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woman unhappy autopilot

Back when I drove to work, I’d drop off my dog at the groomer on the way whenever she needed a haircut. 

One day, I got ready for work, put the dog on her leash, and got her into the car. With something else on my mind, I succeeded in getting almost all the way to work.

At a stoplight, my dog started whining for me to open the window. At that moment, it dawned on me. I wasn’t anywhere near the groomer’s location.

Without realizing it, I had gone on complete autopilot. I had little recollection of how I got from home to where I currently was. At that moment, I had to pull over and turn on GPS on my phone, so I could figure out how to get from there back to the groomer. 

We’ve all experienced times when we’ve gone on autopilot. Sometimes, it’s for silly things like forgetting about the dog in the backseat. Other times, it applies to big life decisions. 

We might be going through the motions, trying to manage our busy lives, and not taking time to step back to decide what we want and the impact we want to have on the world.

This is exactly why I stayed in a toxic job for 4 years. Things were so busy, and I was completely burned out. I used my limited mental energy to just get through, not to stop and figure out if this was what I wanted. I was on autopilot and too exhausted to get off of it. 

We need to get off autopilot.

To be clear, I don’t think that all autopilot is bad. Autopilot can be helpful when you intentionally set a particular course. Then, checking back in periodically to ensure it’s still the right course is vital.

For example, our finances are on autopilot. Every month, a certain amount of money gets automatically sent to savings and investments. This works for us, but we don’t do it blindly. We intentionally choose how much we want to send to each account at the beginning of the year. If we have big life changes, we made adjustments. 

If you have intentionally set something on autopilot and you monitor it, that’s not what I’m talking about.

I’m talking about these kinds of autopilot:

  • If you weren’t intentional about the direction you wanted in the first place.
  • If you were intentional at the beginning but didn’t check back in on your progress. Now, you’ve ended up somewhere you don’t want to be.

In this post, we are going to explore why people get on autopilot in the first place, and how we can get off autopilot. 

Why We Get on Autopilot in the First Place

There are many reasons why we end up on autopilot. Here are the top three.

Stress and Busyness

There are times in our lives where things feel so stressful and busy. We are just trying to get through each day. Going through the motions will help to keep us “on our feet” for longer.

With this level of stress and burnout, we can lose connection with our inner selves. We might lack the time or energy to take a step back and think about how we are feeling, the way it’s impacting us, and what we want.

When I was working in my stressful, toxic job, I felt like I could barely make it through each day. I spent all my time either working, getting ready for work, or recovering from work. This level of stress kept me from thinking about my life and what was important to me.

A Desire to Please Others

Sometimes, the path we are on isn’t one we designed for ourselves. People push us toward particular paths and life decisions all the time. Our parents, teachers, professors, friends, families, colleagues, and bosses try to influence us every day.

Sometimes, people have valuable recommendations. We must evaluate each decision ourselves to ensure it is what we want.

I’m sure the list is endless, but here are a few things people will have opinions about:

  • Where you go to school
  • Whether you take on debt to go to school
  • What you study
  • What kind of career you pursue
  • Whether you try to climb the career ladder
  • How much money you should aim to make
  • How much money you should spend
  • What you should spend our money on
  • Where you should live
  • What kinds of hobbies and interests you should pursue
  • How you should spend your free time
  • Whether you get married
  • Whether you have kids

The list goes on and on. So many of us have an innate desire to be liked and accepted. This can cloud what we actually want and what matters most to us. 

Not Knowing There are Other Options

Sometimes, we follow the standard or default path laid out by society because we don’t realize there are other options.

conventional success

For many of us, society’s expected path for us is to get a “good” job that we don’t hate. Then, we work at it for 40 years. We buy a big house and lots of stuff, and we are expected to be happy with 3-4 weeks of vacation time each year.

We might think this is “just reality,” so we need to make the most of it.

I used to think this way. I started out being very idealistic and expecting to do international development work. Then, I got out into the real world. I could barely make ends meet, so how would I ever live an unconventional life of meaning and purpose?

I wholly bought into society’s script for success. I couldn’t imagine being able to cover all my expenses in any other way. Once I started making more money, I unfortunately didn’t re-evaluate this assumption until I learned about financial independence. I thought I needed to make peace with the reality of working a job I didn’t like for 40 years. 

How to Get Off Autopilot

A lot of people don’t realize they are on autopilot or on a path they don’t want to be on until there’s a crisis.  Sometimes this crisis is the death of a family member or friend. Other times it’s dealing with a physical or mental health issue. For some, large societal issues such as a pandemic or police brutality will provide the jolt needed to get off autopilot.

Crises can push us to make significant shifts in our lives. Yet, it’s important to remember that experiencing a crisis is not necessary to change our trajectory. We can evaluate the direction we are headed before getting into a crisis situation. 

