn’t exist, but because it very much does. It exists not in the form of some sort of innate wisdom that steers us to the Truth, but in the form of all our experiences that unconsciously shape how we think and who we are.  Those experiences can serve us well, but they are also where our prejudices are made.

In other words, listen to your gut, but don’t blindly trust it.


Facing the void. Coming to terms with what’s really holding us back.

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diving board

[Original image by Kat. Made available via CC licence: https://flic.kr/p/5JBC2K]

I’m a major believer that with a bit of reframing we can get more fulfilment from most situations, including our jobs.  But sometimes tweaks and attitude adjustments just aren’t enough.  Sometimes things just aren’t right, and we have to take a leap and make a major change. But for some reason we stay where we are.

About a year before I left the United States to move back to the UK, I remember having a phone conversation with my Mum. It was a familiar one, where once again I debated out loud whether we should stay in the U.S. or take a major risk and move to the UK – we’d been retreading this ground for about a decade. I’d lived in the USA for 15 years, it was where I’d spent my entire professional life. I had an American husband, 2 American children to think of too.

I remember something she said that stayed with me: “you’ve been jumping up and down on this diving board for quite a while now, sweetheart– at some stage you’re going to have to decide to dive in or walk off.” Read the rest of this entry »

Overwhelmed by a task? Stop thinking about it and try this instead

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Image by George Kelly under CC licence (https://www.flickr.com/photos/allaboutgeorge/)
Image by George Kelly. Available via CC licence (https://www.flickr.com/photos/allaboutgeorge/)

This week I started working a proposal and plan for a major piece of strategy work.  The more I worked through what needed to happen, and all the people who needed to be involved, and all the potential issues that might emerge, and a deadline that seemed ridiculously tight, the more I had a mounting sense of anxiety rise in me.  This task followed me around in my head as I walked the dog, went to sleep and woke up in the morning.

When I sat down to ‘start work’ on the thing I found my chest tightening and procrastination and diversion tactics kicked right in on cue (let me just check my linkedin, email, facebook, twitter, email one more time, and then another…).

I then remembered this great piece by Oliver Burkeman last week.  He reminded me of two key things:

1. Contrary to popular view, often the more you spend thinking about something you want to achieve, and ‘envisioning’ what success looks like, the less likely you are to actually achieve it (the brain confuses ‘imagining’ with ‘doing’)

2. We become overwhelmed by the enormity of our imaginings, so much so that we avoid doing anything to achieve them.  Perfectionism kicks in, and so we dither (and then we self-flagellate).

So what to do?

This is what I did yesterday.

I put on a timer for 15 minutes, and I just started writing. I poured out of my brain all the thoughts, ideas and stuff associated with this Big Task.

I set no expectations for myself regarding the outcomes of this work.  The only outcome I was attempting to achieve was to focus for 15 minutes on this topic.

I wasn’t thinking. I was doing.

What I ended up with?  A document with a lot of stuff on it. But also just a bit more clarity, a better sense of what questions I needed to answer, a bit more confidence on what I needed to do next.  I’d shrunk the enormity of the task, removed some of the anxiety, and now felt properly motivated about spending more dedicated time on it (I even looked forward to it).

Will the anxiety and potential paralysis return?  Very likely.  But if it does, then I know that that 15 minute timer will likely help dig me out again.

Reflecting on Reasons to Stay Alive

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reasonstostayaliveI’ve been reading Reasons to Stay Alive by Matt Haig, a book (I’ve found) that will raise a concerned eyebrow if you leave it lying around the house. It’s a beautiful book, detailing Haig’s struggles with depression, and ultimately his emergence from it in its most crippling form.

I’ve not suffered from depression. (Though I think there were definitely quite a few weeks there after my first son was born when I was extremely close).

I’ll admit, depression is one of those things that in the past I have felt somewhat terrified of. And I know I’m not alone in that. It’s a perhaps a typical response for those of us who can be serial ‘fixers.’ Depression can make us feel utterly useless. Before I knew better, I know I have been guilty of either asking someone suffering from the illness to ‘look on the bright side’ or, worse, judged them for not ‘moving on’ – all in an attempt to navigate my way out of my own feelings of anxiety. [Note, there are things you can do to support someone struggling – mainly by being there for them, and listening without jumping in with advice.  Useful guidance here from Mind].

Haig’s book is a sobering reminder of how we judge and attempt to ‘manage’ depression so differently than other illnesses:

Things people say to depressives that they don’t say in other life-threatening situations.

‘Come on, I know you’ve got tuberculosis, but it could be worse. At least no one’s died…’ […]

‘Ah, meningitis. Come on, mind over matter’ […]

‘Yes, yes, your leg is on fire, but talking about it all the time isn’t going to help things, is it?’

[pg. 26]

So this was a good book for me to read. It gave me more insight into what the experience of depression was like, and further deepened my compassion and understanding.  But beyond this, whether you suffer from depression or not, this book is a gorgeous exploration of those things that make life very much worth living – those often small, taken for granted experiences that all together can create a joyful life:

Things I have enjoyed since the time I thought I would never enjoy again.

