Experts POol

Pulling out of autopilot

What does today look like? In some ways, it looks like yesterday. And the day before that. And the day before that.

The meetings and the projects and the people will be different. But the conference rooms and the emails and the motions might start to feel the same.

Eventually, the process can start to take over and we get swept up and carried along.

Sometimes, that’s OK. Your brain’s autopilot mode can be useful by conserving cognitive resources when doing repetitive tasks, like commuting or eating.

But when you’re stuck on autopilot, it’s impossible to think of new ideas. You are literally taken for a ride, and you can get stuck in a rut. Learning to recognize when you are on autopilot can give you the power to see new paths and directions when it is useful.

To think different and innovate - and just know you’re alive - you have to come up for air, question the process, and think about the goal. You need to get your brain off autopilot.

In his book on innovation and creativity, Weird Ideas that Work, Stanford Business Professor of Organizational Behavior Robert I. Sutton warns of what psychologists call “mindless behavior.”

“Once people start acting in a certain way - often without realizing it - they persist even when presented with evidence that what they are doing is ineffective,” he writes.

Instead of sleepwalking through your routine, pay attention to the times of the day when you are stuck on autopilot.

  • Is it while mindlessly scrolling through your inbox?
  • Is it when you fall into the same roles while sitting in the same seats at a meeting?
  • Is it when you complete a task for a partner and it feels like déjà vu?

Before you go home from work take five minutes to write down what you noticed when you were on autopilot, when that felt useful, and when it felt like there could have been a better approach. The opposite of déjà vu is something called vu déjà - seeing old things in a new light. What can you see in a new light today?

This is an excerpt from his 7-days of mindfulness. Sign up for his mail list here and get the free weeklong mindfulness program.

Tim Cigelske
Tim Cigelske, Comm '04, is director of social media at Marquette University and an adjunct professor in the Diederich College of Communication. He can be reached at



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