Are You on Autopilot?Posted: June 30, 2014
“Very often, human beings are living … on autopilot, reacting automatically with what happens. What interests me about the life of an explorer is you are in the unknown; you are out of your habits.”
– Bertrand Piccard
I recently had an “aha moment” while attending a conference. The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) conference was a large one (~13,000 participants) held in a large venue (the Orange County Convention Center). The logistics of putting on such an event boggles my mind.
On the last day, following the final keynote speaker (the former First Lady Laura Bush), we attendees shuffled out of the General Session and wound our way to the next session of our choosing. I was attending a session one floor up – so I calmly stood in a line with hundreds of people moving toward the escalator. One step at a time we went – slowly – methodically.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw something startling. A man was walking “up” the adjacent “down” escalator. How silly, I thought. He must really be in a hurry. But – on further observation – I noticed that the “down” escalator was actually going “up”. (A wise move by Convention Center staff to ease the crowd gridlock.) Once I realized that the escalator was going the “right” way, I decided to jump on the bandwagon and leave the traditional “up” line. Others followed suit.
As I did this, I marveled at how many of us (myself included) failed to notice this avenue of assistance. We are conditioned to line up on the right and to shuffle our way calmly to the bottom of the escalator where we will ascend, all in an orderly fashion. A remedy to this conditioning was provided for us – but we either failed to notice or failed to take advantage of it.
At this point, I became mindful of my surroundings in search of other ways in which our conditioning might be challenged. And yes, I found it in the women’s restroom. At conferences such as this, there seems to be a continual line outside of the women’s restroom. Each woman patiently waits her turn, moving closer to her goal one step at a time. But with a bit more attention, one could see an alternative to that line. The sign to the adjacent men’s restroom had been covered with a pink 8.5×11 piece of paper on which the words Women’s Restroom were boldly printed. I witnessed this in several high traffic volume areas. (Don’t worry, gentlemen, they did not do this for all of the restroom pairs in the Center.) I had to smile as I looked at the modified signage. The transformed Men’s-to-Women’s Restrooms had no lines. Looking at the traditional Women’s Restrooms, I saw lines coming out of each.
In just a few minutes time, I happened upon two opportunities for attendees to ease their way. However, many didn’t even take notice of the changes and the added conveniences that were offered. We are so comfortable with the known – the automatic – that we fail to see the options that present themselves to us. In a lifetime, I wonder how many opportunities are missed due to an engaged autopilot and a disengaged mind.
This was a wake-up call for me – and it may be for all of us. It is time to become mindful, to question the traditional and search for the opportunities that surround us.
To do so, however, we must act differently. What will you do, today, to become more mindful? How will you move from the comfort zone of the known into the abyss of the unknown? How will you raise your awareness and open yourself to opportunities that present themselves?
Disrupt yourself. How often do our habits engulf us – sending us on a “mindless” journey where we do same thing over and over again? Make a pact with yourself that you will do something different today … and each day thereafter! It doesn’t have to be a major undertaking. Even a small disruption in routine will sharpen your mind and provide you with a renewed energy and awareness.
Stop – look – listen. We see this warning on railroad track crossings. Hopefully, all of us follow these instructions. But I wonder. I wonder if we just look at these track crossings as a momentary “slowing” while we listen for a train whistle, hoping to quickly cross and continue our mind-numbing travel. Instead – STOP. LOOK. LISTEN. What are you missing as you hurry on your way? What are you not seeing because you scan as opposed to examine? What are you not hearing because you fail to listen? Or worse yet, what do you miss when you “tune out” because you already have the answer in your mind? Each day, set aside some time to be mindful. Let this habit become ubiquitous as you activate your Sherlock Holmes-esque keen sense of observation.
Laugh. Smile. Hug someone. Become a participating member of the human race. Find someone with whom you want to share something. Enjoy another’s company. Learn something new from this person. So often we mindlessly shuffle in line – not looking at each other, not talking to each other. Instead, say hello to a stranger. Smile at a child. Laugh at a joke or movie. Get out of your “worry-a-day” cocoon and embrace life.
John Teasdale’s (former Oxford University cognition researcher) quote in David Rock’s “How Often Are We on Mental Autopilot? You Might Be Surprised” says it best:
“Mindfulness is a habit, it’s something the more one does, the more likely one is to be in that mode with less and less effort… it’s a skill that can be learned. It’s accessing something we already have. Mindfulness isn’t difficult. What’s difficult is to remember to be mindful.”
Tell us – what will you do to disengage your autopilot and engage your mindfulness?