Wake up. Check your phone. Shower. Get dressed. Eat. Check your phone again. Go to work. And so on.
You don’t really do that. You think you do. But in reality it simply happens to you.
It’s a routine that’s been there for so long it doesn’t require any conscious thought.
Which is fine. We need habits and routines in life. We can’t be totally conscious and aware all the time — it wouldn’t work.
But if you feel you are living life on autopilot, you want to interrupt or modify at least some of those unconscious habits.
The issue with living life on autopilot
So… what’s wrong with living life on autopilot? If you’re reading this, you may already have an idea, but here’s my thoughts.
When you live on autopilot — that is, when 99 percent of what you do every day, you do unconsciously, by following certain patterns, habits, or routines — you also live in the past.
Think about it: for you to do something on autopilot, your body and mind must have learned it already. It must belong to the past.
But life’s not about your past. It’s about the future and, most importantly, the present moment. That’s all we have. If we live a life shaped in the past, the power of the present moment eludes us.
Also, by living on autopilot all the time you tend to get used to things that may not be right for you; you no longer question what you do and why.
That’s basically the difference between living consciously and unconsciously. Someone who lives a conscious life asks questions and knows why they live the way they live.
You cannot be fully conscious if you live on autopilot. The word autopilot itself reminds you of a machine, a robot. Gurdjieff himself would say that “man is a machine”, that life simply happens to us. His words:
Man is a machine. All his deeds, actions, words, thoughts, feelings, convictions, and habits are the result of external influences. Out of himself a man cannot produce a single thought, a single action.
Everything he says, does, thinks, feels — all this happens. Man is born, lives, dies, builds houses, writes books, not as he wants to, but as it happens. Everything happens. Man does not love, hate, desire — all this happens.
Now, this doesn’t have to be our destiny. There is a way out. There are ways to stop living life on autopilot, and begin to live more consciously. We’ll see eight ideas and exercises in a minute.
Signs you may be living on autopilot
- Unfulfillment. We have been conditioned to think happiness is this thing we experience once we reach a goal, once we “get there”. That’s only partly true. Because in reality, we are happy when we work toward something. When we grow — not when we stop growing. If you live on autopilot and/or in the past, you may feel your actions do not lead anywhere.
- Time-wasting. Do you constantly engage in habits that are a complete waste of time, or that are bad for your health? And think you don’t have the power to stop? It may be another sign you are living on autopilot — unconsciously, in a dream-like state (a bit of an exaggeration, I’m just trying to make it obvious). Those who live consciously know their time is too valuable to be wasted.
- Silence scares you. I get it, silence can be uncomfortable. But for it to be actually terrifying, I think there has to be some kind of issue, and that is, in my opinion, the fact that silence forces you to pause and think — think about yourself, your life, and where it’s leading you. If you are on autopilot all the time, silence breaks the pattern, and it can be very uncomfortable.
- You come last. If each day is filled with a hundred different activities, yet none of them are designed to improve your own wellbeing and happiness, you may be living on autopilot. You may be repeating the same routine over and over again even though there are no clear benefits. When you live on autopilot, you are no longer a priority.
How to stop living life on autopilot: exercises/ideas
1. Setting goals
This is one of the easiest and most effective ways. Goals and dreams are all about your future. Goals that are big enough have nothing to do with who you used to be.
If you live on autopilot, you are stuck in the past in some way. Setting goals and intentions helps you move toward the future. But you must make sure those goals are authentic. Don’t set other people’s goals. Goals must be about you and your true self.
2. Counting meditation
Meditation in general is an excellent practice that interrupts the never-ending flow of thoughts. Counting from one to ten, or indefinitely, simply happens to be a really easy way to meditate. But you can use any other type of meditation.
If you live on autopilot, then most of your thoughts will “happen” on autopilot as well. Those thoughts do not come from you; they are simply the result of patterns and routines. Meditation helps you silence the mind and go back to a state of pure awareness.
3. Dopamine detox
There are many different definitions of this exercise. But basically, all you have to do is allow yourself to be bored and cut out all distractions for a set period of time — a day, two days, a week.
That’s basically what a dopamine detox is. The reason it can be so powerful is, eventually those feelings of boredom and frustration go away. And you realize some of the previous distractions, e.g. staring at a phone five hours a day, had nothing to do with you; nor did they make you happy.
4. Traveling or moving
Obvious one. But here’s the thing — you don’t need to take a year off work and go on a sabbatical. You don’t have to travel to the most remote places on the opposite side of the planet. You don’t have to go on a wellness retreat.
I mean, that’d be awesome. Go for it if you can. But something as simple as visiting a different country, even if for only a week or so, will 1) interrupt the everyday routine you’re so used to, and 2) show you that it’s possible to live differently.
5. Doing the opposite
Here’s another interesting exercise that can be done at any time (unless you’re driving or doing something really important): do the opposite of what you’d normally do. It forces the brain to be present, to actually focus on the task, to be aware of it.
Examples: when you get dressed for work, change the order you put on your clothes; if you have the habit of eating then checking your phone, check your phone first and then eat undisturbed.
6. Waking up earlier
Not to catch a flight. Not to clean the house. Not to be productive. The simple act of waking up earlier gives you, say, an extra hour of free time. What are you going to do with it?
If you are used to living on autopilot, you’ll have no clue. An extra amount of free time will almost be a nuisance. That’s a red flag. It tells you you are still living in the past, you are not being present.
7. The “stop” exercise
This comes from Gurdjieff as well (though he may have learned the exercise from somebody else). It’s quite simple — someone suddenly shouts “stop” and you freeze. You interrupt anything you are doing and hold the position you are in.
You can’t do this on your own, otherwise it would be somehow predictable. The idea behind the exercise is that when you break an unconscious pattern abruptly, you can observe its effect. What feelings did that pattern create? Were you present in what you were doing?
Lastly, give fasting a go. Don’t do anything stupid — make sure you fast the correct way. If you have never done it before, don’t aim to fast for too long, either.
You may ask, why fasting? Because it removes an essential part of your daily routine — food. Whether you are into fitness and plan all your meals, or eat a lot more casually. Remove food and all the thoughts associated with it, and suddenly you have a lot more freedom.
If you have realized your life is nothing but a series of automatisms, know that it’s not your fault. Most importantly, know that it’s the way most people live.
A conscious life is exceptionally rare. Being able to stop, evaluate your life, and then consciously decide how you want to live isn’t something the average person would do.
So… be the exception. Be more present in everything you do. Don’t be afraid to interrupt the patterns. Stop and do absolutely nothing for an hour (that’s another exercise, by the way, and it’s harder than you think).
All human beings tend to live on autopilot. Which leads to a waste of time and potential. To live life to the fullest, be more present. Be more conscious. Be your future — not your past!