Here are three things that you can do that will help you get off autopilot. 

1. Listen To Your Emotions

The reason why crises are so powerful is that they typically evoke extreme physical and emotional responses. Often times, these responses won’t let us go back to normal.

For example, a crisis happened to me in the summer of 2018 when I started experiencing panic attacks. I hadn’t attended to my emotions in so long that my brain had to literally start shutting down my body and my ability to cope before I listened to it.

Looking back, I am glad that I learned from this crisis and am living a very different life today.

I know now that I didn’t need to let it get that far. I didn’t need to wait until something stopped me. I could have made a decision to get off my current path earlier.

I didn’t realize it at the time though, which is why I talk about this experience so often. I don’t want others to get to the same place I did.

We can learn to listen to ourselves and our emotions before getting into a crisis. This allows us to start making changes before we get to a breaking point. 

Listening to our emotions can also be described as becoming more mindful.

Mindfulness allows us to be fully in the present moment, to accept our feelings and emotions as they are, and to use them as guides to help us figure out what to do next. 

woman reflecting journaling

There are many ways to build up mindfulness skills. These include meditation, journaling, and therapy. I particularly like the practice of checking in with myself throughout the day, asking “How am I feeling?” 

Mindfulness allows us to identify our values and what we want our life to look like. Once we can identify how we actually feel about particular areas of our life, we can use these feelings as a guide. Positive feelings often help us know we are on the right track. Negative and painful feelings send us a message that we need to take action.

If we can embrace these negative feelings before they become overwhelming, we can sometimes make shifts before we get to a crisis. 

2. Eliminate Things You Don’t Want In Your Life

I recently read Essentiantialism, a book that focuses on “pursuing less but better.” Before reading this book, I had already taken many steps to eliminate things that weren’t adding value to my life.

  • I quit my full-time toxic job.
  • I set clear boundaries in my new part-time job about what I would and wouldn’t do.
  • I quit my position as the chairperson of a nonprofit board. It took up a lot of time, and I knew others would step up.
  • I stopped attending a book club. I had other interests to focus on and a thriving support system outside of it.

One important point in Essentialism is that if you don’t make a conscious decision to say “no,” you are actually saying “yes” to the default.

If we aren’t happy with our default, constantly saying “yes” will keep us there.

This is why it’s so important to learn to say “no” and set boundaries around what’s important to you. We can all learn to say “no” to extra work and social commitments.

More importantly, we can figure out which pointless activities drain the most energy and eliminate those from our lives. 

This provides us with more time to focus on things that really matter.

3. Rediscover Joy

When I was in the throes of burnout and autopilot, I knew I wanted to make a change.

I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t even know what I enjoyed doing anymore. I had minimal hobbies besides reading and watching TV, and their purpose was to escape my life. 

My sister recommended a process that she went through that helped her realize she wanted to start her own business. This process was outlined in a book called The Artist’s Way and is meant to help people work through creative blocks. 

This book recommended two practices – daily journaling and a weekly “date” with yourself. For this weekly date, I needed to figure out something to do once/week that was purely for the JOY and FUN of it.  It had to be something I wanted to do – not something that someone else would want to do. 

Bringing joy and fun into our lives helps us recover faster and gives our brain a break.

photography sunset

It took me a while to figure out what I wanted to do. After some reflection, I decided to take a photography class. Doing something purely for fun helped me to reconnect with myself and my desires. 

It also helped me to remember WHY I wanted to be more intentional with my life…

So that I could intentionally create more moments of fun and joy. These moments of joy were great goals in and of themselves, but they also helped me to build up my energy reserves. This allowed me to place more of my focus on things that really matter to me.  

I want to get off autopilot. Where do I start?

It’s hard to admit to ourselves that we are on autopilot and headed toward a destination we do not want. The process of getting off autopilot can feel scary and painful even if you know it’ll be beneficial in the long run.

First, it’s important to remember that financial freedom isn’t all or nothing. As you gain financial freedom by getting out of debt, building your emergency savings, and investing for retirement, your options increase. Over time, you can make significant changes in your life without waiting to retire early.

It feels scary to go against the grain and lose predictability. It’s painful to realize how far you’ve strayed away from your values and what you actually want.

Start by doing 3 things:

  1. Work to become more mindful of how you feel and what you truly value.
  2. Start to say no to non-essential things that drain your energy and things that you don’t want to do.
  3. Seek out activities that will help you rediscover joy. Do at least one thing per week solely because it’ll be fun for you.

To be honest, these 3 things are easier said than done.

This is why I’m providing you with a downloadable worksheet to help you think about what you value and want most. This worksheet is actually the first activity participants complete as part of my Design A Life You Love Group Coaching Program.

Taking these three steps will help you get off autopilot and reconnect with yourself and what you value. This is the first (and most vital) step if you want to use your financial freedom to design a life you love.

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