Getting Off of Mental Autopilot

Mental Autopilot

Pets are so predictable.

With their instincts and simple lives, they do the same thing day in and day out.

Days are the same, they just keep right on chugging along.

But come to think of it… are we humans so different?

We all have habits (both good and bad) that we do without thinking about…

That’s because we’ve all inherited the neural hardware to live on “mental autopilot”.

What is Mental Autopilot?

Mental autopilot is a state of mind where we let our instincts and automatic habits take the reigns of life.

We keep moving and just take things as they come.

Feeling hungry?



Find some entertainment.

Don’t feel like working?

Just relax.

When we live on autopilot, we let our basic drives direct our focus. And this means that on autopilot, we don’t think very far ahead.

Fortunately these drives are super effective and helpful when it comes to handling our biological needs.

***Unfortunately, they aren’t very effective for leading effective, healthy, and fulfilling lives. Because the guidelines for autopilot is the pleasure principle.

And the pleasure principle is all about whatever seems most pleasurable and least painful right now.

Mental Autopilot: Staring at Our Feet

Life on mental autopilot is a lot like walking around while starring at our feet.

Because we’re looking down, we’re only aware of those things that are very close.

There may be cooler things farther out, but we just don’t notice them.

As a result we miss out on a lot of opportunities just because we didn’t know they were there.

Looking Up to the Horizon

The real problem with living on autopilot is that all that looking at our feet leaves us short-sighted.

Without looking ahead, we miss out on those things that leave us feeling happy, healthy, and fulfilled day in and day out.

That’s because crafting a good life often comes down to working in direct opposition to the pleasure principle, at least over the short term.

For example, working out, learning something new, or developing key skills for work all feel like work while we’re doing them.

But if we look up to the more distant horizon, those challenging practices nearly always lead us to greener pastures down the road.

On autopilot, we don’t notice the benefits of doing the work now, so we end up taking the actions that lead us nowhere.

“Switching On”

The opposite of autopilot is “Switching On”.

It’s about tuning in and directing our focus. While this takes some work at first, what we get in exchange for our efforts by far outweighs the price we pay.

The best, time-tested, fundamental techniques for doing this are rooted in the practice of Mindfulness.

Mindfulness is all about focusing our attention on something in this present moment. The easiest place to start is with the breath.

Another way to think about Switching On is to fully engage with whatever we’re doing.

When we switch on, we are less likely to do things automatically. Thus we take control of our decisions which is the source of our personal power.

by switching on, we’re more likely to direct our lives, create results more easily, and drop into the zone.

Practices for Switching On

Here is a fun way to make the switch and it’s something we can do at any moment of any day:

Get in The Game

Another powerful technique is to focus your attention through writing. This technique is probably the most powerful, yet under-utilized, tool for taking control of our lives. Because without a plan, we’re always looking at our feet. With a plan, we’re necessarily thinking about what might come up ahead.

You can start wherever you want. Just sit down with a pen and paper or a computer and start to brainstorm some things that you sincerely want to do in your life:

Get fit? Learn a new skill? Earn more money? Find an incredible loving partner and build a long-lasting relationship?

With all goals, there are activities that move us towards these results while others lead us away.

By writing out what we really want to do in life, get out of autopilot and switch on, taking the drivers’s seat.

In other words, we take the first step in actually making those outcomes a reality.

For a series of guided writing exercises for crafting a life ideal for you, check out:

Creative Problem Solving

How Do You Switch On?

Have any tips or challenges around switching off of autopilot?

Then share them or ask a question in the comments below.

Until then, keep learning, keep growing, and make every day count.

