Is Life Worth Living on Autopilot or with Intention?

Ever driven a known route, say from your house to your workplace (or vice versa) and you arrive at your destination and think to yourself – wow, I didn’t have to consciously think about the driving and was mostly lost in thought/music/podcast/conversation and now I am here. How cool and dangerous!

The reason why you don’t have to consciously think about every turn and every aspect of that commute is a simple fact that you have done this particular drive so many times that the familiarity has made it almost like muscle memory. It has become a routine in your mind. You know what you are doing, you’ve got this! This is doing a task on autopilot mode. It can apply to not just driving but other areas of life too like cooking, or cleaning, or exercising and so on.

Ultimately what living on autopilot is that you can do various tasks, physical and mental, without putting too much cognitive processing into them. Whether it is driving or making commitments, cooking or making a judgement – you do all this without much conscious effort and thought because you have done it so many times before.

Why do we do it and are there any benefits?

We don’t actually consciously choose to zone out while doing a mundane or repetitive task, our brain just does it for us. At any given time, the brain is receiving and processing so many varied forms of raw data – vision, sound, emotion, touch, memory associations and so on – and with its limited processing power, it is filtering out a whole heap of this information (without asking us) to prevent a system overload. The brain is making routine, repetitive tasks easy to do by automating the process to free up mental bandwidth for tasks requiring more cognitive processing and pretty much anything we do repeatedly has the potential of turning into an automated task.

While the brain represents just 2% of a person’s total body weight, it accounts for 20% of the body’s energy use. It is very effective in using and saving its energy and processing reserves and is always looking to automate things. Essentially it is always looking for the path of least resistance to save energy.

How do we know it is happening and what are the cons?

The good thing is doing repetitive tasks becomes easy, however, the bad thing is it is not just limited to driving to work – it happens in far greater aspects of our lives than we realise, oftentimes without our consent and knowledge!

I personally have spent a great many years operating on this autopilot mode. Unknowingly and after realisation, unwillingly. Whether it was consumption of food, media, dealing with people in a social situation, thinking through problems – I did most of it in an automated, habituated way – just the way I have been doing in the past without much conscious thought or reflection. Essentially there isn’t anything wrong with that but when we make the same choices over and over again without much consideration, we are exposed to making the same errors over and over again. Now, that is a problem.

“Autopilot has gone from being an evolutionary protection mechanism that stopped our brains overloading, to our default mode of operating whereby we sleepwalk into our choices,” Dr. Mark Williamson

Some of the cons of living life like this are listed below but here is the juxtaposition of this problem, most of these cons are not obvious while you are living like this – you don’t see these problems while creating the problems but here are a few things to look out for:

  • You waste time procrastinating and avoid taking action or making a decision
  • You overcommit to things in your personal and professional life – you take too much on, sometimes knowing you will not be able to fit it all in and deliver
  • You feel frustrated often and become moody
  • You feel you have a mundane or a boring existence
  • You lack clarity of purpose in personal and professional life
  • You feel life just happens to you rather than through you
  • You try to please people
  • You say yes more often than no
  • You struggle to remember things

And here are some of the cons of living this way (not an exhaustive list by any means):

  • You live a life that is less than the one you are capable of
  • You limit your own beliefs and actions
  • You try to do things by brute force at the last minute
  • You neglect your own self-care and happiness
  • You let your relationships slip and suffer – you drive people away
  • You do not consciously choose and create your destiny
  • You give up sovereignty and control of your life
  • You can’t help but feel helpless in different situations
  • You are constantly resisting change
  • You are not improving or growing
  • You are not making any meaningful contribution to the world

Ok, lots of cons – what’s the opposite of autopilot?

Yes, lots of cons indeed and honestly, it is fine if you want to keep doing the same thing and don’t want to make any real progress in your personal or professional life or make any contribution to the lives of others or the world. BUT… (of course, there is a but after a paragraph like that)

For any meaningful progress in life, to do something of substance, to attain goals and dreams you need to make genuine conscious efforts. Not automated ones. You need to do things differently and quit doing them the way they have been done.

This is known as living life with intention. Where life doesn’t just happen to you but happens through you. This is where you take control of your feelings, emotions, decisions and actions. Where you take control and design your own optimal life.

Our repeated behaviours become habitual patterns and these patterns, in turn, become so ingrained in our personality that they end up defining our character – which shapes our lives and destiny.

So it is important to first and foremost realise that we are living on autopilot, that we are living habitually and unconsciously and then to take active steps to change that and live more intentionally.

So, how do I live with intention?

Here is a list of things you can do to live life more consciously and with more intention.

