“A human mind is a wandering mind, and a wandering mind is an unhappy mind.”
–Harvard psychologists Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert
Do you feel lifeless, or maybe bored? Kind of like you’re merely existing instead of really living? Ever had to tell someone the date, causing you to look back and reflect on where the days, weeks, months or years went?
This lack of lust for life may stem from living on autopilot—making unconscious, automatic decisions that don’t align with how you want to work and live. And you’re not alone! Dr. Mark Williamson, the director of Action for Happiness, and Professor Renata Salecl, a sociologist and philosopher, surveyed 3,000 people in which 96 percent of them admitted living on autopilot.
So what exactly does living on autopilot look like? Here’s the best way I can describe it…
You’ve just driven home and stepped out of your car, but you don’t remember stopping at any lights, switching any lanes or making that right-hand turn. The drive was a blur, yet you arrived home safe and sound. What about that time someone was talking to you but you weren’t really listening so you had to ask them to repeat what they said?
That was your brain working on autopilot while your mind wandered—more on this in a minute! But first, let’s get one thing straight.
We are creatures of habit and routine, which isn’t always a bad thing. It actually serves us well at times. The scientific community suggests that we make about 35,000 decisions each day. Our brain can’t possibly take the time to consider every single thing we do. Imagine if you had to remember to get dressed every day. Talk about decision overload!
Whenever it can, your brain will kick into an automatic decision-making gear to save energy, freeing up your conscious mind to work on other mentally taxing things. Your ability to think about what’s not happening at any given moment is a cognitive achievement that makes life easier. However, when this automatic feature starts slipping into other areas of your life that need more forethought, it comes at an emotional cost—your happiness.
“Autopilot has gone from being an evolutionary protection mechanism that stopped our brains overloading, to our default mode of operating whereby we sleepwalk into our choices,” Dr. Williamson says.
Another study done by two Harvard University psychologists, Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert, author of Stumbling on Happiness, revealed that the average person spends about half (47 percent) of their waking hours doing what they call “mind wandering.”
You read that right, HALF…
Mind wandering is when you spend time thinking about what isn’t going on. They found that when people let their minds wander, whether it’s thinking about events from the past, present or future, it makes them unhappy.
The problem with living on autopilot is that it can leave you sleepwalking through life’s pivotal moments, making it difficult to make intentional decisions about how you want to work and live your life. Instead of making conscious choices about the clothes you wear, the food you eat, the people you spend time with, the things you buy, the work you do and the places you go, you make decisions on default.
Before you know it, you’re living your life by default, not by design. Over time, these small mindless decisions can prevent you from reaching your definition of success.
Here are 10 signs you’re living your life on autopilot:
1. You dread the day ahead.
You wake up and dread the day because there’s nothing you’re really looking forward to. You don’t feel excited or inspired to get the day started because you have a pretty good idea of how it will go.
2. Your daily routine is predictable.
You could practically tell someone how you’ll spend your entire day a month from now. For example, you could tell them exactly where you’ll go, what you’ll do, who you’ll see and what you’ll eat.
3. You do things without thinking.
You take action without stopping to think about what you’re doing, how you’re doing it and why you’re doing it. Your decisions and actions have become so automatic that it takes little to no thought at all.
4. You can’t seem to put your phone down.
You automatically check your phone for updates and mindlessly scroll through your emails or social media feed at any opportunity you get. (… Even though you just checked it!)
5. You stay deep in thought.
You constantly catch yourself deep in thought, thinking about things that aren’t currently happening when you’re doing something else. Basically, you’re mentally checked out in la la land.
6. You have a difficult time remembering.
You’re not fully present in the moment and don’t remember doing activities like driving, eating or having that conversation you should have remembered. Let’s just say you can easily forget the “little things” and feel mentally mushy at times.
7. You can’t seem to let go.
You do what’s familiar even though you know it’s not serving you anymore. For example, you keep the same unmotivated and unambitious people around, stay in the same career, hold onto things you’ve outgrown, live in the same old place, and do things that don’t inspire you because you’re used to it.
8. You’re not making meaningful progress.
You make little to no meaningful progress toward your goals as days, weeks and months seem to fly by. You’re not focused on what’s most important to you in life and feel down because of it.
9. You say “yes” more than you say “no.”
You often agree to things that you don’t want to do, then dread the decision after. Instead of carefully considering your options, you’ve made “yes” your default answer. For example, you say “yes” to working late, hosting the family gathering, watching the kids or going to the party when you’d rather just stay home.
10. You know there’s a better life to be lived.
You believe your life could be more joyous, but you feel stuck in your current situations. You know deep down that you’ve settled in too many areas of your life and wish you would’ve taken a different path.
If most of these signs resonate with you, there’s a high probability you’re living your life on autopilot. The good thing is that you can get your brain off autopilot and train it to wander less. This will result in conscious decision-making. If you want to turn off the cruise control and create a more joyful and fulfilling life now, you must take action.
The first thing you can do is create a life vision so that you’re crystal clear on what you want your life to look like. Once you’re aware of what you want, you can align your thoughts and actions. Next, you can practice living in the moment and being present.
Research has shown that we are happiest when our thoughts and actions are aligned. How you spend your day doesn’t tell you much about how happy you are. Instead, your mental presence is a much better predictor of your happiness.
So the next time you’re stuck in traffic, talking to someone, walking outside or eating dinner, take note of what you see, what you hear and how you feel in the moment. It’s simple, yet powerful. This will help you be more intentional in all areas of your life, allowing you to live your life by design, not by default.
You can take back control and live a happier life now by simply being more mindful.