  • Catzeyes Jones

    One of the best tools I use is automatic writing. While it’s something I can find a thousand excuses not to do :), I’ve learned through experience the great value there is in doing something unstructured such as this. What I do is pick a word or a topic and then after doing some deep breathing exercises, I find that my pen just seems to go on its own and the things I read afterwards amaze me. Some of it seems nonsensical and that’s OK because hidden in there are some gold nuggets; ideas, new ways to handle old issues, etc… Many people must have more structure than automatic writing commands, but I find that in the doing, I find my own structure. It works for me. It is thru this venue that I’ve had ideas I’ve applied very successfully. This is where I truly “think outside of the box” and the rewards are great.
    I’m interested in the structured ideas and will certainly read them but can’t help wonder now if it’s somewhat odd that I do this writing so freely and unscripted. What say you? ??

    • That’s a great question because writing is one of the most powerful forms of thinking. There are definitely different types of writing and each has different types of benefits.

      For example, when I first started writing I would made myself put at least 1000 words per day for 5-7 days each week. At first I would do this freeflowing with whatever topics came to mind, letting my mind go where it wanted to. This had the tremendous benefit of getting my mind flowing with ideas day in and day out. Another benefit was that it helped me get the main topics, that were cluttering my mind, out of my head. this provided greater clarity on a day to day basis. But what I wasn’t doing was polishing any of my work or refining my work. I also wasn’t using this creative flow to its full advantage.

      Now I still warm up with creative free flows for 500-1000 words each day. After that though I try to take the momentum and direct my focus in order to create more refined articles, pdfs, or books (that I’m working now) that can provide greater value and entertainment to others.

      I feel like it’s the difference between going for a jog until I get tired Vs clarifying a stretch goal (like run 3 miles in 25 minutes) and then going for it. They both have value. The second is just a bit more structured and that structure can lead to different results.

      Overall, if you are writing regularly then it’s certainly going to benefit you in many ways including clarity of focus, saving your thoughts so you can come back to them later (and implement them), and it’s just fun, lol!

      Thank you again. What do you think?

      • Catzeyes Jones

        I like the jogging analogy and I’m going to try what you suggested. I mention elsewhere that sometimes I do have a topic when I write, but I can’t say I structure my writing. I’m interested in those different results that come with more structure. And yes, writing IS fun. It’s the place one can express themselves, rant to the extreme, say anything, really. Writing is a big part of my mindfulness. Even when I don’t want to get started on it. lol Thanks for the ideas!

        • That’s a great regarding writing as a practice in mindfulness. It definitely is. I’ve had the great honor to work as a coach and consultant with people from around the world, and I always recommend writing . It’s been amazing to see how over the course of a few weeks, or even a few days, the act of getting one’s thoughts down on paper or on a screen changes our relationship to them. Sometimes, when people get certain ideas out of there head where they can look at them and reflect, it’s almost like “wait… ya… I do think that… I’m gonna go make that happen now…”

          Thank you again for your great insights 🙂

  • Mohammed Abutaleb

    What a valuable article Jeremy
    Jeremy, I think that question is one greatly addressed issue in human mythology and in religions as well.
    My question with regards to the topic of mindfulness. Is on the people who may feel an exagerated sense of being drived by the autopilot that mindfulness seems to just miss them that feeling of physical fiscomfort and quircky sensations that have lasted for a while. The funny thing is that under such a state nothing really seems to work… all attempts are befallen by the worried uncosious. Or so.
    Alot could help.. but What is it that maybe be profoundly practical in such cases. Discipline on daily mindfulness exercises even if they did not work? Would that be a good tip?

    • You raise a great question about mindfulness: What should I do if mindfulness practices don’t seem to work?

      As with most things worth working for, it’s very difficult to see the effects of mindfulness right away. Even if it seems like it’s not working, it may be that it really is but it’s hard to see the changes. Most of us have spent multiple decades conditioning our minds through the hustle and bustle of daily life. Thousands of hours of television, commercials, movies, videos, and all else conditioning our minds to be scattered.

      By comparison, even a few months or so of practicing meditation is really just the beginning. In labs, physical brain changes have been consistently documented in people who start meditating and practice for as little as 8 weeks. But more than anything, mindfulness is about the habit of tuning back in. It takes some faith that the work will pay off. But it will if you stick to it.