Train your intuition to make better decisions

Sometimes you just know.
Sometimes you just know.
Image: Reuters/Yiannis Kourtoglou
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Once in a while, you just know something in an instant. You don’t know how you know. You just do. Maybe it’s that the 14th apartment you’ve seen in a real estate hunt is the one you’re going to live in, that today is not the day to take that shortcut home, or that you better check in on an old friend, ASAP.

That flash of knowing, before your brain gives way to analytical reasoning, is intuition.

Intuition is a somewhat ineffable concept; part of its nature is that we can’t quite track the origins of a piece of knowledge. In a world of information overload, when any small question can easily give way to a flood of answers—some more reliable than others—the idea of quick, direct access to the correct one is particularly powerful.

Intuition has seduced countless philosophers, scientists, researchers, and many consumers who want to understand how intuition works, and how we can use it more effectively. They don’t agree on everything, but they do offer some valuable insight for those of us hoping to tap into our own.

For nearly three decades, Laura Day has made a career of tapping her intuition to answer questions on behalf of corporate clients, and writing bestselling books about how everyday people can do the same thing for themselves.

A little over halfway through my recent telephone interview with Day, she stopped explaining to me how intuition works, and started to use her intuition to read me. (I had asked a question about chronic overthinkers, and she must have intuited that I had skin in the game.)

“For you, I think that there are too many pieces in play, but a lot of them are in idle,” she says. “That creates anxiety because you need to put them in forward motion.”

This may be true of many people, especially journalists, at any given time. But at eight months pregnant in a half-unpacked new home, I was surrounded by literal piles—of bills, boxes, laundry—that I had been willfully ignoring in anticipation of an interim between full-time work and the baby’s arrival. She was not wrong.

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“That really is the job of an intuitive”

Day is often not wrong, and has built a career translating her intuition—which she defines as a “direct knowing,” experienced as a “non-local flash of insight”—into useful, valuable information. Today, in semi-retirement at 61, she works for four corporate clients, including three that she has worked with for years in entertainment, venture capital, and finance, plus one rotating spot to keep things fresh. Every six months, her clients renew a retainer fee, so that they can call her at will with specific questions.

“Usually it’s, ‘Can I hit you?’ and I’ll say, ‘Yeah hit me,’” she says of the process. “And they’ll say, ‘Will this actor take $14 million?’” That’s a specific enough question for Day to work with, but if the question is more vague, she says, such as “What do you think of this company?” she has to rework it to form what she calls a target.

“Is this a company they want to buy a product from, or is this a company they want to buy?” she asks. “Once I find the target, I say, ‘this is my target. Do you agree?’ And they’ll say yes or no. And then I’ll tell them everything I see.”

By way of example, she offers a hypothetical conversation about a company that was an acquisition target for a client. With only the name of the company she could “see” that its main product involved nutrition and that it would be slow to reach the market. By the time it did, there would already be three other competitors—one with a significant advantage. This would allow her to advise the client that by forgoing perfection and bringing an adequate product to market fast, they could make a name before their competitors.

“I get to play around with the chess board, go to the end of the game, and play around and revise some of the moves,” says Day. “And that really is the job of an intuitive.”

Day also teaches mostly free classes which take place, post-Covid, regularly on Facebook and Zoom. She splits her time between New York, London, Los Angeles, and Rome, and has a celebrity following. Jennifer Aniston and Chris Rock sing Day’s praises on her website, and Gwyneth Paltrow has featured her on Goop’s podcasts, event stages, and stories online. In April, 81,000 of Demi Moore’s Instagram followers liked a photo the actor shared of her family  (Bruce Willis included) doing “family book club” with Day’s 2009 book How to Rule the World From Your Couch.

Though Day has been doing this work for decades, intuition has more recently stepped into the spotlight thanks to a sector of the wellness industry that services the growing group of consumers who subscribe to so-called “new age” beliefs such as the validity of psychics and astrology.

And it’s not just for Goopies.

