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Deprecated: Assigning the return value of new by reference is deprecated in /nfs/c03/h02/mnt/52932/domains/ on line 623 » Exploiting Intuition

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Exploiting Intuition

Intuition has a certain magic vibe to it. When we call somebody intuitive, we refer to it as a unique talent, as a personality trait rather than a learned skill. It is something we think a person is born with, or that has been unconsciously developed, but not something that can be actively pursued and trained.

When a person acts intuitively, the purely analytical mind is prone to either dismissing their results as luck or to attribute them to a level of understanding and mastery that is unique and exceptional. However, as the benefits of intuitive results as either a starting point for further analysis or as a quick way to make highly accurate predictions are manyfold, the actual concern with intuition should be: Can I train it, and how?

intuition, noun, the ability to understand something immediately, without the need for conscious reasoning : we shall allow our intuition to guide us.

The New Oxford American Dictionary (NOAD), 2nd Edition

In this dictionary definition, there’s quite a bit of wisdom to give a better concept of the term. Let’s break the important points down first.

  • Save time: By understanding something immediately, you save the time to actively investigate
  • Narrow down problem spaces: Even if the intuitive result is sub-optimal, you have lost no time, but rather have narrowed the problem space (and the solution space as a result) down to focus your reasoning better
  • Draw upon your full experience: Areas of your expertise will influence your intuitive results that you probably wouldn’t think of touching if you were reasoning consciously.
  • Understand the problem: Intuition is less focused on results, but on understanding the problem at hand. As such, it steers your mind into a holistic analyzation of the problem, rather than only looking for a solution.
  • It’s an ability: Much like analytical thinking, you can learn it.

Cool, but how can I exploit it?

Completely independent of what you are doing, intuition is a great way to work more efficiently while achieving better results.

For example, you might be a programmer. Especially if you have received extensive theoretical training (in computer science, math and engineering), you are primed to think analytical. You strive to solve concrete problems in the most general way. You prefer efficient implementations over ease-of-programming. You want to do away with a problem once and for all, much influenced by the notion of the mathematical proof.

An intuitive programmer, however, would have a solution in mind quickly. Rather than over-analyzing and abstracting it into something that is only remotely connected to the task at hand, the intuitive solution is heavily influenced by ease-of-programming, the concrete problem rather than the generalized one, the overall architecture and coding style of the program and other similar factors. Best of all, they can start implementing their idea in a glimpse, whereas the the purely analytical programmer may just be browsing through their math book library. Even better, rather than starting from scratch, the intuitive programmer now has plenty of time to look at their immediate idea and maybe refine it if there’s a need for it.

Similarly, as a designer, you may be well too focused on creating something entirely new, maybe revolutionary. Also, their work should appeal to a disperse group of people, including those towards whom the design is not even targeted. They get entangled in principles such as the Golden Cut or other similar constraints. They oscillate between their own expectations and those of others.

In an intuitive approach, they would start with what looks cool. Rather than coming up with a scaffolding built onto various design principles that is then converted into something more appealing, they start with a cool draft and use their principles to refine it. It’s just like tackling the task from the other side, only that the intuitive designer has the advantage of starting with an actual idea rather than dusty formulas.

It all boils down to where you want to place your bet at: Starting with thin air and using your intellect to craft something out of the things you have consciously learned, or by trusting your instincts to come up with a quick draft and rather use your mind to refine it. You will see, not only does the second approach work a lot faster, you will also find yourself to come up with much better results: Your intuition automatically draws upon the full state of your art, whereas with the purely analytical approach, you are constrained to only those areas you are consciously consulting.

So, how do I train this?

Obviously, intuition works best when you have an extensive background in the field where that task at hand is situated, and it works excellently if you have a background in other areas as well. A good example of how this works is mathematical intuition. When you start out with math, your intuition may not work very well yet. If you’re forced to solve your first “Prove this and that” exercises, you will often follow dead-ends. With a little bit of practice, this will get a lot easier, and the first path you are choosing intuitively will often lead to the proof you are looking for, even though you will need your intellect to work out the details. This is a very good example of how intuition can be used in other fields as well.

However, it is also noteworthy that many of the great results in mathematics have actually been (as an idea) influenced by other fields, such as physics or even biology. Thusly, we can see that great mathematicians are not only experts in their own field, but also have a certain background in others.

As we can see, math has traditionally been based on the interplay between the intuitive draft of a proof and then working out the details through the intellect. This is in so far interesting, as math is often associated with being completely unintuitive and rather based on pure reasoning. It’s the opposite. The great mathematicians are not those that can juggle formulas best or that can sum up huge numbers in their heads, it’s those that harness the power of mathematical intuition.

