I look out the window and see my cat, Mr. Noodle, lurching toward the tall grass at the edge of our field. He creeps along, then stops. His ears twitch and his tail whips back and forth. He waits. Then he pounces into the tall grass. A few seconds pass and he emerges with a chipmunk dangling from his mouth.
Noodle is quite the hunter. He serves as a constant reminder of an important difference between animals and human beings: Animals just do what their instincts tell them to. Human beings have instincts, too—they guide us all day long, sending us signals to act or stay still, but unlike animals, we don’t trust them. Instead, we stop and consider how we feel.
We think about all of the possible options and evaluate them. Often we get so focused on how we feel about our instincts that we ignore what our instincts are telling us to do.
Have you ever broken up with someone? I bet your instincts told you to do it months (or years) before, but you ignored the impulse. Once you start a business, you’ll typically regret that you didn’t listen to your instincts that told you to start (or quit) it sooner.
And when it comes to your goals, your instincts are a powerful weapon but your feelings are a major obstacle.
Instincts are a culmination of your heart intelligence, your situational intelligence and your mental intelligence fused together with your unique DNA. They join forces in an instant to send you impulses to move, to do something. These instincts are hardwired in your body to act as a guide.
But feelings, on the other hand, are in your head. They are the words your brain uses to describe the physical state of your body. If, for example, you feel a rush of adrenaline, your brain could describe that as you feeling excited or scared.
If you’ve heard the term “fight or flight,” that’s not a feeling; that’s an instinct. It is a term to describe the hardwired instinctual reaction your body has when you are in legitimate danger. There is no thinking involved; your instincts take over and automate your response. That’s why you duck when there is a loud noise or why you reach for something to stabilize yourself as you start to fall. You don’t think. You don’t stop to consider how you feel about the loud noise. The action is automatic.
The same is true with athletes. After enough practice, there is no time to stop and consider how you feel; you get into the flow and let your instincts guide you.
Why should you teach yourself to follow your instincts? Simple: science. A research study by the University of Alberta found that your instincts help you achieve goals. While studying the brain, they determined that when there’s something near you that will help you with both short-term and long-term goals, your brain views it favorably and alerts you with an impulse. Pretty cool, huh?
Whether you want to get in shape, be nicer to your spouse, or speak less and listen more in team meetings, pick one goal and tune into the impulses you feel. Once you set a goal, your brain works with your intuition, signaling you with an impulse when your goal is within reach. The next step is easy: Pounce.
This article was published in September 2016 and has been updated.