Are you living on autopilot?

Dr Anna McLaughlin

Living on autopilot can distract us from the small, everyday moments of happiness that are important for our wellbeing. 

What is autopilot?

Many of us live on autopilot, making decisions and going through our days in a mindless state without considering if we feel happy and fulfilled. Living on autopilot is easy because you don’t have to think deeply about small everyday decisions.

For example, people often make decisions on autopilot about what clothes they wear, who they talk to, what they eat for dinner, or how they wind down after work. However, over time, the mindless decisions we make on autopilot can add up and shape our relationships, career trajectory, health, and wellbeing.

When the daily choices you make don’t add up to the life you want to live, you might begin to feel frustrated, miserable, or like life is passing by too quickly. If you've been living on autopilot for years, here are some ways to bring yourself back into the moment and start living life on your own terms.

What causes autopilot?

Before you start addressing autopilot behaviour, it might be helpful to recognise why you go into autopilot in the first place. A large study called Autopilot Britain, which surveyed over 3,000 people, found that people operating in autopilot typically fall into categories called Pleasers, Pacers and Passengers. Do you fall into any of the below categories?

1) The Pleasers

Pleasers find it so hard to say anything other than yes that obligations pile up, and the

internal voice pleading them to say “no” gets drowned out. By trying to please everyone, they end up resentful of their to-do list and not focusing on what matters. 

2) The Pacers

On a mission to always find “what’s next” the Pacers are so caught up in the pace of modern life that they pack as much as possible into their days - relentlessly busy “doing” rather than “being”.

3) The Passengers

The Passengers are overwhelmed with choice and information like a rabbit caught in the headlights, they sometimes struggle through life, allowing the world around them to dictate their choices and following the crowd too often.

Switching gear from autopilot to making conscious decisions:

The reason why you go into autopilot might be different from someone else, which is why recognising your own version of autopilot can be a useful starting point. This process of reflection and deeper thought will be instrumental in helping you to change your habits and make more conscious choices.

Bring yourself back to the moment:

Now that you have taken time to pause and reflect on what kind of problems prevent you from living in the moment, it’s time to set goals that align with your values. Setting goals is beneficial when you’re trying to get out of autopilot mode because it helps to remind you of what you’re working towards and why you’re doing it.

Example goal for Pleasers: set aside time for your hobbies and interests

If you’re in the habit of always saying yes on autopilot, try making a conscious effort to set aside time for the aspects of life that provide you with a sense of purpose and fulfilment. This might include your hobbies, enjoying quality downtime, or participating in cultural or religious practices.

While it might feel difficult saying no to people’s requests outright, say that you need time to think about it before committing or suggest a later date. According to Psychology Today, setting boundaries reduces the pressure you feel to live up to other people’s expectations. By taking ownership, you can get back to enjoying life one minute at a time.

Example goal for Pacers: create more free time

If you feel like you’re racing through life because your schedule is too busy, you might want to try creating regular breaks in your schedule for relaxation and downtime. Alternatively,  you might want to set aside more free time to connect with people who are important to you, such as close family or friends.

Research shows that downtime increases your brain’s ability to focus and concentrate, boosting your overall productivity and reducing stress. Consciously slowing down and savouring these moments of peace will help you reconnect with yourself, making it easier to enjoy the other aspects of your day more mindfully.

Example goal for Passengers: change your routine and try something new

Try to break out of your comfort zone and challenge yourself to take up a new hobby or learn a new skill based on your interests. Try and choose something that you feel gives you meaning and purpose, or you could focus on a lifestyle change that improves your health or fitness.

A recent psychology study showed that simply taking a walk or riding a bike through a different neighbourhood can increase positive emotions and strengthen your resilience to stress. Trying something new can also spark your creativity, increase your confidence, and motivate you to become more consciously aware of how you spend your time. 

Start living life on your own terms:

Whatever you choose as your goal, even taking gradual, small steps towards achieving it will help you live more purposefully, intentionally and mindfully. Although breaking an autopilot habit can be difficult, try to see any challenges as an opportunity for further growth and development.

Spending your time in a way that aligns with your values and sense of purpose will help you reconnect with yourself and find joy in the small, everyday moments of life. Research shows that positive mental states, such as having a sense of purpose, being mindful, and being optimistic, are all associated with better physical and mental health.