5 Steps You Can Take to Live by Design, Not Default

UPDATED: June 19, 2023
PUBLISHED: January 5, 2018

Do you ever find yourself just going through the motions, as though on autopilot? If so, you’re not alone.

In a recent study of 3,000 people, 96 percent reported living on autopilot. The researchers concluded that as our lives have become more frantic and the needle has moved ever more toward the “overwhelm,” autopilot has become our default mode. It’s led to an epidemic of subconscious decision-making, with the average person making 15 “mindless” decisions every day. This adds up 250,000 autopilot decisions over a lifetime.

Related: 3 Questions to Wake Up and Stop Living on Autopilot

Of course, many of these unconscious decisions and behaviours actually spare our overloaded brains of unnecessary work—like your morning hygiene ritual or daily route to work. However, left unchecked, operating constantly in “default mode” can exact a steep toll on your sense of well-being, your relationships, your career, your productivity and even your bank balance. (Nearly 50 percent of people in the study reported forgetting important things while on autopilot, like birthdays, paying bills and collecting their kids from activities.)

The reason is simple. When you’re on autopilot, you operate reflexively, habitually and mindlessly. Your decisions aren’t based on careful consideration, but by the instinctive desire to avoid short-term pain, hassle and discomfort and to maximize in-the-moment gratification, pleasure and security. Over time, however, those decisions can keep you from taking the very actions that would lead to a greater sense of connection, well-being and personal fulfilment.

The research backs this up. Seventy-five percent of people reported spending their time poorly, as though “sleep-walking” through their daily tasks and responsibilities. Chances are that as you read this now, you’ve made a few decisions today without really thinking about whether they are serving your highest good—moving you toward whatever it is you most want… or away from it. Perhaps considering other options just seems like too much of a bother. Yet consider this: Where might you end up one, five or 25 years from now if you stay on the default path and change nothing?

As you look out toward a new year ahead, just know that it is entirely within your power to live more intentionally: by design, not by default. Here are five steps you can take to do just that.

1. Set your compass.

Vision = Power. As I wrote in Make Your Mark, any area of your life in which you have no vision for what you most want (in your career/business, relationships, physical well-being, finances, lifestyle, etc.), you are like a ship adrift at sea, moving in whatever direction the prevailing winds and currents go.

You can reclaim your power by creating a bold vision for your life. What do you want to do? How do you want to make your mark on the world? What dreams do you want to turn into reality? Only when you get clear about what you most want and why it matters at the deepest level can you forgo what you want now (like safety, comfort, security, familiarity, approval) for what you want most (like deep connection, contribution, meaning.)

2. Set goals.

A vision without action is a mere dream. So break your vision down into shorter-term goals that enable you to focus your time, energy and resources most effectively. Set deadlines and schedule actions in your calendar to achieve the “vital few” lest it get crowded out by the “trivial many.”

Related: 5 Ways Successful People Take Control of Life

3. Say no more often.

Saying yes is always easier (in the short term) than saying no. It’s what people want to hear! It’s also why people operating on autopilot reported saying yes to things they actually didn’t want to do approximately four times each day.

Sometimes you’ve got to say no to the good to say yes to the great. So dial up your courage and start saying no far more than you have been, knowing that you aren’t serving anyone when you sell out on yourself.

4. Review often.

Set aside time each week to reconnect with your vision and the higher intention behind it (your why), to review your goals and to adjust your actions accordingly. As I wrote in my previous article, never be too attached to your plan. Flexibility is crucial.

5. Take “micro-moments.”

Living by design means living mindfully. The more mindful moments you have each day, the better decisions you’ll make. So set reminders in your phone or visual triggers to help you remember to pause what you are doing, take a few long deep mindful breaths and simply notice who you are being. What are you focusing on? What are feeling? How present are you being to those around you?

Mindfulness is a muscle, and the more you practice it, the more you strengthen your ability to connect deeply, perceive intuitively, and make decisions that are not guided by a short-term impulse but by a long-term commitment to living a life that truly matters.

In today’s accelerated world that has become increasingly anxious, hectic and superficial, never has it been more important for us all to disrupt our default mode; take a long collective breath; and make the very deliberate decision to live each moment more purposefully, less passively, more bravely, less fearfully.

The path of least resistance may feel safe, it may be comfortable and it may require little of you, but it will never lead you to soul level success.

Related: 8 Ways to Create Momentum in Your Life

Image by pticelov / Shutterstock

Best-selling author and mother of four, Margie Warrell is on a mission to embolden people to live and lead more bravely. Margie’s gained hard-won wisdom on building courage since her childhood in rural Australia. Her insights have also been shaped by her work with trailblazing leaders from Richard Branson to Bill Marriott and organizations from NASA to Google. Founder of Global Courage, host of the Live Brave podcast and advisory board member of Forbes Business School, Margie’s just released her fifth book You’ve Got This! The Life-Changing Power of Trusting Yourself. She’d love to support you at www.margiewarrell.com .