Much of our life is spent on autopilot. We turn up to work and the next thing we are fully conscious of is going home. Days fly by as we are caught up in a maelstrom of activity, and busyness has become something of a badge of honor or status symbol. Author and researcher Brené Brown succinctly explains, “I often say that when they start having 12-step meetings for busy-aholics, they’ll need to rent out football stadiums. We are a culture of people who’ve bought into the idea that if we stay busy enough, the truth of our lives won’t catch up with us.”
We have all had the experience of driving a long-distance, all to arrive at the destination and not remember large chunks of the journey. This happens because we are on autopilot.
A few years ago, in a survey conducted by an accident prevention charity, 80% of respondents admitted to going through life on autopilot; arriving at the end of a car journey with no memory of driving there, buying the same item twice without realizing, even turning up at the office on a day off.
The brain uses more energy than any other human organ; up to 20% of the body’s total haul. Therefore, it is always looking for shortcuts to efficiency. Our conscious brain uses a lot of this energy. You have probably noticed when we learn something new that needs real focus and attention, such as playing an instrument or learning a new language, we become tired quite quickly.
Our subconscious, however, is a much more efficient beast. It saves energy by looking at similarities of today’s experience to those we have seen before. If they look familiar enough it just assumes they are the same and therefore takes over to run the show. The conscious brain can rest and save energy for more taxing times.
So, when we get into a car, our subconscious recognizes the act of driving, and therefore kicks into autopilot so that the brain fuel can be reserved. Clever design.
However, due to the increasingly frenetic nature of our lives it is likely that as they become more complicated and jam-packed, the already massive 80% of our time spent on autopilot will rise.
Every day we are bombarded by ever-increasing amounts of stimulus. To cope, our subconscious naturally seeks out things it is familiar with so it can save our brain some energy. Therefore, as time goes by it is likely we will develop more routines and habits as a result.
We need habits in order to survive; but when we are stuck in constant habit loops we become numb to the world and lose our shine. It feels like somebody else is living our lives.
The secret to achieving more balance is to be gentle with yourself. We need autopilot to survive. The problem is simply that it creeps in and takes over too much. Don’t beat yourself up when it takes over.
The key to getting off autopilot is to embrace new experiences. Wake Up! is a series of human, playful exercises I have designed to do just that. Introduce them into your life one by one over a period of a few days or dip in as feels right for you.
Here are 5 ways you can switch off your autopilot today.
Help a Stranger
We are obsessed by our habits, caught up in our diary, what we need to do, and it’s all about “me, me, me.” We forget we need some perspective. Step outside of your needs and help a stranger by opening a door or assisting somebody with their bags. Kindness and compassion make us more open, aware and alive.
Handwrite a Letter
Our tech focused world has meant analogue forms of communication hold a special energy that stimulate our senses and fuel our creativity. Handwrite a letter to somebody you care about and tell them why you are grateful for their being in your life. It’s a simple but incredibly powerful exercise and most people who do it once make it a regular part of their week. A form of journaling with the extra benefit of making another person feel good about themselves!
Dance Like Nobody Is Watching
It is well known that dancing has huge benefits to us physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. Research has proven that regular dancing can delay dementia and contributes fantastically to our overall well-being. So, find a time in your day to put on your favorite tune and lose yourself to the music. It can be alone or with others, whatever fits your style. Guaranteed to help you Wake Up!
Wake Up One Hour Earlier
Many people complain about not having enough time in their lives to do the things they really want to. This week, wake up one hour earlier and do those things that you believe will make your heart soar.
It may be that you want to play the guitar, master a new craft or finish that book proposal that’s been on your desk for months. Afterwards you can decide whether it’s so important to you that you make time for it in the future, or not. Either way, life will be sweeter.
Endless consumption is a key indicator that we are living on autopilot. Our survival instinct makes us feel hungry for things we don’t need as buying things is a way of numbing our emotions and helping us avoid connecting to what really counts in our lives. Try buying only food and water (excluding travel and essential medical supplies) and see if this wakes you up to the world around you.
Small changes to our lives reap big rewards. Dive in and Wake Up!
Chris Barez-Brown is a TEDx inspirational speaker and the author of Wake Up!: A Handbook to Living in the Here and Now (The Experiment Publishing, September 19). Wake Up! the app is available through The App Store and Google Play. www.barez-brown.com/ @barezbrown