Thusly, if we want to mimic this workflow in our own practice (no matter what we’re doing!), we should be inspired by what mathematicians do. The following few points are a good start to practice your own intuition.

  • Practice, practice, practice: Aim to live and breath your field. For example, a programmer may write little scripts and tools purely for learning practices. A designer may try to come up with new designs for objects around them. Much like musicians have their performance and practicing mode, try to let practice become its own daily or weekly routine for you.
  • Pursue formal education: You often hear that you won’t even use 10% of what you learn at a university in an actual job. Wrong! If you’re working intuitively, you will. It happens automatically.
  • Constrain your task: The more general the problem you want to tackle, the harder it is to get good results from intuition. Do it like the math guys: They want to prove one specific thing, they don’t go for the “theory of everything”. Find out what your goals are.
  • Be honest to yourself: If one of your goals is to impress other people with your work, for example, or to win a prize for it, then accept this to be a goal. If you do not, you may unconsciously dismiss ideas that are heavily influenced by these neglected goals. After all, if you want to achieve something, then it actually should influence your decisions. If you embrace such side-goals, your intuitive results will reflect that.
  • Trust your first thought: When you are refining your quick, intuitive result, do not over-analyze just for the sake of giving you a reason to ditch your idea and start from scratch again. Remember, intuition is not something you can use to whip out a multitude of ideas. That’s creativity. Intuition is all about the first gut feeling.
  • Understand your own success: Whenever you come up with a solution that works, try analyzing why it works. Do not settle for a solution that “just works” without understanding why. Such results do not train your intuition.
  • Expand your expertise: Read about topics you are usually not directly depending on in your practice. If you’re a programmer, read about design, if you’re a designer, learn a bit of programming. The broader your knowledge, the broader the influences on your intuitive results.
  • Stay up-to-date: Follow the news (such as newsfeeds) to see what others are doing. Knowing about products created by others will help you with your own intuition. See what works for them and what doesn’t.
  • Analyze dead-ends: Whenever you are stuck in a ditch, trace back the decisions that lead you there. Understanding how you ended up in a dead-end will help your intuition to protect you from getting there again. Do not actively try to avoid failure by always taking the safe path, rather use your intuition for that.

Let’s give it a try. Watch out for when you’re trying to surpress the first idea that comes to mind, rather feeling compelled to analyze the problem better. Just give the gut feeling a chance and use it as a basis. Let’s see how far you can go from there, and if this style of working gives you better results faster. I’m sure it will.

1 Comment

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  1. Deprecated: Function ereg() is deprecated in /nfs/c03/h02/mnt/52932/domains/ on line 445
    wrote on May 23, 2007 at 13:39

    Hi Georg,

    You rightly say that “Intuition is all about the first gut feeling.” But also note that we “may unconsciously dismiss ideas…”

    This is the key - that most of us live UNconsciously, unaware of our feelings, ideas, thoughts, moods, etc. Instead we are identified with them and thus there is no “watcher” of them.

    You suggest: “Watch out for when you’re trying to suppress the first idea that comes to mind…” But most people cannot act upon this suggestion. An idea that comes to mind either quickly disappears without being noticed (or “watched”) or takes over the mind completely (identification) - again no “watcher” is active to notice the idea.

    Throughout millennia wise teachers have exhorted us to live consciously and suggested various ways to activate the conscious “watcher” in us. Like a muscle, the watcher gains strength through repeated use - or practice. The deliberate (conscious) activation and strengthening of the “watcher” in us goes under various labels:

    Watch, Know thyself, Self-awareness, Mindfulness, Self-observation, Witnessing, Inward-looking, Self-remembering, Meditation …they all mean the same. And all require an OBJECT to be witnessed/watched/observed. That object is one of the five senses.

    One could “watch” the touch of breath at the nose (sense of touch). This would gradually strengthen the ‘watcher”. Alternatively, one could “watch” the touch of light on the eyes (sense of sight). This is achieved by looking slightly upward or by simply noticing one’s peripheral vision. Here are a couple of portrayals of this practice from around the 1460’s…

    …Over many months of practice the “watcher” is strengthened and intuitive ideas are then actually noticed for what they are - appropriate suggestions deserving consideration for action.


Hi, how are you? My name is Georg Kaindl, and I'm a twenty-something from Vienna, Austria. During the day, I'm a CS student at the Vienna University of Technology, but at night, I turn into an independent software developer for the Macintosh platform, social nerd, lazy entrepreneur and intuitive researcher.

I like to write about everything that matters to considerate technology enthusiasts, but humbly retain the right to go off-topic from time to time.

My posts are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License.


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