Autopilot is a term that describes when we think and behave in unaware ways that are not of our choosing. Usually when I introduce the concept of autopilot in my executive education programs, participants quickly assume that it is a universally "bad" phenomenon. I would argue that it is neither universally "good" nor "bad" to be on autopilot. However, it is very human. Being in an automatic state is how we cope with limited attentional resources in a world filled with seemingly endless stimuli. For example, as you read this blog, you don't need to focus on how you scan the screen, or sit in your chair, and you likely didn't have to consider the best way to click the link that led you to this page. That would be a waste of brain power and energy. Many automatic thoughts and behaviors help us to survive and thrive.
That being said, there are also times that autopilot hurts our effectiveness. In fact, I believe that. If there is a consistent theme that I notice with executives, it is that they are stretched thin and maxed out. In terms of being intentional or automatic, more work usually means more autopilot. That is, unless you are strategic about when to turn off autopilot and make different choices. This is why I like to ask leaders the following question: "when does being on auto-pilot hinder your effectiveness?" Hint: your first few answers to this question may not be your most powerful ones.
To be sure, the brain is deceptive, so during the times that you would like to be more intentional, it is unlikely that you will think "wait a minute, I'm really being automatic when I shouldn't be." Such a thought accompanies awareness, not automaticity. Instead, being on autopilot manifests in ways that feel very natural. Below are four faces of autopilot that deceptively hinder effectiveness, and some corresponding suggestions to help:
1. Preferring a person, place, or thing. Ask yourself what discomfort you may be avoiding that is hindering your effectiveness.
2. Believing something that feels emotionally right. Consider multiple perspectives and the complexity of a given situation.
3. Feeling defensive and/or proud. Focus on the choices you are making that may be hindering your potential.
4. Dwelling on a future objective. Think through the planning required for success rather than worrying or imagining negative scenarios.
Remember, to act automatically is to be human. Try becoming aware of one or two specific instances in which shutting off autopilot can create value, and then choose alternative thoughts and behaviors.