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.