Life and Love on AutopilotFeb 04, 2024
Remember those early days of dating? When you’re fascinated by this new person, soaking up every morsel of new information as you untangle the mystery of who they are? When you excitedly anticipate the next time you’ll get to see them? And just when you thought you had them pegged, they go and surprise you?
Those are the good ole days…before you put your partner on autopilot.
Workflow Automations and the Human Mind
I’m knee deep in learning how to create and use workflow automations, which essentially means using technology to automate tasks that you do regularly. By following “if/then” rules and using all kinds of fun apps, you can create systems that cut way down on the amount of time, effort, and energy it takes you to do all kinds of things. Think of it like setting up recurring autopay for your monthly bills. You set it, forget it, and life runs a little more smoothly.
In venturing into this territory, I had the realization…habits are like workflow automations in our brains.
One of the dominant features of our minds is that they like to conserve energy. That means they want to take the easy route when possible, relying on short cuts and heuristics (rules of thumbs) to speed up things like processing information, decision making, making predictions, and even guiding our behaviors. The result is that our brains like to automate anything possible, as soon as possible, especially stuff that is routine, repetitive, or super familiar.
Automation can be incredibly helpful – both in terms of workflows but also when it comes to life. Habits like brushing your teeth, putting a seat belt on as soon as you get in the car, and reflexively looking both ways before you cross a street keep us safe and require very little thought as adults, thanks to tons of teaching (prompting, nagging, modeling, and scolding) from our childhood caregivers.
Being able to go on autopilot frees up mental space to think about other things, which can be a great thing, like when you solve some problem that’s been weighing on you during shower time or you get lost in a podcast while doing household chores.
Our mental workflow automations can be humorous at times. Ever had the experience of walking into a room, coming to, and realizing that you have no idea why you’re in that room or what you were planning to do? Some habit took over. Or how about this one? You recently moved offices or homes and get in your car to leave. Your mind runs the rule “If in the car at the office, then drive home.” You hop in the car, the automation takes over, and you're halfway to the old place before you realized what was happening.
Perhaps humorous is the wrong word. It’s kind of alarming, actually, to realize that you can operate a motor vehicle without conscious awareness of what you’re doing. Let that sink in.
When Autopilot Goes Awry
That brings us back to autopiloting your partner. It’s not just routine or repetitive tasks that get automated and downgraded to subconscious control. It happens with people, too.
Once the shiny wears off, we start to take partners (and other people like friends, coworkers, bosses, and family) for granted. We operate on subconscious if/then rules, assuming we know what they’re going to say or do or how they’re going to react. We even rely on habits to dictate our interactions. We have the same conversations or stick to the same familiar topics. We do the same activities. We stop looking at this person with curiosity, assuming that there is no longer any unexplored novelty. We unknowingly relegate them and the relationship to the back burner, running the relationship automation designed to save us time, energy, and effort. The richness of our connection is the casualty.
It happens with our daily life experiences, too. We go through the motions, mentally checked out a good chunk of the time, letting habits take over and dictate what we do and what we pay attention to. How often have you picked your phone up for some particular reason then found yourself mindlessly scrolling on social media?
When autopilot takes over, we miss out. We get lost in thought walking in our neighborhood, a route we’ve traversed a thousand times. When walking in a new city (or even a new part of our own city), however, the newness sparks our attention, and we are much more tuned into the present moment, taking in our surroundings.
The Fall Out
We unintentionally dial it in in so many ways and so many places, and the cost can be high. While we are naturally wired for connection, our minds’ default programming can wreak havoc. When we (often unknowingly) let important relationships get put on autopilot, we stop attending to them and nurturing them. Relationships are living things that, without care, wither. Disconnection can turn to discontentment, and feeling taken for granted can cause resentments to fester.
Outside of relationships, autopilot means that we are missing out on life. Literally. We are not fully engaged in the business of living, and moments pass us by without our realizing. We miss opportunities to experience, learn, grow, and appreciate. Apathy and boredom can easily slip in and take center stage, or a year flies by in the blink of an eye.
Knowing that our minds have this glorious ability to shift things to the back burner, we need to make special effort to tune in and be aware – of what we’re doing and what we’re thinking about.
There’s a Buddhist concept called Beginner’s Mind, which means approaching every situation as though it’s your first time. When we do this, rather than taking our day-to-day for granted, we channel our Inner Child who is fascinated by the world, eager to explore, and curious to learn. We can tune in, really tune in, to the mundane minutiae and see it anew. We can notice something different, something unique about this precise moment in time, this particular experience.
When it comes to people – especially your partner – this means reminding yourself that each of us is growing (hopefully) and changing every day. We are not the same people we were 10, 5, or even 1 year ago …and neither are our partners (or siblings or parents or friends or coworkers). Be purposeful and intentional in your interaction. Go back to the days of making effort – to get to know that person, to celebrate them, to connect with them.
“We are living on autopilot in the place where we need to pay the most attention: our home.” - Gustavo Razzetti
Written by Dr. Ashley Smith
Peak Mind Co-founder
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