I used to live everyday in autopilot. I was caught up in the same routine, thinking the same things, doing the same things. The insanity of the situation was I expected different results. I hated the life I was living. I couldn’t look at myself in the mirror. What is scary about autopilot is that we miss A LOT!! I’m not just talking about things in our own lives, the lives of the people around us. We simply don’t see anything outside of our routines.
When we have children, autopilot becomes dangerous. Too many things can happen; sometimes children can give us little subtle hints that there is a problem. If we are somewhere else in our heads; we miss them. Here are a couple of scenarios:
A young boy comes to his mother and she is texting. He is tells her about how something he saw made him feel uncomfortable. She is not with him; she is involved in the conversation on the phone. Her autopilot response turns on, and gives her son a reply. The conversation is soon forgotten because she was never there. That child develops trust issues and feels completely alone. The boy becomes a man with addiction issues and eventually dies a slow death from drug abuse. He never learned to reconcile his past. He was not able to have healthy relationships with women, men or children. He lived life in a toxic cycle of shame, guilt, and abandonment.
A young boy comes to his mother and makes a comment that is just slightly off, easily overlooked. By being present, the mother sees there is something very off with that statement. She starts investigating it and finds out the 4-year old boy was sexually abused. The authorities get involved and it is stopped instantly. What the mother didn’t know, what happened to her son is usually just the beginning, that the majority of parents do not catch it this soon. Since the mother had great communication with her son, he felt safe and told her and the police what happened. The assailant was convicted and never exposed to the boy again. The boy grew up communicating with his mother and knowing she was there. When life’s struggles came up, he was able to find tools to work through it. He grew up healthy and having good relationships with women, men, and children. He didn’t feel like he had to use drugs to escape or cover shame, guilt, and hurts from the past.
These scenarios may seem extreme, but they are more common than most people know. The worst part is, scenario 1 is more common than scenario 2. There are little details missed in conversations with friends, co-workers, lovers, and family. We may gain a greater understanding about the people we love if we can give them our full attention. When we are in autopilot our relationships can deteriorate, people get hurt, and we miss out on life. We, without knowing it, contribute to toxic cycles.
Multi-tasking is a way we continue to not be present. Sometimes we have to do too much at once, and that is life, but it is important that we focus on the relationships in front of us. We need to be present. I know I can still get caught up in trying to do too much at once. My children and I had a hard conversation at the dinner table awhile back and I had to take responsibility for my part of the dysfunction in the household. I was on my phone too much while I was supposed to be focused on them and they were feeling it. We had an electronics free week and it was the best thing that has happened to my family. I limited my conversations to the hours they were not with me, and we all started getting along so much better, playing games together, and finding healthy ways to spend our time together. Now that we have our electronics back and we have come out of the crisis that was happening, I am watching old patterns to start to stir up again. The difference, this time I am aware. I can see that there is a problem, and I can figure out a solution because I have accepted my responsibility for the fallback into the old cycle.
One of my old patterns was to go to self-blame and hence self-abuse. I used to take any mistake or misstep and turn it into me being a horrible parent. I would expect perfection out of me, but know it was not possible for anyone else. I had compassion for others, but none for myself. I would have taken the electronics things and reacted in such a way that chaos would plague me and I would feel weighed down with the guilt of not being the parent that my kids deserved. I would feel forced back into autopilot in order to live with myself. Ugh… NOT GOOD! This was such a toxic way to live. Being aware is key. If you know that you have missed a lot from being in autopilot, don’t beat yourself up. Just make an effort to do better now. We do the best we can at any given moment. Yesterday is done, the best thing we can do is learn from our past, and use it to become better. There is no reason to be hostage of something that cannot be changed.
When we are struggling with our jobs, commutes, responsibilities, and relationships with others, it is easy to fall into autopilot to cope with the world around us. We may not be able to get out of it all the time, but every effort we make to live our life being present will improve the quality of our relationships and lives.
