According to the neuroscientist Antonio Damasio, we make decisions based on our feelings at least 95 percent of the time.
While this might sound scary, it’s actually a blessing because relying on your intuition can save you time and mental energy.
The challenge, however, is that most people try to suppress their emotions and act logically. But you always feel before you can think.
Our instinct for feeling is much more refined than our ability to think. Damasio even describes humans as “feeling machines that think”.
After studying people who couldn’t feel emotions due to brain damage, Damasio noticed that these subjects struggled to make even the simplest decisions.
One of his patients, for example, spent almost 30 minutes deciding whether their next appointment should be on Tuesday or Wednesday.
Another patient had to select a restaurant and came up with dozens of pros and potential contras for why a particular option might be good or bad.
This happens because they lack an emotional state that would help them decide on one option or the other.
Our emotions essentially help us define things as good, bad, or indifferent.
When we talk about “experience”, we basically remember which emotions we felt during a specific situation. If something felt good, we choose it again, even if it’s not “logical”.
Without emotions, we can logically describe the best option and come up with pros and cons, but we can’t make the ultimate decision.
Even the most repetitive and mundane choices, such as where to eat lunch, can become paralyzing if you exclude emotions from the decision-making process.
Malcolm Gladwell also describes this phenomenon in his book Blink. According to Gladwell, the part of our brain that makes conclusions based on what we’ve experienced is also called the adaptive unconscious.
The term itself was first used by Daniel Wagner in 2002 and describes a series of mental processes that can affect judgment and decision-making.
The problem, however, is that these processes are out of reach for our conscious mind, so you’re not even aware that they happen.
This also means that we unconsciously refer to our past experiences and our feelings when making new decisions. Within nanoseconds, we decide whether we like or dislike something based on how it feels.
Without even realizing it, our subconscious refers to all our past experiences and we get a gut feeling for whether something is good or not.
We can’t really describe why a choice feels correct or wrong, but it just does.
Once we’ve decided based on our emotions and past experiences, we try to come up with logical explanations for why it was a good decision.
We all like being right and sounding smart, so we list the pros and cons until we can justify that our choice was a good one.
Now, that’s all well and good, but how can we make use of that knowledge?
When I first came across the fact that my unconscious makes most decisions without me even realizing it, I asked myself two questions:
How can I use that power to simplify my life?
And: What if my unconscious is holding me back from doing the hard, but necessary things in order to reach my goals.
What if how you feel isn’t aligned with your goals for the future?
What if your emotions make decisions based on what feels most comfortable and known to you?
The truth is that how you feel when you need to make important decisions is barely aligned with who you want to be in the future.
As a consequence, you don’t do what you need to do, but what feels best, aka what’s easy, safe, and known. While this might be efficient, it’s also a roadblock to achieving your big goals.
That’s why I set up two rules on how to use that knowledge to my advantage:
#1. Let the easy decisions be easy
We know that we make most decisions based on emotions, past experiences, and several other variables in a matter of nanoseconds. Yet, most people don’t use that phenomenon to their advantage.
Every day, you’re making hundreds of unique decisions. And if you and I are somewhat similar, you’re great at overcomplicating a lot of these insignificant choices.
Because let’s be honest — what you eat for lunch or which jeans you wear won’t make a major difference in your life.
As Gladwell describes in Blink, sometimes, our snap judgments based on emotions and past experiences can offer much better insight and solution than our rational thinking.
And if you try to be rational when making everyday decisions, you’ll lose time and precious brainpower.
Long story made short: Rely on your gut feeling more often when making simple, repetitive, and irrelevant choices.
Don’t try to choose the perfect place for lunch, go with the first thing that comes to your mind.
Most of the time, your first instinct is the best choice anyway and by applying this rule to most repetitive decisions, you’ll save energy for the more critical choices in life.
#2. Differentiate between feelings and must-dos
While your subconscious can indeed help you save time on small, repetitive decisions, it can be a roadblock when it comes to achieving your big goals in life.
Logically, you probably know what you need to do to reach your goals. You know what you need to do, which habits you need to build, and which tasks you need to finish.
But if you’re dreaming big, all these to-dos are outside of your comfort zone. They’re not what you feel like doing. And that’s the #1 reason most people never achieve their goals.
How you feel at a given moment is barely aligned with your big dreams.
If you rely on your emotions to do things, you’ll likely never do them because you’ll never feel like doing the hard things.
At this point, you need to differentiate your must-haves from your gut feeling and your subconscious.
From an evolutionary perspective, your brain doesn’t want you to be happy.
Your brain doesn’t care whether you accomplish your goals or not. The main job of your brain is to keep you safe, not happy.
That’s why you need to learn how to separate your feelings from what needs to be done. Without that separation, it won’t only be hard but probably even impossible to live the life you dream of.
The reality is that in 99 percent of the cases, you know exactly what you need to do to reach your goals, you just don’t feel like doing it because your subconscious convinces you to do what’s more comfortable.
And even though we can’t change how we feel, we can indeed change how we react to certain emotions and what we ultimately do.
Sometimes, you need to ignore how you feel and do what’s necessary, not easy.
Most of our decisions are not rational but emotional.
Within nanoseconds, our brains decide whether something feels good or not.
While we can use that knowledge to simplify the minor decisions in our daily lives, we also need to ask ourselves how it’s holding us back from reaching our goals.
If you allow yourself to decide whether you should go to the gym or watch one more episode of your favorite show, your gut feeling will always shout: “STAY ON THE COUCH, IT’S MORE COMFORTABLE!!”
And it’s true because big things never happen in your comfort zone.
If your goal is important, it won’t be easy to reach. And if it were easy, it probably wouldn’t be exciting anyway.
Allow yourself to let easy decisions be easy. But don’t trust your brain when it tries to convince you of the comfortable alternatives instead of doing the hard things.
At the end of your life, you won’t be happy because you spent as many hours as possible playing it safe, but you’ll be happy if you did what your heart desires to do. And quite often, the most exciting and rewarding experiences are not the safest ones.