Are You Living Your Life on Autopilot?
Photo courtesy of Jon Fife

Are You Living Your Life on Autopilot?

Written by Bev Webb

Topics: Creativity

I’ve got some terrible habits. I eat my lunch while I’m working and barely notice what my food actually tastes like. If I make myself a cup of tea, I find I’ve become so engrossed in something else that I forget about it until it gets cold. Or, worse still, I pick the cup up to take a swig and discover that the mug is already empty, although I have no recollection of drinking my tea.

It’s taken me a long time to realize just how much of my life I’ve been living on autopilot. When I did realize, it worried me a quite a lot; what else in life had I been missing out on?

In order to find out, I started doing daily mindfulness meditations a few months ago as a bit of an experiment. I was curious to find out what effect, if any, this practice would have on my automatic habits. To be honest, I was a bit skeptical about it changing anything but, boy, have I been surprised!

I am finding that mindfulness is not only bringing me a greater sense of awareness but that it’s also having a direct impact on my creativity. I’d never anticipated that it could have such an effect.

What Is Mindfulness?

Mindfulness is about being aware of the present: your body, thoughts, feelings, emotions, and the environment around you. It’s a technique which is ripe for providing sources of inspiration to creatives of all types, as it heightens your senses and curiosity.

I’ve been a visual artist for over 25 years, so I thought I’d gotten the ability to see and observe down to a fine art. How many people, apart from me, know what the shadow pattern cast on their bathroom radiator looks like? Not many, I’m guessing! I’ve spent the equivalent of many happy hours observing how the striped shadows fall in shades of grey.

So I’d assumed that mindfulness wouldn’t be able to teach me much about seeing the world around me. I was wrong again!

The first time I went out for a mindful walk, around a park which I must have circumnavigated thousands of times, I spotted the most beautiful chimney stack atop a nearby house. It was decorated with ornate swirls and had a spiky zigzag edge around its rim.

Why had I never seen this before? I have no idea. All I can think of is that I must never have focused on looking at the world around me as carefully as I thought I had. This got me thinking. If there were still so much more to learn about seeing, a skill which I thought I’d mastered, how much could there be to learn from the senses which I didn’t use nearly as much?

If, like me, you live in a city, you’ve probably become acclimatized to automatically blocking out a lot of the sensory over-stimulation around you. We become desensitized to a whole lot of white noise: the hum of traffic going by, the sound of passing trains, the beeping of alarms, and the conversations of passers-by.

3 Easy Experiments to Become More Mindful

Our ability to live on autopilot is most noticeable when we are in environments or doing activities with which we are the most familiar. We are so used to them that we no longer pay them much attention. Here are three quick experiments you can do to see what you might be missing out on.

Experiment 1: At home

Settle yourself into your favorite seat in the house, ideally somewhere you spend a lot of time and are very familiar with. Now, as though you’re experiencing the space for the first time, take a look around and notice what you can see, hear, smell, taste, and touch.

For example, try listening out for any sounds which normally pass unnoticed like the hum of a heating pump, the creak of the floorboards, the rattling of a window, or the whirring of an electrical appliance.

Experiment 2: Listening to your favorite song

Try listening really attentively to one of your favorite songs and see if you can hear anything you’ve not noticed before. For example, how many different instruments are played during the track? Are there any backing singers and, if so, how many different voices can you hear?

Experiment 3: In the supermarket

Large supermarkets are designed using a whole field of psychology devoted to providing us with the complete shopping experience. These places provide a total sensory overload, as almost everything in them is vying for our attention, so our brains block the majority of it out.

Try going for a walk around your local store to actually take it all in, from the brightly colored packaging and the piped music to the smells of the bakery counter and the coffee shop.

It’s amazing just how much of what’s going on around us we don’t notice. I hope you enjoy doing the experiments and are as surprised as I was by the results you find.

Over to you!

Do you live on autopilot? What strategies do you have for being more mindful and bringing back your awareness?

bevBev is an artist, creativity coach and founder of Kickass Creatives, a website offering practical support to frustrated creatives. She’s over 20 years of working in the arts: experimenting with everything from performing in a fire circus and managing a hiphop dance company, through to web consultancy and jewellery design. Bev is passionate about using her experience to enable others to fully develop (rather than hide) their multitude of talents too. Connect with her on Twitter @creativekickass.

