Autopilot – A Fast Track to Mediocrity
There is something so comforting about switching into autopilot. It’s something I used to do every day and it quickly became a familiar pattern I could fall into. Like an airplane pilot, I could just sit back and relax, confident I was heading where I needed to go. I had set my intention a long time ago and I was sure my destination was coming up soon.
For me, it was a way of getting through every day, doing the same habits and actions, working towards the same goal, without ever needing to be aware of the costs and benefits. I could just simply go through the usual list and check things off. My athletic career consisted of lifting weights, throwing a shot, recovering, and then doing the same thing the next day. The only thing that changed was that each day, I would try to do more. I’d get up in the morning and the gun would go off, so to speak. I’d start the day and I’d fall into this unconscious autopilot mode — work hard and hope like hell to get to my goal.
It was like driving from Seattle to New York by getting into the car and driving as fast as I could in a generally eastward direction. I told myself there wasn’t any time to stop for food, no time to stretch and re-energize. Forget pulling over to take a nap, look at a map, think through the fastest route possible, or even plan ahead for food and water. Oh no — that would all just be a waste. There was just enough time to refuel the car before jumping back in to drive hard and fast. That was my M.O. in my early 20s. Don’t think. Just do.
Then something happened.
One day, I realized that all autopilot did was slowly chip away at my achievement. My ability to do more was stifled when I didn’t check in and stay oriented to my goals. I wasn’t tapping into any new potential. I was just riding out a daily ritual for the sake of checking off the boxes.
“It’s not only moving that creates new starting points. Sometimes all it takes is a subtle shift in perspective, an opening of the mind, an intentional pause and reset, or a new route to start to see new options and new possibilities.” – Kristin Armstrong
What We’re Losing with Autopilot
Autopilot sounds attractive in that it’s going to give you a pathway that you don’t have to think about. Mentally, you can sit back, have a cup of coffee, eat a donut, and you’re still going to arrive on course. But for human beings who are trying to efficiently achieve a higher level in what they do, whatever that may be, going on autopilot is a setback.
If all we do each morning is have our cup of coffee and then blindly work through our day without an intention, at a speed that equates to doing good work but may not be getting us where we want to go, an unconscious thing starts to happen. We find ourselves spinning our wheels. The spinning feels good because without our attention, it feels like progress. Unfortunately, the vehicle is not moving forward.
In my athletic career, it was apparent to me that there needed to be what I would later call wedges in my day. Those wedges could be anything from a very short nap, to a timeout during a practice, to hopping in the swimming pool for a couple of minutes in between workout sessions. Whatever shape it took, it was something that broke up my routine. Initially, I felt as though it was a waste of time. I was convinced that if I didn’t keep my mind on my training 24/7, then I wouldn’t get there. My belief was that any time away from thinking or putting effort into that goal was going to lessen my chances of getting there.
Instead, what I began to realize is that taking these short moments to break away from autopilot enables us to gain a renewed perspective on how we are approaching our goals, how our body and mind are progressing, and whether or not we’re making inroads in the direction we want to go. It helps us identify if we’re working just for the sake of working or if we’re really on the right track.
The first wedges for me came in the form of a nap. Then I noticed that when I was having a practice session and my throws weren’t feeling right, I would stop and just sit on the grass and take a few minutes. Despite what I had been telling myself, I had plenty of time, and what I gained felt like a reboot. It was like turning off the computer when it’s running slowly and restarting only to find that all of a sudden, things start to click again.
In that reboot time, the downtime, the sitting on the grass time, or the few deep breaths, you’re not thinking about what’s coming up next or what is about to happen. It’s a step away, a step off the treadmill to take stock and rest. Rather than being a waste of time, these refreshing moments ended up heightening my athletic performance in ways I couldn’t imagine. They made me more aware and more conscious of what needed to be done. They allowed me to focus on these new tasks in a much more clear-headed, connected way, integrating both mind and body. Autopilot is one way of shutting down a tired brain, but it also disconnects you from yourself.
