Ex-lawyer turned relationship coach

Developing Your Sixth Sense

Nowadays, it’s incredibly hard to stay focused.

Your pocket is constantly buzzing and notifying you of new texts. The open office invites your coworkers to collaborate with harass you. And if you work alone from home, a four-legged pet is likely working round the clock to ruin your focus.

Keeping your focus is not only harder than before. It’s also more important. Especially if you’re a knowledge worker.

Designers, programmers, and engineers need long stretches of uninterrupted time to get things done. You can’t come up with a creative solution in 20 minutes. And continuing where you left off before the interruption doesn’t seem to work.

Since short bursts of work don’t cut it, knowledge workers need to eliminate distractions. If not, you’ll be lying in bed reviewing your day while thinking, “I sat at my desk. Moved papers. Went to meetings. Made a few calls. Created some new documents… but I don’t think I really got anywhere.”

How do you make sure your work moves the needle?

By making mental models.

Let’s take nurses from the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (also known as: NICU) as our example. 

The grim reality of the NICU wreaks havoc on the strongest minds. Which inevitably leads to slip ups. And if you’re working on the NICU—the hospital ward that watches over newborns in critical condition—those slip ups tend to have fatal consequences.

The best nurses, however, don’t let the hospital hubbub get to them. As if guided by some sixth sense, these nurses can always tell which babies are knocking on death’s door.


By never letting go of the image of the healthiest baby as they walk through the hospital.

In a study done on NICU nurses, a nurse called Linda was responsible for an infant girl called Melissa. Melissa was a ‘preemie’ but had no major problems. Before she could leave the hospital, she only needed to put on some more weight.

One day, Linda was patrolling the wards—which included changing diapers, feeding, administering medicines, recording readings, adjusting equipment, and so on—and found that Melissa’s temperature was a little low. Although well within the normal range.

A little later, a medical technician took a routine blood sample from Melissa’s heel and covered up the puncture with a Band-Aid. Most punctures close up almost instantly. If the blood gets taken poorly, the puncture may bleed a bit more.

Melissa’s pin prick bled a little, creating a dark blotch on the Band-Aid.

Linda’s supervisor, Darlene, was also walking on the ward. And as she passed Melissa’s incubator, something caught her eye. Something about the infant “looked funny.”

As she took a closer look, she noticed specific signs of danger:

Melissa’s heel hadn’t stopped bleeding. Her skin looked a little “mottled.” And her belly seemed to be bloated.

A quick physical exam supported Darlene’s suspicions, the baby had a very full stomach. And after the nurse checked Melissa’s chart, she noticed the baby’s temperature was in a steady decline.

She then called over Linda and asked if the infant seemed sluggish during the shift. When Linda said “Yes”, Darlene darted to the nearest phone and rang the on duty physician.

The physician agreed the baby was in danger and ordered antibiotics and a blood culture. The culture confirmed the doctor’s suspicions: sepsis.

If Darlene caught the symptoms any later it probably would have been too late. And Melissa would have died.

The most fascinating part of this story?

Linda saw all the same signs, but didn’t piece together the puzzle. It all seemed reasonably harmless. But to Darlene, the symptoms didn’t match the picture of a healthy baby. So she got inquisitive.

How does any of this help you? After all, you probably don’t work at a NICU.

Let me tell you.

Suppose you just got a dinner invitation from your boss. You could meet up with your boss without deliberation and walk head first into a set of questions that catch you off guard. And likely blurt out a series of unimpressive answers.

Or you could envision what the dinner is going to be like and prepare for all sorts of critical questions. Now you have a mental model that tells you what to ignore and what to focus on.

Did your boss turn up the heat during dinner? No problem. You were ready. Did your boss simply reward you for being a stellar employee? Wonderful, you just enjoyed a great meal.

If you create the right mental models, your subconscious will create a sixth sense.

By Jeroen Elsing
Ex-lawyer turned relationship coach