Driving to work the other day, I knew a particular road on my route was blocked due to flooding. For the first 40 minutes of the drive, I knew not to take the turn off.
What do I do when I eventually reach the aforementioned turn-off? Take it of course. Did I immediately realise what I’d done? No. Not until a minute later when I came upon the ‘Road Closed’, or more specifically, the ‘stupid fool, you knew not to come this way’ barrier.
Damn autopilot! I cursed, hit the brakes, performed a quick u-turn, and sped off back up the road I’d just travelled. Non-aquatic detour here I come.
Despite my immediate frustration, I can see in hindsight that driving on autopilot isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It happens more than we realise and only becomes apparent on rare occasions when we end up somewhere we hadn’t intended. But we rely on autopilot for pretty much every mundane, routine drive we take. Going to work, coming home. Going to the shops, coming home. It’s an unusual but useful method of conserving energy and giving your brain a little rest.
But it got me thinking, what else do us humans use autopilot for?
How often do you speak to someone who nods, smiles, vaguely makes eye contact, utters ‘yep’ a few times, and then asks you something half an hour later, confirming your suspicion that the autopilot light was blinking in their brain whilst you spoke?
I can’t excuse myself from either group of people in this scenario.
Hi. My name’s Mike, and I’m Autopilotic.
By juggling too much information at once, the person in my peripheral sometimes receives less than adequate attention. It becomes easier to nod and say ‘uh-huh’ then to actively engage and absorb the information they are trying to impart on me.
I need to turn my autopilot off when someone speaks to me, so here’s what I’ve come up with:
Be aware of autopilot mode: The number one solution to changing anything is to be aware of what’s happening in the first instance. I need to figure out exactly when it happens. First thing in the morning? During certain times at work? After I get home from work? Does it only happen when certain people talk to me?
Recognise the conversation: As soon as someone speaks to me, I’m engaged in a conversation whether I like it or not. Once I realise I make up one half of the exchange, I can actively participate. So I’ll actively participate. If I have a legitimate reason for not being part of the conversation, then I should make that clear, rather than pretend to be involved.
Ask away: Ask questions to reaffirm what I think the other person said. This serves a dual purpose; it helps me comprehend the information by repeating it in my brain, and hearing the answer from the other person further clarifies the information so I can avoid misinterpretation. If I’m going to the trouble of listening, I may as well listen to right message.
Switch everything else off: As soon as someone opens their mouth, everything else in my mind needs to disappear, if only temporarily. This is an incredibly difficult thing to do. How do I push all those crucial, mind-sapping thoughts to the depths of my consciousness at short notice?
I’m going to make an effort to be more in tune to the people around me. Is it so hard to give them one minute of my time? Or two? Or five? Absolutely not.
It’s time for me to disengage autopilot. After all, I’d expect the same from others.