Earlier today, I went to fill up my water bottle. I was also carrying a notebook and phone and needed to find a place to put them down to free up my hands. The two options were on top of a radiator or on top of a staircase banister.

I ruled out the radiator because it could have melted the notebook cover (it was pretty hot).

The staircase banister was a few feet farther away from the fountain, and I was worried about someone accidentally knocking it off when using the stairs.

Not liking either option, I tried to balance the phone and notebook on a windowsill above the radiator, but it was too narrow.

After a few more seconds of debate, I paused for a moment: it would take about 30 seconds to fill the water bottle, and hardly anyone ever used those stairs. After recognizing the gap in my thinking, I placed the items on the staircase banister and filled up my bottle.

Aside from the fact that I spent way too much time deciding how to go about a simple task (and no, I don’t typically do this all day ;), what struck me was how I went on autopilot and missed the obvious. Even though I knew from experience the hardly anyone used the stairs, I unconsciously assumed that someone would use them in the thirty seconds it would take to fill my bottle and then proceeded to waste time looking for other solutions.

Being Stuck on Autopilot

Even though this is a trivial example, it represents what I frequently observe in my clients on a regular basis (and typically around more significant issues than filling up water bottles). We go on autopilot and don’t stop to consider what else could be going on. We then spin our wheels chasing the wrong information or overlooking the best solution. For example:

  • Having priorities without ever questioning how we determined those priorities in the first place
  • Going about a task without considering if there’s a better way to do it
  • Wanting something without exploring why we want it or how we think we’ll benefit from it
  • Seeking approval without asking ourselves why we need those people to like us
  • Being afraid without looking at what it is we’re really afraid of

When we’re on autopilot, our minds get stuck on or overlook a dilemma or course of action that doesn’t serve us. We go about our day without questioning how or why we do the things we do. In the process, we waste time, energy, money, credibility, along with opportunities for fulfillment, connection, and meaning.

We engage in these types of autopilot behaviors and thinking every day. Consider things such as the route you take to work, the situations that you replay over and over in your mind, the steps and order in which you go about completing tasks, the fears that go unquestioned, or the things that motivate you. We let most of these scenarios play out over and over without asking ourselves if there’s a better alternative.

Getting Off Autopilot

My example only involved filling a water bottle. Consider other examples where the stakes are higher:

  • Making life decisions, such as where to live, who to date, or which job to take
  • Addressing and resolving conflict, including on a global or cultural level
  • Solving work and business issues with potential financial, environmental, or social consequences
  • Spending energy and money trying to look good, prove worth, or get ahead
  • Dealing with social issues such as racism, homelessness, and addiction

Instead of spinning your wheels or reenacting the same scenes over and over, getting off autopilot can help you create new stories, end thoughts or behaviors that don’t serve you, help you be more efficient, improve relationships, and help you shift from being reactive to proactive.

There are several steps you can take to get off autopilot:

  1. Notice discomfort
    When experiencing a frustrating, unpleasant, or painful situation, pay attention. The discomfort is potentially a signal that you’re on autopilot. These uncomfortable experiences are often clues that you’re stuck in an old pattern. These patterns could be experiencing familiar relationships, perpetual unresolved conflict, stress, inability to solve or resolve problems, or wasted time. Practice paying attention to these feelings and patterns.
  2. Pause and reflect
    When you notice discomfort or familiar patterns, pause and reflect. Notice the result you’re getting. Observe your thinking or beliefs about the situation. Look at how you’re behaving. By taking a step back and examining what’s going on, you can tease out what’s really going on and become more aware of the situation. Sometimes this awareness comes quickly, and other times it can take a while. Continue to pause and reflect until the unconscious becomes conscious.
  3. Make a different choice
    Once you notice your thinking, belief, and/or behavior, you can make a different choice. Sometimes the choices are obvious, sometimes not. You may need help to gain additional perspectives or options. Experiment – the key is to at least try something different. No matter the result, you’ll experience something new. It’s like the movie Groundhog Day – we need to keep trying new things until we get a different result.

Not all autopilot behaviors are uncomfortable – sometimes we’re just blissfully ignorant of them. One way to increase awareness of our autopilot behaviors is to ask for feedback.

Questions to get you off autopilot:

  1. How can you become more aware of your discomfort?
  2. What gets in the way of you making time to pause and reflect?
  3. What emotions do you commonly experience? Which autopilot beliefs or behaviors create those emotions?
  4. What frustrating or debilitating situations do you repeatedly experience? Which autopilot beliefs or behaviors create those situations?
  5. What is something you tolerate in your life? What is a different choice you can make to eliminate the toleration?