My Intuition Experiment

A few weeks ago, I re-read Pragmatic Thinking and Learning: Refactor Your Wetware, by Andy Hunt. I’ve read it before, but this time something stood out to me: the Dreyfus model of skill acquisition. This model was first explained by the brothers Stuart and Hubert Dreyfus, in their original paper: A Five-Stage Model of the Mental Activities Involved in Directed Skill Acquisition (February 1980).

In their paper, the brothers discern five stages in mastering any skill:

1 – Novice
2 – Competence
3 – Proficiency
4 – Expertise
5 – Mastery

I’m not going to explain the whole model, instead, I’m going to focus on one aspect of the shift from Proficiency to Expertise.

In the following quote I’m paraphrasing a few points, both from Andy Hunt’s book and from the original paper. I’ve thrown them together and edited a bit to condense.

Experts work from intuition, not from reason.

The expert refines situations to the point that unique decisions intuitively follow from situation recognition without need of conscious calculation.

Having reached this non-analytical stage of performance, the expert responds intuitively and appropriately.

But although the expert can be amazingly intuitive, he may be completely inarticulate as to how he arrived at a conclusion. He genuinely doesn’t know; it just felt right.

From this, it follows that when our intuition is trying to tell us the right answer, but we’re too busy too listen, our worse, we intentionally shut it up, we seriously impede our progress on the road to mastery.

To quote the brothers Dreyfus again:

The magnitude and importance of this change from analytic thought to intuitive response is evident to any expert who has had the experience of suddenly reflecting upon what he is doing, with an accompanying degradation of his performance.

In other words, we kill our own decision making ability by overanalyzing what we’re doing. If you play the drums, or tennis, or golf, you might have experienced this: if you become self-conscious, if you start to think about what your hands are doing, you suddenly become clumsy and slow.

Here’s my intuition experiment: to practice tuning down my analytical thought process in favor of what my intuition tells me.


If the Dreyfus brothers are correct, we can improve our performance by listening to our intuition, or by preventing our analytic thought process from shutting down our intuitive performance. But how do we do this?

You see, the problem is that you can listen all you want, but you will never hear anything. Your intuition doesn’t have a voice. In fact, the voice you hear in your head is the archenemy of intuition.

That voice is the linair, analyzing brain mode. It’s slow, verbal and always trying to connect cause and effect.

Your intuition resides in the other brain mode, the non-verbal, holistic, creative mind. It’s the image of an open window flashing through your mind five minutes after you’ve pulled off your driveway. It is the aha-moment you experience when two seemingly unrelated ideas suddenly come together in a brilliant insight. It is why you laugh at a funny joke.

It is fragile, and shy. It is easily frightened by your rational mind, shouting every thought like a drunken Englishman.

I suspect that I discard, destroy or never even pick up on 90% of the results that my R-brain produces. And that’s where I see a lot of potential for improvement. I’m not trying to increase the efficiency of my R-brain mode. That’s hard and takes time and effort (not saying it’s not worth it though). I’m trying to improve the harvesting of R-brain results by simply listening to what it’s telling me.


In this experiment, I’m trying to rely more on my gut feeling. To me as an engineer, and as manager of an engineering team, that seems like a horrible idea. My first reflex when people tell me: “It’s ok Johan, I’ll meet that deadline”, or: “Don’t worry about that, it will never happen”, is to ask them: “How do you know? Show me.”

So I often rely on the drunken Englishman. I trust my lineair brain mode to convince me that I’m making the right decision. It’s the part of me that can verbalize what my best option is, and why. It’s the part of me that does cold, hard analysis and weighs pro’s and cons. Shutting up that voice and going with what I feel is right, goes against all my instincts.

Which brings me to the next conflict. As we try to build our remarkable lives, we’re constantly stretching our comfort zone. When I’m doing this, I often experience paralyzing feelings: the fear of success, the fear of failure, being overwhelmed. It’s very hard to distinguish between this fearful clinging to the status quo, and a legitimate warning from my intuition.


The biggest advantage of intuitive decision making is that according to the Dreyfus paper, it leads to working in the flow state:

In Mastery, the analytical mind, relieved of its monitoring role in producing and evaluating performance, is quieted so that the performer can become completely absorbed in his performance.

A second advantage is that it’s faster than analytical thinking. The R-brain is a pattern-recognition machine that instantly connects inputs to output, contrary to the slow linear mode of the L-brain.

A last important advantage is that intuition complements the analysis of the L-brain because the R-brain is holistic, synthetic and creative. This should improve the quality of your decisions, as it offers a different take on the same problem. It’s like constantly having an instant help-line available.


The first thing this experiment has taught me, is that following my intuition can make my decision making process much more effective. In The Paradox of Choice, Barry Schwarz describes two types of people: satisficers and maximizers.

The satisficer is looking for a sufficient solution. It should solve his problem, and no more than that. This kind of person buys a new car, asks his insurance agent for “car insurance”, signs the papers, and pays the bill.

The maximizer on the other hand looks for the best solution to his problem. It’s the guy who does a comparative study of all available types of car insurance, reads consumer magazine specials on car insurance, and shops around for the best deal on what he has decided is the best product.

Most of us are both, at one time or another. We’re easily satisfied in some areas of our life, and take pride in maximizing others. Some people are pretty balanced about this, some are too easily satisfied, others are anal about maximizing everything.

As always, it’s about picking the right tool for the job. Often, I spend time and energy on decisions that really don’t matter. A classic for me is the red wine isle at the supermarket. Since there’s really no way to know if you’re going to like a certain wine in advance, it makes sense to get this decision out of the way as quickly as possible. So following your intuition in this case can save you time.

There’s other advantages too.

I avoid second-guessing myself. I pick what I feel is right at the time, so there’s no: “Damnit, I knew I should have stuck to my first choice.”

I have more confidence in my decisions. If I follow conscious calculation, I know there’s a possibility that there’s a mistake in the process, or an error in a formula. The right brain doesn’t do reasoning. It sees a situation, and the conclusion is instant. There’s no calculation steps to go wrong.

There’s less of David Allen’s stuff in my head. My decisions aren’t based exclusively on rational analysis, so my mind is not trying to keep track of all the factors that led to a decision, and to monitor if they change.

Can I report that I’m making better decisions as a result of this experiment? Not yet. But I’m certainly improving the conversion rate at which I’m harvesting the results of intuitive decision making and turning them into conscious choices. And if the Dreyfus brothers are right, this should help me shift faster to the stage of expert when acquiring new skills.


This experiment is not intended to dump one decision making progress in favor of another. It’s a matter of developing one more tool to expand my toolbox, that I can use when the situation calls for it.

Of course I’ll keep using analytical tools when I need to decide on a course of action. But even when the outcome of my spreadsheet or GANTT-chart is telling me one thing, it’s often useful to take a step back and see if my gut feeling agrees. And sometimes, analysis is unnecessary or even paralyzing and it’s more effective to just go with your feeling.

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