Before jumping in, it is important to realize, we are all different. You may like one thing on the list, but something else doesn’t work for you. I have tried a lot of different methods over the years. These are seeds, if they work for you, GREAT! If not, don’t stop looking. I have attempted using techniques that worked great for others, but didn’t sit right with me. What is important is that you tweak things to fit you. Here are some of the methods I use to get more present and turn off the autopilot mode:
Take 3 Conscious Breaths
Three conscious breaths was the first tool I began using on a daily basis that started showing me results. I learned that if I do this throughout the day, I have better days and I am present more than I am not. I started by doing it in the bathroom, then in the car, and finally whenever I noticed my mind was everywhere else but where I was. Do I remember to do it all the time? No. Can I still go into autopilot? Yes, the difference, awareness. Awareness makes it possible to change. By taking three long, deep breaths and concentrating just on that, my mind has time to recalibrate. I have put the effort into slowly untangling the jumbled thoughts and focusing on what is right in front of me. Most of the time it gives me the clarity to see that my mind is focused on the unpredictable future or a past that I cannot do anything about. I create the space to question, how is what I am doing right now contributing to a better life? If it is not, I can see solutions to change it.
Switch-up the Morning Routine
This one can be fun, when things get really bad I put signs in my drawers. One sign says, “Start with a different foot.” I have this in my underwear or sock drawer. The sign consciously reminds me to do things a little differently. I have also put a sign in the bathroom that says, “Switch the order.” I may choose to put deodorant on before brushing my teeth or take a shower and wash my face before shampooing my hair. I don’t know about anyone else, but it is so easy for me to fall into the autopilot routine when I am getting ready. My mind can be in a million different places if I am not careful.
When we make a list, we are getting it out of our heads and putting it down in a practical order. We don’t have to be clogging our brains. When we write out and take one task at a time we can give what we are doing 100% of our attention. I don’t always use lists, but I notice a difference when I do. I know some people who do them everyday and it is what works for them.
Focus On What is Happening Now
One of the ways I let the present moment pass me by was by checking the time constantly. I stopped wearing a watch and started setting alarms on my phone when I needed to be ready to do the next thing on my list. This made it possible for me to be where I was and get out of the vicious cycle of being a slave to time. By simply not focusing on time, I have more.
Get in Touch with Nature
If I can spot nature’s beauty, I am present. If I am in autopilot, I can walk for an hour and miss everything happening around me. When I take the time to look for beautiful scenes in nature, I feel the awe of the moment, and autopilot is cut-off! If I am driving, I make sure to look at nature in a safe way. I will see the clouds, trees, birds, and all the little critters scurrying about. I’m sure many squirrels’ lives have been saved from me being aware of my surroundings.
Set Aside Quality Time
I have certain times where I commit to giving my loved ones 100% of my attention. I learned a long time ago that a meal is a great time to commit to giving my undivided attention. Another time can be at bed-time. I have a routine with each of my children. They are almost two years apart, so I have different bed times. I spend a dedicated half-hour with each of them before bed. If they need advice, cuddles, and/or one-on-one attention, they get it here. I have stopped bringing my phone, so that I don’t get distracted. For couples, date night is very important. Having time away from normal routine is crucial to a healthy relationship. Date night does not need to be out; be creative. Pick a time and a room or outside location to meet where the time is set aside just for each other. Dance in the bedroom, swing on the porch swing, read to each other, and laugh as much as you can.
Put the Electronics Away
When we are having a conversation with someone, we need to be present. Phones, computers, tablets, TVs, and video games are not important when another human being needs our connection. Put it down. We cannot be in two places at the same time. This one has been a challenge for me. My autopilot in doing mode likes to kick in. I notice I need to make a real effort to get out of my electronic world. I don’t believe that we need to give it up completely, but when people are communicating with us it is important to be there. When we are supposed to be having quality time together, we need to give our families, children, partners, and any person we are in contact with the respect and love they deserve. Even the people at the checkout counter deserve your attention. How would it feel to be looked over by most of the people who passed through your life? It can make a big difference to the person you take the time to give a smile to.
Just recently, I was at the store and the woman behind the counter was in autopilot. She was so used to being overlooked that when I gave her attention she was actually startled. After the initial shock, she proceeded to give me tips and ideas. We had a great exchange. By the end, she was smiling and gave a big warm greeting to the next customer. We both left the exchange feeling good. We are all humans; we all want to be acknowledged. We can’t get so caught up in autopilot that we forget we are interacting with other people just like us.
I hope that your autopilot can be turned off for a little longer today and that you get to experience the joy of being in the moment. Give the people around you a little more today from a loving place.
With Love and Gratitude,