  1. Define what is important to you.
    This is about knowing your priority (singular – not plural). Your deepest most important desire, aspiration and goal. Ask yourself; If there is one thing/area of my life where I could be truly amazing, what would it be? What will be my highest contribution to the world and to the lives of those around me?
    • Once you have the answer, ask yourself why. Why do I want this?
    • Once you get that answer, ask yourself why again. And then do it 3 more times (the 5 levels of why) Now you know exactly why!

  2. Start with the end in mind.
    Where is it that you are trying to go? What is the ultimate destination of your life? If you don’t know where you are going, it is easy to get lost, and more importantly, how do you know you have arrived?

  3. Write a mission statement for your life.
    Based on the above, write a mission statement for your life – the sort that companies have. The idea of the mission statement is to let you and everyone around you know what your life stands for. What the objective is and what will be your guiding principles and morals? Don’t use ambiguous terms and sentences like most companies do (example: be a leader in innovation – what kind of innovation? what does a leader mean in this context?) Be very specific.
    • Make a list of all the habits, skills and attributes you need in order to live a life that is in alignment with the mission statement. Are you close? Do you currently have most of these skills and attributes? How about the habits? How far off are you?

  4. Don’t build good habits – just eliminate bad ones. I am not suggesting you do more work and make new habits, just make a list of all the bad habits you currently have (sleeping late, drinking too much, eating junk food etc) and work to eliminate those – the good habits will take care of themselves.
    • Some habits are foundation habits – they have the most impact on your life, that one good/bad habit causes a domino effect on a whole range of other habits. Look to eliminate cornerstone bad habits or cultivate cornerstone good ones first. An example is a regular exercise habit; once you start doing that you naturally start eating better, providing proper nutrition, rest and sleep to your body and so on.

  5. Declutter your life.
    Mentally, physically and emotionally. Get rid of all the junk you don’t need. Get rid of all the people that don’t add value to your life. Get rid of all the dreams, hopes and aspirations that have expired. I have written a whole series of Letting Go. Check it out.
    Clearing Out The Old — Letting Go of Things
    Clearing Out The Old — Letting Go of Dreams
    Clearing Out The Old — Letting Go of People
    Clearing Out The Old — Letting Go of Opinions

  6. Have goals.
    Daily goals, weekly goals, monthly goals, yearly goals and big grand life goals. Start with the big grand life goals first based on the Mission Statement and work backwards to daily goals. Make every goal about the bigger picture. To move towards your grand life vision.

  7. Take action.
    Now you have goals, great, but you need to take action to achieve these goals. I follow 2 very simple rules for taking instant action:
    • Mel Robbins’ 5-second rule – “If you have an instinct to act on a goal, you must physically move within 5 seconds or your brain will kill it. Hesitation is the kiss of death. You might hesitate for a just nanosecond, but that’s all it takes.”
    • David Allen’s 2-minute rule – If a task will take less than 2 minutes to complete, do it now. Don’t schedule it, don’t delegate it, don’t overthink it. Just do it NOW.

  8. Create solitude in your life.
    Some of your best work will be done when you are in solitude in a distraction-free zone. Collaboration and teamwork have their own place but deep focused work is king. Find time to be by yourself. Protect that space and time ferociously. This is when you will be at your best. Use it to your advantage.

  9. Meditate. Meditate. Meditate. And then meditate some more.
    I cannot stress this one enough. I recommend this in almost every one of my articles and videos. Build a meditation practice. This will positively change your life in more ways than you can imagine. If you have never meditated before a good place to start is here. If you have given meditation a try in the past but couldn’t make a habit then start (again) here.

  10. Build time for reflection by having a journaling practice.
    Journal every day. Twice a day if you can, morning and night. Some of the most successful and high performing people in the world attribute a big portion of their success to their journaling habits. Again, this will positively change your life in more ways than you can imagine. To find out how to journal, start here.

  11. Unplug.
    Take time to unplug, disconnect and go off the grid every once in a while. Believe it or not, this will recharge you and give you new insights into your own self and the world. I have been to several multi-day silent meditation retreats where I was completely cut off from the world – no phone, no TV, no internet, no talking to even your fellow meditators. In this age of hyper-connectivity, it is unlike anything you will experience. You do not need to go to that extreme but once or twice a week, turn your phone off in the evening and spend time being fully present in whatever you are doing with whoever is there. Leave your phone behind when you go for a walk. Put it in another room while you are spending time with your kids. Find ways to immerse yourself in the present moment by unplugging.
    “Almost everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes, including you.”― Anne Lamott

A great expression I once heard was; if you hammer a nail into a piece of wood, the nail goes everywhere the wood goes, whether it likes it or not.

Don’t be a nail in the wood, or a tree or rock for that matter. Live your life with intention and consciously choose your destiny. You control and influence it more than you realise.

I am not regurgitating what others have written. I am recommending these things based on my personal practice and from my personal experience. I have found tremendous benefits in doing all these things and I hope you do too. Feel free to reach out if you have any questions.

Now go and be awesome!