“Cold swimming pools. Oceans. Seas. Rivers. Lakes. Fjords. Ponds. Puddles. Roaring Fires. Pub Meals. Sitting outside and eating olives. The lights fading in the cinema, with a bucket of warm popcorn on your lap. Music. Love. Unabashed emotion. Rock pools. Swimming pools. Peanut butter sandwiches…Will Ferrell in Elf…Watching every Hitchhock movie. Cities twinkling at night as you drive past them, as if they are fallen constellations of stars. Laughing. Yes laughing so hard it hurts. Laughing as you bend forward and as your abdomen actually starts to hurt from so much pleasure, so much release, and then as you sit back and audibly groan and inhale deeply, staring at the person next to you, mopping up the joy…” [pg. 244-5]

I’ve started creating my own list.  It’s been a fun and affirming thing to do, helping me to be more aware of those small, often fleeting moments that can be heaped with happiness.

Laughter, particularly as Haig describes it, is right up there for me. But also in there:

Lots of tealights all over the house on a dark winter evening | Reading the Saturday paper next to my husband in bed | Having fresh coffee placed at my bedside at 6.50am on a weekday | Wetherspoons chips | Crystal clear sea water | Swimming underwater with my sons | Losing time in the massive Paperchase in Manchester | Beautiful notebooks | Writing lists | Ticking off lists | Long hugs from Sam | My oldest son’s lightening quick, killer one-liners | My husband’s lightening quick, killer one-liners | Walking home from the station and pausing for a moment outside my lit-up, inviting house | Floating on the Ionian Sea with a glass of wine in my hand | Nordic Noir | Cackling at Gogglebox with my sons | A new mug | Extreme silliness with my friends | Lost in writing | Seeing someone I coach have a revelation | Hiking up a hill for the view | Taxis with the family to the airport at dawn | Teal coloured velvet.  | Scones with clotted cream and jam | Blackberries from the brambles with Dad | Hearing someone’s story for the first time.

That’s my list so far How about you?




Learning the art of shouting quietly

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I’ve just finished watching the Youtube video of Pete Mosley‘s talk about ‘The Art of Shouting Quietly’ at a recent Glitch creative event in Nottingham.


Whether you’re an introvert and ‘quiet soul’ or not (disclaimer: I’m not) Pete speaks to any of us who struggle with ‘marketing’ or ‘promoting’ ourselves in a way that feels authentic and right.  (And I say this as someone with a background in marketing). Social media marketing can feel especially superficial and distracting. The ‘rules’ for self-promotion appear to be to make many social connections as possible to widen your audience and possible market:  Broadcast, broadcast, broadcast.  It sometimes just feels like spamming.

A few of my own takeaways from Pete’s talk (although he covers far more):

Read the rest of this entry »

Moral licensing: When good habits go bad

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Have you ever found yourself not letting a car into your lane because you let another car in a few miles back?

Shoved a plastic bottle into the general waste bin as you reassure yourself you that you are someone who typically recycles?

Ignored a homeless person and then reminded yourself of your contributions to Shelter?

Eaten a whole pizza because “I ran today.”


If we’re honest, most of us will recognise ourselves here.

Psychologists refer to this pattern as ‘moral licensing.’  It means that “when people are confident that their past behavior demonstrates compassion, generosity, or a lack of prejudice, they are more likely to act in morally dubious ways” [Merrit, Effron and Monin, 2010].  Studies show that individuals who express non-racist or non-sexist views are then much more likely to go on and make racist or sexist comments – the earlier statements giving them permission to do so because they’ve already ‘proven’ their lack of prejudice.   And apparently we don’t even need to actively do or say anything ‘good’ for this to happen.  Just the mere act of imagining ourselves doing something good can create just the same effect [Khan and Dhar 2006].


Is this why dieting and exercise can make you overweight?

Ok.  Looking at all this in the context of our relationship with food and exercise is a bit of a reductive leap.  But for many of us, that relationship is a moral one – characterised by judgements we lay on ourselves and each other. When we exercise and eat healthily, we are ‘good’ people, and when we don’t do these things we’re ‘bad.’   In biological terms, food is simply fuel. In moral terms, it’s a battleground.

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What stories are you making up?

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Create your own storyI’ve always been addicted to story and story-telling in one way or another.  I ended up teaching literature for many years and completed a PhD in English a decade a go. In that time I was busy examining, deconstructing, and theorising narrative and meaning-making, and I can still busk a post-structuralist debate (“does experience shape language, or does language shape experience?”).  When I changed careers, I found myself immediately drawn to the marketing and communications side of business – still enticed over questions of how we make meaning.

I have more than my fair share of pleb tastes too.  I’m the go-to person if you want to know the latest TV box set to gorge on (FYI: Fargo).  I load up my kindle on a regular basis, whipping my way through titles like Christmas at Rosie Hopkins Sweetshop (yep) or Dawn French’s According to Yes. I got positively misty eyed at Star Wars – The Force Awakens.

To unwind, I go for the predictable stuff of chick-lit (horrible term, but I prefer it to ‘romance’) or mysteries. They’re comforting and familiar.  But too much and you can end up with that post Christmas holiday feeling  – overstuffed, a bit numb, and not really tasting that chocolate mint truffle any more.   It’s then that I crave something more challenging, a narrative that opens up new thinking and fosters creativity, not mere comfort for comfort’s sake. So beside my bed are pen-inked copies of Thinking Fast and Slow and David and Goliath. Wolf Hall also loiters there accusingly, half-read.

Shared experience, through story, is how we connect with each other

Ultimately, story-telling, shared experience, is at the root of our ability to connect and empathise with others. Neuroscience shows that stories bring our brains together.  Character-driven stories apparently cause oxytocin synthesis in the brain, and researchers have looked at how you can ‘hack’ the oxytocin system to encourage people to engage in co-operative behaviours.

I recently worked with colleagues to design a workshop that brought together people from different divisions and geographical locations in our organisation.   Read the rest of this entry »