Escaping from the auto-pilot trap
What is acting on auto-pilot?
Have you ever started eating a chocolate bar only to find that suddenly you’ve finished it without even noticing? Or have you ever arrived at a destination and remembered nothing about the journey? Operating on automatic pilot is something we all do.
Why do we respond on auto-pilot?
Doing things without having to think serves a very useful purpose. Imagine how life would be if we had to think in detail about how to get out of bed each morning, climb the stairs or drive the car. Our brains would blow a fuse!
Reacting automatically is also part of how we respond to danger. When you pick up something hot, your automatic, helpful response is to let go of it. If you were to tumble down the side of a cliff, your automatic response would be to try and save yourself. These are all helpful responses. However most moments in our life don’t involve picking up hot objects or falling down cliffs! The trouble is, unless we cultivate the ability to be really present in the here and now, we often live our lives on automatic pilot. As a result we lose awareness of what is happening in the present moment.
Where do we spend our time?
Being in the here and now means switching from automatic pilot to being truly aware of what our experience is right now. As human beings we spend so much time in our heads. Much of our time is spent contemplating things from the past, or concentrating on what might happen in the future. When we spend so much time lost in the past or the future there is a danger that life passes us by. The past has gone and the future is not yet here. Our life is right here in this present moment and if we’re blind to the here and now, we may fail to notice the good things about our lives. We may fail to hear what our bodies are trying to tell us, or fail to learn the lessons brought to us by our emotional experience.
Unhelpful automatic responses
Whilst doing some things on automatic pilot enables us to get through our day without blowing a mental fuse, some of our automatic responses can be unhelpful. For example, if you have a tendency to be very self-critical and have an inner mental ‘script’ that likes to point out your own inadequacies or failings, it’s possible that you will respond automatically to these messages, perhaps by avoiding giving certain things a go. Many of us run an ‘I’m not good enough’ script. We may believe we’re not confident enough, bright enough, articulate enough. If we operate on automatic pilot, this script will impact on how we behave in the world. Or, some people run an automatic ‘No-one else can do xyz as well as I can’. This might relate to a parenting role or work role for example. If we operate on automatic pilot in response to this script, it might result in us become totally over-worked and overwhelmed, and reduce opportunities for learning for other people. Have you ever worked with someone like that? When we’re working on automatic pilot, we’re more driven by our sub-conscious beliefs. Some of these may be helpful and positive, others not so much!
Choose one activity this week to do mindfully
Mindfulness offers a way of getting out of auto-pilot. So perhaps as an experiment this week, you might choose one work based activity to do ‘mindfully’ this week. Examples might include checking your emails, taking part in a conference call, attending a meeting, writing a report, delivering a teaching session, analysing some data, delivering a presentation, meeting with a colleague or phoning a colleague. Try and cultivate very deliberate awareness of all aspects of the experience. Each time you feel yourself getting drawn away from the here and now, gently bring yourself back. Bear in mind that doing something mindfully doesn’t necessarily mean doing it slowly. However, if you choose to do something quickly, make this an intentional action and try to retain an awareness of what you’re doing in each moment.
So what do you think? Can you relate to any of this? What act do you often do on auto-pilot?
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