We make decisions all the time. Sometimes we react to advertisements and external stimuli. Or we make our decisions consciously, carefully weighing our options. Reactive decisions can lead us astray and conscious decisions work well for simple choices like what to pack for a trip. But for complex decisions—determining which job to accept, which house to buy, or how to solve a problem in our relationships—psychologists Ap Dijksterhuis and Loren Nordgren (2006) have found that we make the best choices by drawing upon our intuition.
Why? Because our conscious mind can handle only a limited amount of information at a time, like an open file on our computers. Our intuition, by contrast, can access a vast source of information we’re not even conscious of, reaching into our personal hard drive of memory and past experience, making connections, coming up with new insights, new possibilities.
Research has revealed 3 ways to access the power of your intuition.
1. Preparation: Intuition favors the prepared mind. First review your options, do some research, read up on the subject. Psychologists recommend developing a working knowledge of your subject, loading relevant information into your memory (Csikszentmihalyi, 1996; Dijksterhuis & Nordgren, 2006).
2. Incubation: Allow time for your brain to work beneath the surface of your consciousness. If you “sleep on it,” you’ll often awaken with the answer. You can also take a walk or spend time in nature. Relax and let your brain make new connections, revealing new insights (Csikszentmihalyi, 1996). Einstein used to get flashes of new insight into his work while sailing. Another way is to meditate. Research has shown that mindfulness meditation enhances creative insight by expanding our perspective, helping us break out of habitual thought patterns (Ostafin & Kassman, 2012).
3. Inspiration and Action: When you get that flash of inspiration, take action (Csikszentmihalyi, 1996). This takes the courage to reach out, to reject the voice of the inner critic that tells you, “You can’t do this—you’ve never done this before.”
Reach out and a whole new world may open up for you. Years ago, I was living with my parents in Riverside, California, trying to earn enough money for college. It was late summer, and I was working short-term jobs as a Kelly Services temp. Driving down 14th Street in my family’s old Volkswagen after work one day, I passed the Press-Enterprise newspaper office. Suddenly a thought filled my mind" “I’m a writer—I should work there.” On intuitive impulse, I turned the car into the parking lot, walked inside, and said to a reporter, “I’m a writer. I’d like to apply for a job.” He ushered me upstairs to the personnel office where I learned their college intern had given notice that morning—they hadn’t even advertised the job yet. I began work on Monday.
Following my intuition led me to the right job at the right time. As an editorial intern, I worked my way through college and flourished in the creative atmosphere of the newsroom, working alongside professional journalists who showed me what it means to be a writer.
What about you? Have you used the power of your intuition to make an important decision?
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1996). Creativity: Flow and the psychology of discovery and invention. New York, NY: HarperCollins.
Dijksterhuis, A., & Nordgren, L. (2006). A theory of unconscious thought. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 1, 95-109.
Ostafin, B.D., & Kassman, K. T. (2012). Stepping out of history: Mindfulness improves insight problem solving. Consciousness and Cognition, 21, 1031-1036.