This article was originally published here on Forbes.com.
Autopilot: Your Best Friend And Your Worst Enemy
You already know about those typical responses to stress, exhaustion, and overwhelm called fight, flight, or freeze. In the first, your self-protection mechanisms activate to meet obstacles head on with an eye to overcoming or overpowering the stressors. In the second, your inclination to escape kicks in and quickly moves you away from stressful triggers. And in the third, instead of moving toward a solution of some sort, you find yourself paralyzed. I want to remind you of a fourth option—autopilot—which, in stressful situations, can be either your best response or among your worst. Going through the motions and relying on engrained habits can sometimes be a lifesaver, just as it can sometimes result in a crash-and-burn moment.
Knowing the difference is key to using your autopilot as a tool for finding your way out of a stressful or overwhelming situation.
Autopilot is a piece of technology that, once programmed, steers a plane without human interference. You can input settings like speed and altitude, and the autopilot will maintain those settings for as long as the plane has fuel in its tank. Autopilot systems free up the human pilot to fly the plane without compromising focus, thus ruling out countless forms of human error.
When we talk about “being on autopilot” as human beings, we’re talking about the functions we rely on because they are such ingrained habits in us—like when you drive home only to step out of your car and barely remember anything about your commute.
Autopilot is an incredible evolutionary miracle, but it’s also got the potential to lead to wildly unproductive and unfulfilling activity.
To function on autopilot is to lack focus and clarity, only accomplishing the automized mundanities of your day-to-day. It’s the reason you’re bummed out, overwhelmed, overworked, and feel like you have lost control.
When that automatic feature starts slipping into more and more areas of your life—especially ones that need more conscious consideration—that functionality comes at a cost. It can even lead you to feeling that you’ve run out of options.
The most important question to ask in those circumstances is this: Have you really run out of options?
The problem isn’t the autopilot function itself; it’s being led primarily by autopilot instead of using those engrained habits as a tool for gaining efficiency and focus—for freeing yourself up to put your attention where it’s needed most. You want to be able to use your brain to think through alternatives. Your autopilot can’t do that for you, but it can offer the supports that allow you to assess and determine what new options you may have before you.
Every pilot relies on relentless preparation, effective checklists, maintaining their composure, staying calm under pressure, and retaining the ability to execute and compartmentalize effectively— i.e., knowing what is within our Span of Control—to get us through these dangerous situations.
If you want to shift out of autopilot and into more intentional behavior, begin by spending more time noticing your own behavior, even recording it in notes or a journal.
Knowing when, and how, you slide into autopilot is a first step toward regaining control and consciously directing more of your attention to what matters most.