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Measuring intuition

Intuition has long captivated scientists who want to better understand how it works and how to use it. Day’s definition and experience of intuition sounds a lot like what some might call a psychic gift. But it’s not so different from what researchers such as Joel Pearson, a professor of cognitive neuroscience at the University of New South Wales, call the “productive use of non-conscious information for some type of decision-making.”

“It’s like a superpower,” says Pearson. “Figuring out new ways to objectively and reliably measure these things is a key to opening up that topic and that field.”

In order to do this, Pearson and his colleagues must find ways to create conditions conducive to relying on intuition, such as limited decision-making time to inhibit analytical thinking, and exposure to subconscious information.

For a 2016 study that endeavored to measure intuition, Pearson and his colleagues exposed small groups of graduate students to emotionally charged subliminal images—puppies, sharks, etc.—while asking them to perform a conscious task (to discern which direction dots were moving across a screen). They found that exposure to the pictures boosted subjects’ speed, accuracy, and confidence when it came to decision-making. The images didn’t make subjects consciously feel emotions such as fear or affection; they weren’t even aware they were seeing them. (He has compared the process to the film Inception.) Rather, Pearson says, they represented the sort of “nonconscious emotional information” that could factor into intuitive decision-making.

Pearson says that sort of emotional information is just one of many unconscious signals our intuition could utilize. Our physical state and sensory input—for example, a change in one’s heart rate or body temperature—might also provide clues for our intuition, if we listen to them.

“Maybe the person has no idea why they’re feeling a little bit negative, or a little bit fearful, or a little bit something, because they’re not conscious of it,” says Pearson. “If you can tap into these bodily sensations, if you’re just very aware of the state of your brain, the emotional state of your body, then you can use that, you can tap into that information to make better decisions.”

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Be aware of context

Our intuition can rely on cognitive shortcuts that are rooted in bias or stereotypes. Using analytical reasoning can help here, but so can practice and context.

A 2016 study of clinical decision-making in nurses found that intuition was most valuable when the nurses were dealing with a familiar complication. In this sense, what might have once required analytical decision-making can become intuitive with practice. (“This is why you want to go to a 70-year-old physician,” says Day when I tell her about the study.)

But if that physician is a podiatrist, you probably don’t want them following their intuition to care for, say, your brain surgery, or your car’s engine.

Carina Remmers, a clinical psychologist at the Free University of Berlin, says that intuition is “domain-specific,” meaning that what serves us well in one field may not be relevant in another. “It’s not a general capacity,” she says.

What follows is that in unfamiliar circumstances, we should rely more heavily on our analytical reasoning, researching similar problems, and gathering data—especially if we have time to do so. Ditto for decisions with wide-reaching impacts that require transparency, such as those made by government leaders and corporate executives. People in power should be accountable beyond their intuition.

“Intuition really gives you pieces of the puzzle and not the whole picture,” says Day. “I don’t do business work for people who are not already skilled in their field, because I’m getting a puzzle piece—but the person who’s asking the question knows where to put it.”

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“The intuitive state is a dispassionate one”

Day, Pearson, and Remmers all agree that a person in a heightened emotional state will have trouble tapping into their intuition.

“Emotionality is very much the enemy of clear intuitive data,” says Day. “The intuitive state is a dispassionate one.”

In 2017, Remmers co-authored a study examining the impacts of mood on intuitive decision-making and found that an anxious state impaired subjects’ abilities to make connections. “In a state of anxiety, people become less able to intuitively detect meaningful structures,” says Remmers. “To develop valid, good intuition, you need a good environment—a benign environment.”

For many people right now, a benign environment is hard to come by. In her work, Day usually advises people to train their intuition on a clear question or goal. But if a person is anxious or overwhelmed by piles (ahem)—or a pandemic—that question might simply be how best to survive and thrive.

In that case, Day says, just look for what she calls the “can do” in the immediate moment, and just do it, even if it feels unrelated to a greater goal.

“It begins with literally putting one foot in front of the other and seeing, ‘What can I do in this moment?’” says Day. “Moving forward in itself in a positive way engages intuition anyway—without, you know, all the fireworks.”