Stuck on Autopilot in Your Busy Life? Here’s How to Flip the Switch.

[Excerpt from The Success-Energy Equation: How to Regain Focus, Recharge Your Life, and Really Get Sh!t Done]

By Michelle Cederberg

How often have you busily gone about your routine, and at some point, lifted your head to note that hours have gone by, and you can’t quite recall all you’ve done? And who hasn’t had the experience of driving a familiar route to work, or home with very little recollection of how you got there?

When we’re excessively busy, many of us navigate all or part of our lives on autopilot—making unconscious, automatic decisions that don’t necessarily align with how we want to work and live—and that truth limits our success.

We’re creatures of habit, masters at creating routines so we can effectively get it all done. For instance, you likely follow the same order of operations each morning after you wake up, perhaps some version of: brush your teeth, shower, dress (right sock, then left), coffee, cereal, pack lunches. And you probably need to think about the details of your actual routine, because it just happens every morning automatically. That systemization is your brain’s way of project managing all it must process in a day. For a busy woman in Agriculture, I’m sure you’ll agree, there’s a lot to process on any given day.

The fascinating thing about autopilot is that it sneaks into your habits, and it can take a while before you realize it’s messing with your success, because it rarely messes up your life. You’re getting stuff done, so you must be on course, right? Well, not necessarily.

As you taskmaster your way through the day, when necessary your brain will shift into automatic decision-making at the subconscious level—with simple tasks, rote skills, or anything that doesn’t need your full attention—so it can free up your conscious mind to focus on more mentally challenging tasks. Autopilot is an evolutionary protection mechanism that stops our brain from overloading, but we’re not meant to function in that mode for a long time. When autopilot becomes your go-to operating system, not just at work but in every aspect of your life, it’s a sign that your system is overwhelmed. Left unchecked, you run the risk of getting off course, and losing sight of what’s important.

You might be wondering then: Am I stuck on autopilot? Well, if you’re feeling any level of overwhelm, busyness, distraction, or discontent in your life complete this Assessing Autopilot Exercise and find out.

By not requiring you to be fully present to every demand on your precious bandwidth, your brain, and its autopilot feature, helps you navigate the chaos. But that doesn’t mean you should let it control the flight. Shut off autopilot, even for a short while and get present to mess, because reaching your goals will be more difficult if you have no idea which direction you’re flying.

Four Ways to Move from Autopilot to Awareness

1. Wake up mindfully

When your feet hit the ground in the morning, you’ll no doubt be off and running, so after your alarm rings, don’t rush. Give yourself a few minutes to just lie in bed and breathe. Check in with yourself before you check in with the world. How did you sleep? How does your body feel? How about your mind? What feels good about this day? What can you look forward to? What do you need for yourself at the start of this day? This simple ritual is a powerful way to begin the day on your terms.

If you have your phone at your bedside, delay laying eyes on it until you mindfully check in with yourself. You’ve just gone through all those sleeping hours without looking. Surely you can gift yourself fifteen additional minutes of tech-free mindfulness?

2. Set intentions at the start of your workday

As you lie in bed, don’t just obsess about how tired you are. Think about what you’d like to accomplish during the day. Think about what will help you feel successful. Decide how you want to feel at the end of the day. You get to choose. Autopilot doesn’t have to take over.

Then, before you begin your workday, take five minutes to write down three objectives you absolutely want to complete by the end of the day. My list usually includes a few work related tasks, and one personal goal, like exercise. Once I make my list, I start on the first work-related goal, sometimes before even checking email.

When you set your intentions, you take back power over your schedule. You’ll have plenty of time in your day to address other people’s needs, so start with your own and let that “take-control” mentality carry you into your day.

3. Get outside

You know better than most how good it feels to be in nature. I hope you do, anyway. The sound of wind through the trees, the scent of the earth and everything that grows, the beauty of the outdoors, the fresh air. When we spend time in nature, stress abates, we forget our worries, we think more clearly and perhaps more creatively. In an increasingly demanding world, time in nature can improve mood, boost energy, and help us re-center. Don’t take your outside time for granted. If you’re feeling overwhelmed and out of focus, tune in to Mother Nature. Sit and breathe her in, notice her beauty, pay attention to her sounds. She has a way of drawing us into the here and now when technology has pulled us away from it.

4. Just breathe

This tip may be the simplest and most underused way off autopilot, which is baffling, because it takes literally seconds to fill your lungs (right to the bottom) with energizing oxygen. But, when you take your breathing off default and mindfully guide yourself through even four deep, cleansing breaths of air, the benefits are twofold. First, you immediately feel the energizing effect of oxygen as it fully enters your body. It feels different from default breathing, more purposeful and cleansing. Second, if you allow yourself to sit and breathe like this for even two minutes, you give yourself the chance to shut off autopilot, and to let your body and mind pause long enough to tell you what they need. And it’s likely not to go back on autopilot.

Give yourself short breathing breaks throughout the day. Set a timer to alert you every ninety minutes, then stop what you’re doing and breathe slowly and deeply for a couple of minutes.

Presence takes practice, so decide how you will practice getting off autopilot. Here’s an idea: make waking up mindfully and setting your intentions at the start of your workday non-negotiable. These two practices alone can be transformational. From there, any time you sense that you’re operating on autopilot, try another of the tactics above to get present, and for even more autopilot information and tips, pick up a copy of The Success-Energy Equation!

Let us know your thoughts or experiences on this topic in the comments below!