Sherlock Holmes is known for his ability to quickly deduce a surprising amount of details about a person or a situation. To people around him, it appears as if he just “knows” things. What if you could attain that same power?
When talking about “thinking like Sherlock Holmes”, most people focus on his conscious efforts to observe and analyze given information. But if you look at most Sherlock Holmes stories, he appears to arrive at a conclusion almost instantly, without consciously analyzing each step.
We do this as well — only we call this our “gut feeling”.
Many believe your gut feeling is some supernatural wisdom that has been beamed into your body from the heavens. I mean, you just know you should or shouldn’t do something, even though you can’t logically explain why. What is that feeling? And should you trust it?
That’s what I want to explore in this article. Not thinking like Sherlock Holmes as in being a detective or consciously analyzing data, but learning to develop a strong intuition that helps you make quick and accurate assumptions.
WARNING: I’ll be honest, this article is big. It’s filled with a lot of useful and actionable information, but it can be hard to digest in one sitting. You should probably bookmark it, so you can always come back to it.
What is gut feeling? Is it a good thing?
To understand whether your gut is a good or a bad thing, you first need to understand what it actually is.
What most people refer to as gut feeling is often used interchangeably with terms instinct and intuition. But both of them are kind of wrong.
- Instinct is an innate pattern of thinking or behaving. By its very nature, you should be unable to change it (as it’s something you are born with). This includes innate fears, needs, and reactions. While they will help you survive in the wild, it’s not really the “gut feeling” that helps guide most of your actions.
- Intuition is having immediate knowledge or perception, without the need for conscious reasoning. This can mean relying on your knowledge and experience to make quicker decisions, which is pretty close to a “gut feeling”. But since this term is also used for all kinds of mystical and pseudoscientific insights too, it’s easy to get confused.
This reddit comment explained the difference pretty well: “Instinct tells a person that a crying baby is a bad thing, but intuition is looking at the baby and knowing that it’s not hungry, it needs a diaper change.”
Your gut feeling is basically intuition in a scientific sense: an instinctual assumption based on the things you’re observing in real time. But that definition is kind of lame. It doesn’t help us narrow down what creates that gut feeling in the first place.
My definition of a “gut feeling”
With everything we’ve just unpacked, allow me to propose what I believe to be the most accurate (and useful) definition:
Gut feeling is an instinctive assumption based on observations, available knowledge, previous experiences, and learned behavior.
Unlike instincts, gut feelings are developed. They are influenced by your surroundings, interactions, and experiences. And unlike many interpretations of intuition, that feeling doesn’t rely on anything mystical, but your own knowledge and experience.
As Captain Kirk wisely said: “There’s no such thing as the unknown — only things temporarily hidden, temporarily not understood.”
Your gut feeling is a process. In a matter of microseconds, you do the Sherlock Holmes reasoning inside your head, which ultimately triggers a physical response — the feeling of intuition, butterflies in your stomach, or however you want to call it.
How your gut feeling is created
From my definition, your “gut feeling” is developed in four steps:
- You observe things.
- Filter your observations based on previous knowledge.
- Compare them to past experiences.
- Adjust your assumption to your learned behavior.
The end result: A strong feeling or desire which you cannot consciously explain.
What’s important to note is that such intuition is highly individual. You and I can have different assumptions about the same person, based on our own experiences and observations. This is why listening to your gut can be either good or bad.
Sherlock Holmes is a great example of how a “good gut feeling” can look. His intuition can really make it seem he has mystical or superhuman ability of perception. In reality, he has simply mastered all four components, which help him make much better assumptions, much quicker.
When you understand how each subconscious step influences your decisions, you can learn how to consciously improve each component. So let’s break down the four steps of the internal process that creates your sense of intuition.
1. Observations: The Things You Notice
Your observations are the jumping-off point for making assumptions.
This is the phase where you collect all the available information in front of you. What kind of information you collect will differ based on each scenario. Some examples:
Evaluating a person: Body language, vocal tonality, words used, facial expressions, clothes, cadence, vocal delivery, humor, vocabulary, history with them, level of connection, etc.
Why? You’re trying to see whether you like and/or should trust this person.
