Choices Guided By Instinct

Do gut feelings matter? If so, when should we trust them?

That’s a question that’s been popping in my head from time to time. Should we trust our instincts in our work? And in life?

Considering there are several books and articles about this, my intention here is not to tell you what psychology or science has found so far about the way our instinct sometimes (mis)guides us. Instead, i would like to share with you a more personal approach as to how instinct affected my life and my resulting point of view on the matter.

A secret: I believe trusting your instincts is fundamental and we should listen to our inner voice more often. But I guess just saying that up front won’t help as much as showing how instincts can affect and improve your work.

So let’s take 5 steps back and see how i got to this conclusion.

Product Manager — A scientist or artist?

I work with product management. And to be good at this, you have to balance analytic skills with creative work. If I want to discover something that has engagement I have to experiment with new solutions and then measure it. That experimenting, measuring and analyzing is the “scientific” part of the job. But coming up with something that delights your customers, that requires being creative, and choosing among several new ideas, that requires connecting with your instincts and following them.

If you are already questioning yourself and thinking “but I followed my guts and I made terrible choices”, know two things: there will always be someone that has better instincts than you. You recognize them when they suggest a killer solution in seconds, but that doesn’t mean you are not able to have great instincts as well.

Second, your “gut” is always learning, like you. So if you don’t make mistakes, you will never improve your instincts. As in any other job, i often see people who are good in product management and people who are great. My point here is that top 1% that seem great has innate instincts. You have to fight hard to get there with a massive volume of experience, and the path to reach your goal can’t be taught. You’ll have to build that road on your own.

Instincts over data

When you are making assumptions and trying to build customer empathy, trusting your instincts is easier. But what do you do when the subject is more… exact? Well, there are moments when, even in face of extremely objective decisions, you could favor your instinct over analytic data.

Some examples:

long term estimation. Imagine you have a long backlog and is required to present a release plan. You have one of two choices: spend hours and hours building an estimate for each feature based on averages on all the work your team has done so far or you can stop wasting your time to estimate something that is far away.

You will probably never be able to foresee everything that will happen before each feature is picked, so let your guts guide you and share your view that this is an educated guess, and most likely will be as accurate as spending hours on end to provide an estimation for something that will probably change in the next weeks. Use Instinct.

Qualitative interview with customers. You have little information to get some relevant data. Besides, you are talking to human beings. The best approach to extract information from human beings is empathizing, which couldn’t be further from an analytical, data-driven mindset. Use Instinct.

Making small decisions when there is little impact to choose one or another. “Should i use light blue or baby blue?” Your emphasis has to be on the experiment, not the dilemma. Data will be collected very soon and then you’ll be able to check if your gut feeling was right. Use instinct.

Trigger your instincts

How you can you improve your instincts? There are two things that i usually try to do. To be mindful and to practice so the amount of experiences fuels my instincts, to provide better judgement.

1 — If you stay mindful you can see things more clearly. A cristal clear mind works like still water in a lake — you can see through it, to the bottom of the lake, and you can see your own reflection as well.

2 — Volume of experience helps your confidence in solving problems. The more similar situations I experience, the more familiar I feel, up to the point that something happens in my mind and I recognize the pattern when it happens, and instinct arises.

The key here is to stay mindful to access your instinct ability faster.

Guided by your instinct

Making choices sometimes is hard. Even if we confront side by side one alternative than the other we still don´t know wich is better. “Should i go to another job or stay in this one?”, “should i choose psychology or philosophy?”. There is no point to analyse. There is no best option. It really depends what your core values. But thing is…it’s hard to quantify or translate your core values on the choices.

Lets fly a little bit and image a world that there is always best choices, one choice is better than the other. If there is always best choices may be it exists a profession call “The Choice Maker” that will guide you to the best choice or you will do the best choice by yourself. If a world like that exist it will be boring and will be guided only by rational.

One thing that i do here to choose between two things that are equally balanced is ask “should i go in this way or the other one” “should i do that?”. I ask myself questions what should i do. Make questions let me reflect more.

I don´t get the answer with my rational mind. I don’t think about the answer. Instead i try to feel it. A spirit don´t whisper in my ears…it just works.

Again, there is no best choice. And there is no point to digging in with rational mind. Use your instinct. You will never be sure of nothing. The answer is very subtle. And this is the beauty of human nature!


Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking: Malcolm Gladwell