We’ve all been caught coasting on autopilot at one time or another. Sometimes it’s purposeful and strategic, scheduled as a way to recharge and build momentum for the next big move. In these cases, cruise away. You can’t always be on, and giving your mind the space to wander is actually beneficial: prioritizing brain breaks throughout the day, week, month, etc., is shown to help build mindfulness and keep you focused on what is important.
But more often, we don’t recognize our lives are locked on autopilot, run by our busy schedules, our Google Calendars, in place of our own person. This is dangerous. This is when you look up from your computer and realize half of the year has zipped by and you haven’t signed up for that cooking class or that camping trip with friends. This is when people say, “Time moves so fast; where does it go?”
Time flows at the same pace, with or without our permission. The difference lies in whether we are present for it. When you’re intentional with your time, you feel it passing. You know exactly where the minutes go, because like a down payment, each hour propels you forward. The length of your to-do list has no relation to making actual traction. The intentional understand traction requires thoughtful purpose behind all you do, and unfortunately, there isn’t an app for that.
So how do you put yourself back in the driver’s seat? The first step is recognizing when you’ve been booted to the passenger side. Start with these three questions:
1. Where do I want to be, professionally or personally, in one year?
Try not to look further than one year into the future. It can get overwhelming peering all the way out to five years, yet many have a tendency to underestimate their own potential and might aim too low with less time. One year keeps the goal just slightly out of reach, and gives a greater sense of achievability.
Be honest. If you aren’t happy right now, dig deep and ask yourself the uncomfortable questions about what needs to change.
2. What baby steps can I take to get myself there?
You have 365 days. How do you want invest them? You might not know which steps are needed at first glance, and that’s OK. If you find yourself paralyzed with inaction, remove yourself from the present and step into your future shoes. Perhaps you want to be a film producer. Close your eyes and envision what your day is like. What tasks will future you be doing? These are likely things you haven’t mastered yet, so work backward and answer how and where you can get experience, training or a mentor in these areas throughout the next year. Breaking things down into bite-size pieces makes uncertainty taste a lot better.
3. Is my time currently being used in a way that helps me reach these goals?
Understandably, everyone needs a job of some sort, and sometimes our passions don’t always align with our 9-to-5’s. I’m not saying to quit your full-time position with benefits to pursue your dreams of woodworking. Not yet, that is.
If woodworking is your calling, do not spend the rest of your adult life buried in spreadsheets. But transition strategically and one bite at a time. Take a sculpting class on the weekends. Place some of your works online and build a fan base. Move yourself forward, using your time intentionally to inch closer to your goal. The key is to be realistic. If Rome wasn’t built in a day, why do so many believe success “just happens”?
The biggest part of pulling yourself out of autopilot is doing it in a way that doesn’t change altitudes too quickly, with a flight path that’s tangible and doesn’t burn all of your fuel and send you into a nosedive. Although partying every Friday night or binge-watching House of Cards isn’t necessarily going to propel you toward that promotion, having a well-balanced life and a support group of friends to keep you on track will.
Autopilot has a homey feeling to it because you know what to expect—Tuesday is laundry day and take-out. Falling into a routine provides structure, yet when you think back to the moments in life where you felt most excited, proud and alive, they’re usually products of change.
Newness has enormous potential, which ironically is the exact reason people find it intimidating. You can’t always predict which way the seesaw will teeter. But living with blinders and an aversion to change comes with its own set of unforeseen consequences. Procrastination or indecision about the direction of your life often means you are merely making the choice to let someone else (be it your boss, your partner, etc.) control your trajectory.
Time moves onward, and your life will unfold whether you steer the wheel or watch from the passenger seat. The question is, are you OK with that?
Related: 5 Tips for Using Your Time Wisely
Megan Nicole O’Neal is a writer with a passion for storytelling, traveling and whenever possible, mixing the two. The UCLA alum lives in Los Angeles; more specifically westside coffee shops with equally strong wifi and dark roasts. Connect with Megan on Twitter at @megan_n_onealor her website mnoneal.com.