How to turn off autopilot using mindfulness

By Juliana Kassianos, Transformational Fertility Coach, Yoga Teacher and Founder of The School of Fertility

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It may be a vital tool for ships and planes to navigate safely but people need to turn off their internal route plotters and live in the moment.

We all have an autopilot. It’s formed from habitual learning; a process where behaviours become automatic through regular repetition. Our brain hardwires things we do on a repetitive basis so we can do them again without needing much thought, making us far more efficient.

Have you ever driven to work and been completely lost in thought? Although you arrive to work safely, the journey itself is at best somewhat hazy as you struggle to recall the songs you listened to, the roads you drove down or obstacles and hazards you had to avoid. While you’re physically present, you’re not consciously thinking about what it is you’re doing. As your mind disengages from the present moment, it becomes free to wander aimlessly.

This clearly can be a very useful and adaptive skill to have at times, and can serve us well, but there are drawbacks with relying on this automated mode to guide us through life.

WHOSE DRIVING THIS BUS?

There are three problems with being on autopilot. The first is when we spend too much time on it. Experts say we spend 46.9% of our time on autopilot, that’s almost half our lives where we’re not in full control. When our minds are left free to wander, they tend to spend their time stuck in the past or imagining future scenarios. Often these thoughts veer towards negativity and can become both destructive and distracting, leading to anxiety and worry. We become disconnected from the present moment and reality itself. As a result, we can flitter over big chunks of our lives, often the good parts we should cherish, like watching your child in their school play, but thinking about your ‘to do’ list for work tomorrow. We become caught in a quest of surviving the day – just getting by – or going through the motions, and before we know it we hit retirement and are left thinking: “Where has time gone?”.

The second problem is that when we let our automated mode take over the controls, we end up taking the same old familiar route we’ve gone down in the past; repeating the same habits, patterns, rituals and routines. At some point these may have served us well, but now they may not be the best option for us. As a result, we can end up experiencing the same problems again and again and fail to move on with our lives.

The third problem is when we get caught up in our thoughts, feelings and emotions and our brain reacts automatically without really thinking. Although our ability to immediately react to situations helped us to survive in prehistoric times – such as bolting from a sabre-toothed tiger – in our modern lives, it can prevent us from responding in constructive ways that bring out the best in us.

Say you’re driving along a road. Out of nowhere, a car cuts in front of you. You impulsively react cursing under your breath. Although you don’t know the reason why the person puled out, your mind –which has been distracted by thoughts of what you have or haven’t done or are going to do – places snap judgement and thinks only negative things of them and reacts angrily.

So shouldn’t we try and grab back the controls, awaken our senses and install focus and intention back into our life, so we appreciate all that we have? With training and the aid of mindfulness, we can become far more in tune with our body and mind, noticing when we are on autopilot, while having the power to switch it off when it’s not benefitting us; when it creates needless worry and fear, when we get stuck in old habits or when it doesn’t bring out the best in us. 

ACT WITH AWARENESS

By interrupting autopilot using mindfulness, our minds become fully engaged in the present moment; with full awareness, focus and activation of our senses. When thoughts, feelings and emotions arise, we don’t cling on to them or try to block them out. Instead we just observe and acknowledge them – without judgement or criticism – accepting them, letting them be and noticing how they slowly subside. Choosing how to respond, we act with awareness.

So whilst autopilot takes us away from our lives, mindfulness has the power to bring us back into them. By practicing mindful techniques, we can change the hardwiring of our brains, enabling us to spend more time truly living in the moment, create new healthy habits to live by; to make better choices and grow into the highest version of ourselves.

FIVE WAYS TO TURN OFF AUTOPILOT

Try any or all of the following five mindful ways to intentionally switch off your autopilot. You can practice them anytime, anyplace and get quick results.

1. Take a mindful walk

Instead of driving, why not go for a mindful walk. We tend to lose touch with our bodies on autopilot. Mindful movement offers us reconnection. As you walk, become aware of every small movement you make when you move; your heel lifting, knee bending, toes lifting, foot moving forwards and resting back on the ground. Once you have settled into a rhythm, start to bring your awareness into your body. How does it feel? Which parts are holding tension? What is your breathing like? Just notice, without trying to change anything. Then shift your observation to your external environment. Activate all your senses as you take in the sights, smells, sounds and touch of your surroundings.

2. Set up auto-triggers

With life on autopilot, it’s easy to find ourselves going through the motions, day-in, day-out. To snap out of this mode, have a go at setting up some auto-triggers. Set up alarms on your phone or computer to go off at certain intervals during the day. Give them a description that says ‘Be more mindful’. Every time the alarm goes off, read the words and have a moment to consciously take-in where you are, how you’re feeling and what your breathing is like. Fully activate all your senses and just be in the moment.

3. Create mind gaps

In between one thought and another there is a gap, otherwise known as a mind gap. This is our natural state of self where we’re fully alert, aware and present in the moment. Try to create a mind gap next time you go about one of your daily tasks. Give your full attention to what it is you’re doing, using all your senses. If thoughts pop into your head, just observe and acknowledge them. Don’t try to attach meaning or react. As they pass, bring awareness to the empty spaces that form and enjoy the silent sense of presence. At first, you may only experience them for a short period of time; this is due to our inherent need to fill in silences. In time, they will become longer.

4. Do that thing you’ve been putting off

On autopilot, we tend to procrastinate and avoid doing things we really don’t want to do for as long as possible. How many times have you put off something, but been left with that horrible feeling of dread as you know you have to get it done at some point. You keep pushing it to the end of your ‘to do’ list, hoping it will magically drop off or someone will take it off your plate. Move the item your dreading to the top of your ‘to do’ list and schedule time in your diary so you can strike it off as soon as possible. Focus all your mental resources on the task at hand. After all, a job done once, need not been done twice.

5. Have a digital detox

We live in a busy, modern world, where technology means we’re now more than ever constantly connected to those around us. When we have a break in the day, it’s easy to find ourselves flicking mindlessly through social media, checking emails or communicating with others. Living this way means we’re never truly on our own or fully present. Have a digital detox and switch your mobile phone off at certain times of the day. Observe what it feels like to be with yourself and have pure awareness of what is going on around you.

REFERENCE

• Article published in Breathe magazine, p62-63, Issue 4


Juliana Kassianos