Four Benefits to Working with Wedges
Staying oriented to success — If you never check in on your goals, you may not reach them at all. You can spend weeks, months, or even years veering off track before you remember to course-correct, costing you valuable time and energy.
Seeing new and improved results — When we run on autopilot, we’re only ever able to make pre-planned improvements. Just like a training schedule for a marathon, you’ll know months in advance just how far you’ll run each day of training. But when you take time to check in and reassess, you can start to customize the results you want to see as you go, bringing new options for improvements in every direction.
Structuring strategic growth in all areas — When you take time to check in, you can see what areas you’re making the most improvement in as well as those that need more attention. From there, you can make intelligent adjustments to your schedule to maximize your goals.
Feeling good in your body and mind — Jumping off autopilot allows you to check in with how you’re feeling periodically throughout your day to maximize how your energy is spent. If you show up to the gym with a pre-planned workout, but your body is in need of something else, neglecting that messaging leaves you open to injury and exhaustion. On the other hand, a quick moment to breathe gives you the headspace to assess how you can best use that time to leave feeling healthy and accomplished.
If you feel that you are slipping into autopilot and you’re up for trying a different approach, then consider this 2-week experiment:
Five Steps to Jumping Off Autopilot
First thing in the morning, set an intention that you’re going to create one wedge, two wedges, three wedges…you decide how many, and each one of those wedges is going to be anywhere from 1 to 5 minutes.
Be flexible. As with anything in life, sometimes they won’t go as you planned.
Find a place you can be alone. If you have an office, close and lock the door and pull the shades down. If it’s possible, leave your office and go outside or at least out of your work area. You can even go sit in your car.
Choose a wedge that works for you. Experiment with new ones to find where the best fit is in your day for the ones that benefit you the most. Whichever wedges you try, do so being completely present in what you’re doing. This is not the time to think about what your boss just said or what you need from the grocery store. Being fully present helps us refocus on what we need to do. Some examples of wedges include:
Take three deep breaths: be highly conscious of the physical act of breathing. Put your entire concentration on the breath, be with it, and make it as long a breath in and out as you possibly can.
Go outside and walk around the block. Notice your surroundings, breathe in the fresh air, and allow it to clear your thoughts.
Take a mini nap. Even five minutes with your eyes shut can bring refreshment and a renewed perspective on your day.
Introduce five minutes of light movement. This can be light calisthenics, office yoga, or even a quick freestyle dance session. Getting up and moving will get your blood flowing back into your brain and muscles, preparing you for your next tasks.
Consciously drink water. Simply sitting or standing with no other task than sipping from a water glass for several minutes can give you a healthy reset.
When you’re done, ask yourself these questions: What do I need right now to move forward in order to reach my goals effectively and efficiently?
“All that is important comes in quietness and waiting.” – Patrick Lindsay
Whichever wedge you choose, be sure to take a few deep breaths and find a moment of stillness. If your mind wanders to what you’re going to do later, bring yourself back to the present moment by focusing on what your body feels as you lie on the floor, sit in a chair, or lean against a wall.
If it helps, set a timer to remind yourself to add in your wedges. If you say to yourself in the morning “I’m going to do this right after lunch”, then set a reminder alarm for 1pm. If you choose the middle of the afternoon, set an alarm for 3:00pm and your timer will go off reminding you that it’s time to create a sense of coming back and connecting with your vitality.
That short time away from autopilot is a magic moment, and during that break, realizations, understandings, clarity, and consciousness will materialize that wouldn’t otherwise. If you experiment with these wedges, I think you’ll find that it is worth the time and more.
When I decided to go off autopilot and connect my awareness of where I was in my body and in my mind, it became easier to decide what I needed to do at each and every step of the day.
These insights were absolutely foundational to the next level of achievement for me, and I have seen this over and over again in the years I’ve worked with both athletes and non-athletes. The life athletes that I have coached see how profoundly it can affect them, and they now move through their days with more grace, efficiency, confidence.