The human brain is simultaneously the smartest and stupidest manifestation of consciousness there exists in the living world. We’ve left the planet and gone to the moon, seen beyond our solar system and even looked back to the beginning of time, yet the other day, I found myself about to put toothpaste on my phone while scrolling through my toothbrush.
This is our autopilot. The part of our brain that is tasked with doing the mundane and the routine. It’s what gets us out of bed and into the shower each morning before we’ve had our jolt of caffeine, or what makes sure we have everything we need each day before leaving for work, it automates the mundane and conserves energy for the more important tasks in the day that require our full concentration.
But here’s the catch.
Our autopilot is born out of habit, not wisdom.
If every time you came back home from school or from work, you stood on one leg and ate a baby carrot while singing We Didn’t Start the Fire, at some point, your autopilot is going to pick it up and you’ll be halfway through the fifth verse before you realize what a weird thing it is that you’re doing.
Our autopilot works great for some things. I don’t have to think consciously about washing dishes or driving, leaving my mind free to wander and think about other things. But unfortunately, not all of our habits are that great. After a long day’s work, there’s nothing I want more than to just lie in bed with my laptop and catch up on the week’s TV shows for maybe an hour. But after a few days of doing this, it became a mindless unthinking reaction to getting home for the day. I plopped my bag by the door, fell on the bed, and within minutes was absorbed into the world of Brooklyn law enforcement, not stopping to question whether there was anything else I had to do, or whether I even wanted to watch something that day. The second I walked through that door, the autopilot took over and the rest of the evening was gone.
I’ve faced the same thing with my phone. “I have a few minutes, let me just check if I have any messages” quickly turned into “The person I’m talking to looked away for two seconds. I should check my messages”. And without realizing it, hours were getting eaten away because none of the time I was spending on these things was a conscious decision.
I’d taught my autopilot bad habits, and it followed them faithfully.
Reclaiming your autopilot
When I say reclaim, I mean make the autopilot work for you instead of just following it’s badly trained whims and fancies. We don’t put a lot of thought into training our autopilot, but if we did, it can be a very powerful tool. It can make us do things that are good for us that we don’t really like doing, like waking up early every morning for a run, or it can help us rebuild old habits like reading books. Habits get broken when we have to search for the energy to keep them up. But we can train our autopilot to keep the habits up even when we don’t have the energy for it.
It would be exhausting if every single aspect of our lives had to be thought about carefully and done with awareness and intention. That’s why diets and exercises are so hard after the first few days, we get tired of consciously maintaining the habit. But by choosing what our autopilot tells us to do, we are curating both our time and our energy, so that we can keep growing and have more energy to spend. It leads to a life lived with more meaning: Even when we’re not thinking about it, we are still doing things with intention. And it leads to a life lived with vim and variety: We can find the time and energy to do a large number of things that we’re interested in, from learning a new language to painting or woodworking, all while never compromising on work and sleep.
By now, I hope I’ve convinced you that you need to train your autopilot. Here’s how you go about doing that:
Part 1: Break bad habits
Identify the habits that you want to break. Remember, this is you curating your autopilot, so choosing what to keep and what to break is possibly the most important part of the process.
Check in with yourself regularly. You don’t always realize you’re doing something until you’re already doing it. But if you keep checking in with yourself, you can consciously decide if what you’re doing is on the keep list or the kick list and stop yourself if necessary.
Identify triggers. Autopilot action sequences are often triggered by circumstance. Eating when stressed, bingeing when avoiding work, these are triggers that lie waiting beneath the surface.
Implement alternative sequences. Once you identify the triggers, you can stop yourself from doing something that’s bad for you. But to truly make it stick, you need to deal with the trigger by doing something of your choosing. I began to journal when I was feeling stressed, rather than escape into somebody else’s life.
Part 2: Create good habits
Make a list of the habits you want to implement. Like I said, curating. Careful selection is a very important part of the process.
Create or assign triggers. Similar to the involuntary triggers that started bad action sequences, create or assign triggers that set off good ones. Coming home from work became a trigger for me to go to the gym. A cup of coffee in the morning became a trigger for me to start my morning chores.
Consciously stick to the routine. Until your autopilot catches on, stick to the routine. Trigger, then action. Trigger, then action. Keep at it enough times, and mentally associate the action with the trigger, and your autopilot will soon pick it up.
Reinforce the autopilot. At first, when your autopilot picks it up, it will be a very subtle change. After finishing my coffee, at first I felt slightly less reluctant to start my morning chores. Over time, by reinforcing this connection, it became automatic to the point where if I didn’t start my morning chores after coffee, something felt off. At this point, your autopilot has taken hold and congratulations you have a new good habit.
Of course, slipping into bad habits is a lot easier than making good ones, so you need to keep checking in and making sure that you’re sticking to your curated list. And if you’re not, forgive yourself and go through the steps in Part 1 to get back on track.
This article is based on my own experiences with making and breaking habits. You should also read our summary and review of an excellent book by James Clear called Atomic Habits, which takes a more all-round approach to habit forming. You can find the article here: 5 Lessons from Atomic Habits.