Autopilot Works….For A While

by Jun 9, 2021Peak Performance, Resilience0 comments

The Nitty Gritty

There’s so much emphasis on creating good habits.  Health habits, financial habits, relationship habits, habits for success.  In fact some behaviorist would have us believe that we are nothing more than the sum total of our habits. 

What’s a habit?  At the most elemental level it’s an automated behavioral process to make some aspect of our life more efficient as a means to become more effective at something. 

But, is efficiency really the way to becoming more effective?

A few months ago I started a new morning practice.  I would do some gentle movement exercises while the water for my tea was boiling.  Afterwards I would sip my tea while listening to a poetry recording for about 20 minutes before doing my formal meditation practice.  For the first few weeks, I was in love with my morning practice and it was something that would motivate me out of bed.

Now, three months later I’ve done this exact thing every day without fail.  There’s no doubt it has helped me in some way, even if just as a way to be more disciplined.  Lately though I have found myself going through the motions and will sometimes arrive to my meditation having been on autopilot for the past hour.  Did I actually make tea?  What flavor?  How did my joints feel while doing my stretches?  That whole first habituated hour of my morning  compressed into a blurry memory.

The psychology and cognitive science literature is clear.  Good habits often equal good outcomes and vice versa.  The data are also clear that in order to learn, to make adaptive changes to the brain and behavior we have to go beyond the mere creation of habit into a heightened state of engagement and awareness.  When we pay more attention to something, our brain prioritizes it and encodes it as important processes.  I would say it’s the accumulation and reinforcing of these important processes that are more meaningful than the habituation of any action.

I’m not in any way against creating good habits and culling the bad, but after a lifetime career of helping people to do exactly that, I’m beginning to see the limitations of habit without attention.

So here is the paradox as I see it.  Autopilot and habituation are necessary processes for making complex tasks more efficient and becoming good at anything.  On the other hand if we are on autopilot without awareness, our capacity for growth and progress stymies and can often regress.

What’s the answer?  I’m not completely sure but I think that cultivating the capacity for higher degrees of attention and awareness, even during the most mundane tasks, is a way to find that effective balance between efficiency and a effectiveness that ultimately leads to higher levels of performance and accelerated growth in life.

To receive more articles like this, be sure to subscribe