Evaluating a new restaurant: Location, reviews, lighting, popularity, business hours, comfort, service, price, interior, menu, etc.
Why? You’re trying to see if you would like this place and/or if it suits your desires.
Evaluating a dark alley: Familiarity, location, lighting, isolation, distance to the other side, etc.
Why? You’re trying to see if you’re going to be safe (nobody wants to be Batman’s parents)
At this point, you’re not analyzing any of these inputs, only subconsciously “collecting” everything you believe is relevant for making a decision.
How to make better observations
The more information you have, the better your assumptions will be.
The amount of information you are able to collect will be determined by your focus and quality of observational skills. Here is how to improve both.
#1 Improve your focus
Meditation is the grandfather of mindfulness and focus-building. It’s also the top pick for any “think like Sherlock Holmes” article. There’s a good reason for this. While many people are scared away by the word, in its simplest form, meditation simply means practicing being “truly in the moment”. This can be thinking about nothing (clearing your mind) or thinking about one specific thing (deep focus).
Meditation not only makes your mind calmer, it teaches you to observe things you usually don’t put a conscious focus on (your breath, surroundings, body position). Over time, you will start implementing the same amount of focus and observations in your everyday interactions.
If you’ve never tried meditating, download a free app on your phone (personal favorite: Calm). Most of them have introductory lessons that help you get started.
#2 Improve your observational skills
As Sherlock himself famously proclaimed: “You see, but you do not observe.” The most straightforward way to improve your observational skills is to dedicate time to consciously observe things.
Basically, this means purposely noticing things you usually don’t pay attention to. When talking to someone, take a look at their clothes: the type of a shirt, the color, the texture, how clean it is, is it ironed or wrinkly, does it have stains on it, does it look new or worn out… you can go on forever. Start consciously noticing these details.
PRO TIP: Unless you want to become like Sherlock Holmes in a sense of being unlikable and having no friends, do not stare at people when you do this. You will just look like a weirdo playing detective (which isn’t as cool as it sounds).
Improving observational skills doesn’t apply just to analyzing people. You can do the same with any object, location, show, movie, song… anything, really. The key point is to consciously try to notice things you usually ignore. Over time, noticing things most people don’t will become second-nature.
2. Knowledge: The Things You Know
(This step is pretty big, which only shows it’s important. Don’t get scared off!)
The second step in building your assumptions is to filter your observations through the knowledge you have available in your mind.
Unless you know how to properly interpret your observations, they will be useless. For example, you can observe someone crossing their arms when talking to you. If you are familiar with body language, you can conclude that it may mean the person is defensive. But if you don’t know anything about body language, this observation will simply fade away and you won’t do anything with it.
The same goes for all types of decisions you need to make. Whether you’re evaluating a person, a business decision, or a deal at the supermarket, the more you know about the scenario at hand, the more informed your assumption, hence the final decision will be.
This is why relying on gut feelings based only on personal experience is a bad thing. You need knowledge. For example, you can feel positive about a business deal, but upon analyzing the facts, realize it’s actually a bad deal. The more you know about the subject at hand, the faster you can arrive at that conclusion.
How to improve your knowledge
The more you know, the better conclusions you can make.
So it’s pretty obvious that your goal should be to become more knowledgable. This doesn’t mean you need to know everything about everything. There will always be situations where you will not be able to rely on things you already know. But the more diverse your interests, the better your deductions will become.
Here are some ways you can supercharge your learning:
#1 Be selective in what you learn (“brain attic” theory)
The “brain attic” theory was explained by Sherlock Holmes in his very first novel, A Study in Scarlet, when Watson is surprised how Sherlock doesn’t know the Earth revolves around the Sun. And when he learns it, he tries to forget that fact.
The theory goes like this: Your brain is like an empty attic, and most people stuff that attic with anything that comes their way, no matter how useful. So when you actually need to find something in there, it’s extremely hard because that valuable information is buried beneath a ton of useless crap.
On the other hand, if you fill your attic only with things that are beneficial to you, accessing relevant information will become much easier. Or, as Sherlock said it: “You say that we go round the sun. If we went round the moon it would not make a pennyworth of difference to me or to my work.”