6 Comments

  1. Em says:

    Lovely post! I think I first started to battle my autopilot three years ago when I started to learn how to meditate. Sice then I quite often realize that IT is driving and not me, but it’s still an ongoing fight and I do have to practice mindfullness all the time, bit by bit, everytime I realize where I am and that I’m loosing perception of things. It’s not easy, I’ve always had SO many thoughts in my head, running around, keeping me from actually realizing what I’m doing, and even though I do feel a significant progress, it is still there sometimes. When I’m tired. When there’s just too much of it and your mind is trying to protect you from going crazy about overworking or something like that. It’s a selfdefence mechanism and I’m trying to prevent it by starting to notice, what is the actual thing that my mind doesn’t want to see. If it is the fact that I’m working my ass off in a riddiculous job, I quit that job. If it is just that I’m tired and can’t find time to relax, I force myself to stop whatever the hell I’m doing and go have a proper bath instead. And while I’m in the bath, I again force myself to be fully present throughout it, to keep my mind right there with me, in the steamy hot room, not to wander anywhere else, not to think of anything outside that room.

    Being present changed my life so much that I can’t describe it, even if I just manage to do it few times daily and I’m loosing some other days to thoughts and stressful chaos. My goal is to deal with all the problems my heart sees and my mind wants to block, so that I can stop being scared to realize how I’m wasting time or energy, so that I can actually percieve all my life and be truly content about it and present all the time.

    That and getting rid of my ego are my current missions for life :) But I’ve definitely seen most amaizing results just as soon as I started to meditate, I can recommend it to anyone.

  2. Bev Webb says:

    Hi Em

    Thanks for such a great and insightful comment! It sounds like practicing mindfulness has really helped you to focus your attention on the important things in your life and to recognize when the autopilot has gotten a hold on you. I love that you say that IT (the autopilot) is driving and not you – that is true so often and we don’t even realize it. :)

  3. Zen Dexter says:

    This is a great piece Bev, it really speaks to me. I am one of those people extremely guilty of living life on autopilot.

    I always feel like I never have enough time, or that I’m not productive enough with my time. So I’m always trying to multitask in order to be “more productive”. I’ll burn through emails while eating dinner, or skim through blog posts while trying to watch a video at the same time (!)

    It’s a pretty superficial way of living. I really should be stopping to appreciate my food, and stopping to read my emails properly. I should be stopping so I can really understand what I’m reading, and stopping so I can really understand what I’m watching.

    Mindfulness (and related concepts like meditation) are things that I’ve read about before, and have tried in the past, but I think my chronic feeling of “there’s no time” has precluded me from actually committing to them and making the habits stick!

    I will definitely be trying out the techniques you mention Bev, to try and slow things down a little and live be more in the present. Thanks! :)

    • Bev Webb says:

      Hi Zen
      Yep, know what you mean – it can be easy to feel that you need to be productive all the time. I’ve found that taking a little time out to be mindful or to meditate, actually pays off more in the long run than keeping going. It’s just enough of a break to recharge the mind, so when I do start again, I feel more focused. Try it and let us know how you get on. :)

  4. heidi says:

    This is so true, and I read a book recently tapping into this subject specifically – how we ignore most of what’s happening around us, this mechanism is hard-wired into us, we block out stimuli to be able to focus on the specific task we are doing..LIke the book states “Attention is an intentional, unapologetic discriminator. It asks what is relevant right now, and gears us up to notice only that”…

    And of course the implications for this are not noticing the colours of the flowers, the humming of the wind, and missing out on so much.. Being more mindful is definately something we need to practice, because it doesn’t actually happen naturally. Children are much better at being mindful than adults, even going for a walk with them, trying to experience the way they observe the world will be a great lesson in itself :)).

    • Bev Webb says:

      Hey Heidi
      It’s amazing just how filtered much of our experience is, and as you rightly say, we automatically block out so much of that stimuli. I really was shocked when I tried the mindful experiments at the amount of stuff I’ve never noticed, even the things around me that I see every day.

      It’s made realize that we don’t have to go off to the corners of the globe to have an adventure – there’s literally a whole world of the unknown right on our doorsteps. :)

Leave a Comment