Remember those days when the process of tying shoelaces felt like a conquest? Very few feelings can match up to the dopamine rush we would get from tying the perfect knot. Growing up is the best and most surreal time of our lives for many reasons. Here’s one — Novelty. Everything is fresh. Every day we learn new things. Every experience is an adventure. The endless chaos around us, if anything, fuels our curiosities.
As we grow older, getting dressed becomes less exciting. We become increasingly better at performing everyday tasks without so much as a thought. Unlike children, we exert minimal energy deciding the course of the day every morning.
However, this ‘autopilot’ mode doesn’t just stop at performing morning routines, exercising and housekeeping. It slowly takes over our lives.
One thing we know for certain about the human brain is that it’s lazy AF. In the book Thinking Fast and Slow, author Daniel Kahneman eloquently explains the two systems in our brains — System 1 and System 2.
System 1 is the resting pod that stores all the tasks that we recognize and have done. It works through the process of associative memory. We don’t need to look at our fingers every time we type. Nor do we have to decipher putting on clothes and shoes every time. We don’t have to figure out the mechanics of using chopsticks once we learn it (although some of us just can’t seem to get the hang of it!). Doing things using System 1 is easy and comfortable.
System 2 is the deliberate, logical part of our minds. Although it is the expert problem-solver, it is slow and requires a lot of energy. The more tasks it does, the more energy it requires. As a result, System 2 attempts to preserve its energy by doing as little work as possible. And when it feels the cognitive pressure rising, it assigns the work to System 1. In short, it is powerful but lazy. But it’s also the system that exudes conscious action and drives focus.
While oftentimes we think we’re making conscious choices, it’s System 1 that’s really at work. Problems arise when we allow our fast intuitive systems to make decisions that should be passed over to our slow, logical mind. As we grow older, we start assigning a majority of our daily tasks and subsequently, decision making, to System 1.
Somewhere along the way, we lose consciousness and let life sway us like ocean waves do debris. Now, adulthood isn’t easy. There are things we need to spend countless hours doing — things we don’t necessarily like. House chores, paying bills, social commitments, work commitments, job applications, etc. Many of these tasks can get overwhelming and stressful. We learn to think less, do more.
It’s surely efficient. Getting things done is crucial for personal and professional success. But we forget to switch back ‘on’ every once in a while and start operating permanently on autopilot. We forget to be conscious of our actions, to be cognizant of our inner voices, and to recognize the power of our intentions.
Why not just live on autopilot?
It’s a fair question. Gliding on autopilot is easy. It’s comfortable. But the age-old wisdom ‘learning from other people’s mistakes’ is wisdom for good reason. If you ever hear or speak to aged people about their regrets in life, a faint pattern often emerges. Most tales are along the lines of ‘…did not value relationships’, ‘…prioritized the wrong things’, ‘…spent time dwelling on the future’, ‘…did not think about the consequences of my actions’ etc. You get the point.
Being on autopilot means mindless doing. As a result, things happen to us — and not the other way around. When we do things with intent, we take future regrets off the table. Sure, we can dislike the outcome. We can hate it. But given the information and situation at the time, the best we can do is be present. Be mindful. Be intentional. And if things don’t go our way — be kind to ourselves. Not all decisions will go our way. And when they don’t, we would have the assurance that we did the best we could.
Autopilot mode is also an impediment to personal growth. It deters us from realizing our true potential. We do what comes easy, and brush off things out of our comfort zones, even if we know they would help us learn and grow. Choosing to exercise and eat right, even if we detest it, pays off dividends in the long haul. To choose to do what we dislike and take conscious efforts because it’s good for us — that’s what breaking out of the cycle looks like.
Living with intent
Survivors of fatal diseases and near-death experiences are the greatest examples of people who break out of the autopilot mode. They talk about how they finally woke up to life after nearly losing it. Science says they become more intuitive, kinder and loving. But in essence, they simply wake up to the ephemerality of life.
Knowing why we do what we do is a sure-shot way to grab the steering wheel. Let every action be a choice. When we’re intentional about our actions in the present, we’ll always be assured that we did the best we could. And that satisfaction — that’s gold.