This is an interesting concept and it kind of makes sense. While it’s never a good idea to ignore everything not directly relevant to your profession, it can help you set priorities in what to learn.
Here is how I would adjust the “brain attic” theory:
- Put a big focus on learning everything directly relevant to you.
- Put a secondary focus on things you find interesting or important.
- Aim to ignore unnecessary or useless information.
The more you know about what you do, the more of an expert you become. The less time you spend on useless things, the more time you have for doing something great with your life.
Finally, there will always be things everybody should know, whether they’re interesting to you or not. You cannot expect to think like Sherlock if you are not a well-rounded individual in the first place. This includes having a decent amount of general knowledge in art, movies, music, politics, economics, philosophy, etc.
One thing I believe everybody should study is the basics of how people think, how we perceive things, and communicate with each other. This can transform the way you deal with people, approach relationships, evaluate trust, and more.
This is why I made “understanding human nature” the first part of The Social Gladiator. Without knowing how people think in general, how can you deduce anything specific about a certain individual?
#2 Remember more with the “memory palace”
Your knowledge will only be useful if you can actually remember it. And while the “brain attic” method can help you learn more relevant stuff, you still need to be able to access that information when you need it.
This is where the “memory palace” comes into play. Known as the method of loci — loci being Latin for places — it relies on tying specific pieces of information to specific locations. As humans, we have a hard time remembering abstract things, so by placing them in something we can navigate (real or imaginary locations), you can literally visualize yourself walking to a specific piece of information you need.
Sounds amazing? It really is. While an unrealistic version of this method (“mind palace“) was shown on BBC’s Sherlock, this is a legitimate method that people use to compete in World Memory Championships (yes, it’s actually called that).
Here is how to build your first memory journey:
- Pick a location you know well. The best way to start is by using a very familiar location, like your house. Determine a starting point (probably the front door), because your visualization needs to take place going from point A to point B.
- Choose what you want to remember and make it RIDICULOUS. The “make it ridiculous” part is extremely important. The more outrageous and unusual your memory, the more it will stick out in your mind, making it easier to remember. So if you want to remember to buy bananas, imagine a “Peanut Butter Jelly Time” banana dancing, song and all.
- Place the image inside your palace. Imagine the PBJ banana dancing in front of your front door, blocking your entry. Try hard to visualize it and make it real in your mind. Hear the song in the background. The more senses you involve (e.g. sound, smell, touch), the stronger the memory will be.
- Create a journey. This method is sometimes called “memory journey” because the visualization works with you walking through a location in a linear way. This means no backtracking or turning around. If you want to remember items in a sequence (e.g. grocery list), simply place them along the journey in the order you need them.
That’s pretty much it. It’s surprisingly easy to get started.
This method will keep things much fresher in your mind, but you must still actively use your journey to keep the memory active.
PRO TIP 1: I got started with the help of this short book, which teaches you how to memorize ALL of Shakespeare’s plays, chronologically, in about 30 minutes. This is a fast way to understand and instantly implement the method.
PRO TIP 2: You have other, more advanced methods, like the numeric peg system or the major system, which are used to remember long strings of numbers. Look them up if you’re interested.
#3 Read, read, read!
Yes, the classic “Read more books, dammit!” argument. Even in our modern era of technology, there’s a reason books prevail. Other formats can be really detailed and researched (like this blog post), but books require much more planning and drilling down certain ideas and concepts. This makes them invaluable sources of information.
Audiobooks or video summaries are not a substitute. They’re a good way to expose yourself to new ideas and digest large chunks of information quicker, but if you want to actually study these ideas, you need to read books yourself.
Your own interpretations are what help you achieve that “aha!” moment and actually remember the concepts involved. This is why you can watch a thousand videos on YouTube, but at the end of the day, you didn’t gain any deep knowledge or understanding — just only superficial ideas.
Audiobooks have the same problem: while you can digest content faster, you’re not as invested with it. After all, you probably listen to it while doing something else (working out, cooking, driving). Your attention is always divided.
Look, I watch videos and listen to audiobooks. They’re great tools for learning new things. But if you want to develop knowledge that helps you think like Sherlock Holmes, you need to start reading actual books.
