Acting on Impulse

Sometimes, you just know what you need. But maybe you don’t know why or how you know that. Sound familiar?

In psychology, we call this intuitive thinking. This is what we “just know”. We know it immediately and we know it with great confidence. Unfortunately, this type of certainty are also prone to error. Psychologists call this type of thinking System 1. The alternative mode of thinking, the mode that is slower, rational, typically more accurate but less confident, is called System 2. As Daniel Kahneman explains in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, System 1 thinking is quick and easy while System 2 thinking is more difficult. System 1 is our default for day-to-day decisions because it relies on the patterns with which we have learned to interpret the world. When we have a hard problem to solve, though, our slower, more rational System 2 takes over. Together, Systems 1 and 2 comprise the Dual Process Model of thinking and decision-making.

System 1 was talking when I knew, I just knew, that I needed to cycle to the beach on Monday night. Had I thought about it a little longer, System 2 might have reminded me that I’d had a late meeting at work and didn’t have any food prepared for dinner, so biking the hour to the beach might not be the best use of my time.

But that’s not what I was thinking about. Instead, I was thinking about how the beach smells and what it sounds like. I was thinking about how it feels to ride there and about sitting up on the rocks to watch the waves. Or, maybe I was feeling all of that instead of thinking at all.

A friend volunteered to come with me and off we went.


I may not have been thinking slowly or rationally, but as soon as we left the main road and entered the park, I knew I’d been right. My breathing came more easily, cycling felt smoother, and my head cleared. As soon as we scrambled up the rocks to hear the water and watch the sunset, I realised I’d been right. I may not have known why, but the beach was the right place to be.

Sometimes it’s okay to do follow an impulse. Sometimes, something deep inside of you knows what you need. It’s okay to learn to listen.

Haeundae Beach – Busan, South Korea (NOT the beach I visited on Monday)

2 thoughts on “Acting on Impulse”

  1. Thank you for sharing this small but significant experience. What you wrote resonates strongly with my world, but I should add that, sometimes, such impulses guide us to act in ways that might limit us from growth. I have always found it important to recognise and acknowledge that I am acting in familiar or ways, and afterwards to take the time and energy to look at what actually guided me, shift into systems 2 about the experience itself , regardless of the outcome.

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