When—and how—to use your intuition at work

May 26, 2021, 2:00 PM UTC

When it comes to using intuition at work, people tend to fall into one of two camps: those who believe that trusting that “inner voice” is crucially important and those who fear following “that gut feeling” instead of data points could easily lead them down the wrong path. Though intuition has historically been hard to define, emerging research may soon allow us to more concretely understand and measure it, leading to a broader acceptance of its use in the business world.

Joel Pearson, a professor of cognitive neuroscience at the University of New South Wales and founder of the UNSW Future Minds Lab, is at the forefront of this research. He tells Fortune that the most current way to define intuition based on the latest data collected is to start with what intuition isn’t. 

“It is not a 6th sense, it is nothing magical, spiritual or anything that requires any explanation outside of what we already know from science,” he says. Instead, he notes, intuition is “the productive use of unconscious information in the brain to help decision-making.” In other words, whereas some might say intuition is “knowing without proof,” this new definition provides that the “proof” is, in fact, all of our unconscious information hard at work. 

For some, the ability to tap into that information certainly stems from a spiritual or meditative connection. Still, this new understanding allows intuition to be a skill one can develop, much like any other work tool. It’s not something only some people possess. “Intuition is simply using feeling or physical action to tap into this unconscious information and to put it to productive use,” Pearson explains. 

Which begs the bigger question of how, exactly, does one accomplish that? 

Calm is key

If you’ve ever felt “struck” by an idea or had one of those instant “knowing” moments, it may seem that intuition works like a lightning bolt—electrifying your senses and pulling you into action with one bright flash. While those moments may undoubtedly be the spark for something great, Pearson, who is developing a “Field Guide to Intuition,” says the first rule is to “only use your intuition when you are calm and clear—not emotional.” 

For Chakra Earthsong, founder and chief formulator of the popular KeVita beverages, who began developing the drinks from her kitchen in 2008 that would ultimately be acquired by PepsiCo in 2016, that sense of calmness and being able to connect to intuition comes from a feeling of being grounded—literally. Noting how simple it sounds, Earthsong advises the first step for those seeking guidance from their intuition is to “get your feet on the earth. Find a place somewhere to take your shoes and socks off and put your feet on the ground, breathe, and listen.”

Take your time

There’s no denying that time is a valuable commodity and one that many people find to be in scarce supply. However, when it comes to strengthening your intuition, Becca Doyle and Shannon Thompson, the artists behind Noria, say allowing yourself time is vital. “It’s so counter-cultural to take your time,” Doyle notes, but in learning to develop one’s intuition, she describes the process as being similar to “floating down a river. You may not know exactly where you’re going at first, but as you go along the journey, you see the path come together.”

Earthsong calls this finding the “correct direction” and states it often comes from a partnership of both data and allowing yourself (or others) the freedom to “tap in, feel, and dream.” 

For Rachel Tung, a seasoned unscripted television producer and development executive, time is one component that helps her decipher if her feeling is intuition or just momentary excitement. “If I can’t stop thinking about it, it supports what I was feeling in that moment,” she says. “If you feel that energy repeat itself, that’s your intuition projecting the outcome of that project.” 

Let experience be your guide

Another one of Pearson’s rules is to “only use intuition for things you have expertise with.” Seth Eliot Santoro, an intuitive business coach who works with CEOs and executives across the country, says there is much to gain from one’s past experiences and outcomes. “When faced with a decision,” he advises, “it’s important to review the past.” 

Many external factors can dissuade people from trusting their intuition in business, but Santoro reminds his clients how important it is to come from a place of confidence in your knowledge: “There’s a reason you are in that position. You’ve made 100 decisions before that, and you’ll make 100 decisions after that. Taking the time to reflect on the past is an important step.” He notes that through repetition of this reflective practice, “then you’re starting to develop the tool of intuition.”

The future of intuition

It’s one thing to know what your intuition is telling you, but quite another to work in an environment that allows you to act upon it. It’s common when discussing intuition with others to hear some variation of “I knew the decision wasn’t right, but I couldn’t convince everyone my intuition was valid.” In these instances, Pearson hopes his research will help turn the tide. Noting how “young the field of the science of intuition is and that most in the business world simply don’t know about it,” he sees a future in which businesses can “understand and trust what intuition is and what it is not.” This understanding, he believes, will allow intuition to become a clear part of business strategy. One way Pearson sees this happening is by people having “an intuition score, so it will be clear and publicly known if their intuition is well-developed, along with their expertise in a very specific realm of decision-making.” 

In the meantime, pay attention to those around you, and whether they honor your intuition as being valid in business decisions. If they don’t, there’s a good chance that you should listen to that part of your intuition telling you it’s time to move on. 

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