PRO TIP: If you’re not sure how to remember ideas from the books you read, take a look at The Notecard System by Ryan Holiday.
PRO TIP 2: My website is not an exception to “Read more books, dammit!” While my articles open you to new ideas and concepts, my books explore these concepts in a more detailed and structured manner. They serve as a strategy for improving certain areas of your life.
3. Experience: The Things You’ve Been Through
This is where the “should you listen to your gut feeling” debate comes in.
If you look inward and aim to learn from your mistakes, personal experience is a beneficial tool that can strengthen your intuition.
The problem with relying on your experiences comes from interpreting them wrongly. If every guy/girl with blonde hair screwed you over, it doesn’t mean you should always be wary of blondes. But it does mean that you need to learn how to evaluate people better and recognize red flags in their behavior.
If you’ve had a series of bad events, it’s easy to become distrusting, closed off, and hostile towards new people and experiences. In this case, your gut feeling will always make you feel like something is wrong — even when it’s not. And this usually ends up in you creating more unnecessary problems for yourself, only strengthening your negative intuition in the process.
If you can detach yourself from your experiences, at least enough to see the wider picture, your experiences will guide your personal growth. On the other hand, if you keep repeating the same mistakes, without altering your approach, then your gut feeling is only going to deepen your false beliefs.
How to improve your experiences
The more experiences you have, the faster you can make choices in similar situations.
The way to improve the speed and quality of your assumptions is arguably the most important part of the process. The way to improve this component is by increasing the number of experiences you have, while making sure to learn from your mistakes.
#1 Try new things
There’s a reason “Try New Things” is the 5th rule of mental strength.
Having new experiences is not something that comes out of nowhere — it takes action. You have to decide to do something that’s unknown and unfamiliar to you. And that’s scary!
No matter who you are, all of us eventually end up in a rut. We build walls around our comfort zone and fear leaving them. But the longer you stay inside your comfort zone, the harder it becomes to leave.
Luckily for you, I’ve created a short ebook called Destroy the Boundaries of Your Comfort Zone. It teaches you a proven 2-step process for doing things outside of your comfort zone. You can get it for free here.
#2 Understand different levels of experience
Experiences you have do not weigh the same. You need to separate areas in which you have experience and areas in which you don’t.
You can have experience in navigating the world of Red Dead Redemption, making your gut feeling very useful. But when it comes to talking to strangers in a bar, you may not have any experience, so your gut feeling will be useless.
In areas where you lack experience, listening to your gut makes no sense — yet all of us do it. In reality, this is just masking your insecurities, as your gut feeling will always tell you “don’t risk it, stay in your comfort zone”.
If you don’t have experience in a certain area, DO NOT listen to your gut.
#3 Be aware of your biases
You know how, when you buy a new phone or a computer, it often comes with a bunch of pre-installed apps you don’t want, but can’t remove?
Our brains are kind of like that. We have a TON of innate biases that help us make quick assumptions. But the thing is… those “helpful tools” kinda suck. They’re wrong a surprisingly large amount of time.
And the worst part? We can’t get rid of them. The best thing we can do is become aware of them in order to minimize their effects.
I’ve previously written about some of these biases, like black and white thinking, cognitive dissonance, and in-group favoritism. If you’re interested in learning more about the ways your brain tricks you and alters your perception, check out my book The Social Gladiator.
4. Learned Behavior: The Things You Are Used to Doing
The final step in your decision-making process is: “Is this something I would usually do?”
Like with experience, this can be a good thing or a bad thing. It can help you avoid doing stupid things out of character, but in most cases, it’s simply going to keep you in your comfort zone.
Your learned behaviors have the power to completely shift the course of your gut feeling. Based on the first three factors, you make an educated assumption of what you should do. But if that outcome is something you don’t feel like doing (or if it’s outside of your comfort zone), it’s easy for your brain to say “fuck it” and do the complete opposite.
How to change your behavior
The better your habits, the better your actions.
Learned behaviors are nothing but habits: actions we have repeated so much they simply feel a part of “who we are”. Habit-changing is not an overnight process, nor something I can explain in a few bullet points.
But besides focusing on your habits, there are a few other things you need to pay attention to as well:
#1 Stop asking other people for advice
If you’re having trouble with trusting your gut, it’s usually because you’re having trouble trusting your gut. You may instinctively “know” whether you should or shouldn’t do something, but you feel insecure about listening to yourself.
So you will confide in a friend, take a poll on Instagram, or post a dilemma on a site like Reddit or Quora. In the end, after all the second-guessing and analyzing, you will usually end up in the same place you started — because you knew what you should do from the start.
I’m definitely guilty of this. And hey, asking for advice isn’t bad. But if you’re ALWAYS asking for advice about everything, it means you’re super-unsure about trusting yourself. And that’s no way to go through life.
Challenge for the next week: Do not ask anybody for advice about anything. This includes talking to friends, posting on reddit, even googling things. NOTHING. When you have a dilemma, rely only on yourself. Make what you believe to be the best choice and move on.
And if choosing an option takes a long time, flip a coin. After all, if you felt strongly about one option, wouldn’t you just choose it and be done with it?
#2 Choose a framework for making decisions
In practice, this solves the problem with asking others for advice all the time.
When you have a set of rules that guide you when making choices in your life, in 99% of the cases, the specifics won’t matter that much. If you rely on an existing mental framework to make decisions, there will be no need to constantly ask for advice.
Let me show you what I mean:
- Framework (GOOD): “When all of her/his exes are supposedly crazy, this is not a good sign. Enforce strong personal boundaries and break it off if things start going sideways.”
- Opinionated advice (BAD): “Jess said all her exes are crazy, but I don’t know, I feel like I’m the exception. But she’s insanely jealous and blames me for things I didn’t do. I don’t want to fight, so I apologize every time. What should I do?”
In the example above, the framework is helping you make better decisions and is applicable to most situations. The opinionated advice is nothing but FAILURE to apply the rules you previously set. Instead, you’re trying to find a loophole that will allow you to continue making bad decisions.
It’s this kind of “loophole thinking” that creates a lot of the messes you usually end up in (especially when it comes to relationships).
Advice from others is a powerful tool, as other people often notice things you don’t. But it should only be sought out in truly exceptional situations. In general, you should learn to rely on your own gut and trust your own decisions.
PRO TIP: If you’re looking for a framework that helps you make better decisions and build a strong mindset, check out the Mind of Steel Handbook.
Combining everything: Learning to trust yourself
If you’ve made it to the end of this article, congratulations!
You’ve just been bombarded with A LOT of information and it’s likely you feel very confused. So let me reiterate the main points from this article:
- Thinking like Sherlock Holmes involves developing a strong “gut feeling”. The stronger it is, the more you will trust it.
- Gut feeling is your instinctual assumption based on four factors (observations, knowledge, experiences, and learned behaviors). Sherlock Holmes has nailed down all four components, which makes his initial assumptions surprisingly accurate.
- STEP 1: Observations. The initial phase where you collect all the information you need to make a decision or assumption.
- STEP 2: Knowledge. Filtering the observations you collected through the knowledge you possess. The more you know, the more accurate your interpretations will be.
- STEP 3: Experience. Comparing your findings to your personal experience. If done right, this helps you avoid making the same mistakes you did before and helps make your assumptions even more accurate.
- STEP 4: Learned behavior. Adjusting your assumption to your learned behavior to determine what you should or shouldn’t do. The final result of this process creates your “gut feeling”, which is often accompanied by a physical signal (butterflies, shivers, heart pumping, etc.)
Learning to think like Sherlock Holmes is not an easy process.
Mastering all four components that create your gut feeling takes a lot of time and practice. But the resources in this article will point you in the right direction and help you get started.
Developing a strong sense of intuition can be a very powerful skill. Even though you may have been attracted to this article by wanting to look cool in front of your friends with deductions like Sherlock, try to see it as more than just a party trick.
In life, you are constantly forced to make choices. From what to eat for breakfast to what career to choose and who to marry. The more you master the internal process guiding your actions, the better your decisions will become. You will be able to make snap decisions based on your gut, knowing you made the right choice.
After all, you’re not guessing. You already analyzed everything in your head, based on the skills, knowledge, and experience. But to other people? You will appear superhuman.