April 19, 2024 | Jane O'Shea

10 Signs You’re Living Life On Autopilot—And 10 Ways To Stop

Is Life Passing You By?

Between work and the demands of everyday life—like the big Cs: childcare, cleaning, cooking, commute—it can be easy to end up in a perpetual rut where the day rushes past you before your head hits the pillow at night. It’s time to check in and ask yourself: Are you living life on autopilot?AP%20thumb.jpg

What’s Autopilot?

The basic definition is that you’re doing something without thinking or without making an effort. That can happen here and there to anyone—think of a time you were driving somewhere familiar and weren’t really conscious of the trip, yet you ended up there safely. But if it’s happening all day, every day, you might be living life on autopilot.

Close up photography of man holding car wheel and drivingSindre Fs, Pexels

Who Suffers From Autopilot?

You might have all the trappings of a happy life—money, success, family, and full days—without really feeling like you can enjoy it. Or you might just be struggling to make ends meet every day, working eight or more hours and letting your eyes glaze over after work until it’s time for bed. Anyone can end up in a situation where it feels like life is just passing you by.

Woman Sitting in Front of Laptopenergepic.com, Pexels

What’s The Problem With Living Life On Autopilot?

It can be too easy to let the “script” of our days take over and dictate our actions—wake up, have coffee, work, cook dinner, do dishes, TV, sleep. Sure, you’re getting through the day, but are you creating moments that enrich your life?

Man watching tv and eating popcornDean Drobot, Shutterstock

The Consequences Of Living On Autopilot

You might not notice that something’s missing right away—but when you eventually do, you’ll think that maybe you’ve done something wrong and might find yourself depressed or despairing. You might consider big actions to regain control, like moving cities or ending relationships.

woman taking notes in clipboard near carton boxesKarolina Grabowska, Pexels

There’s No Big Fix

It may feel like you need to throw everything into the blender—ultimately, it doesn’t need to be a massive change to make things better—you can make small changes every day to break out of that dead-end feeling. But first, you have to recognize the signs that you’re living on autopilot.

A Woman Meditating while Raising Her ArmsLos Muertos Crew, Pexels

Sign 1: Crisis Management

If you’re spending your whole day moving from one crisis to another—barely finishing putting out that first fire before moving onto the next—you’re not getting a chance to take a breath. The never-ending stress can take a really bad toll on your mental and physical health.

woman doing yoga on the yoga mat with her dogcottonbro studio, Pexels

Sign 2: Feeling Unproductive

If you’re simply moving from crisis to crisis, you’re also probably running out of time to get things done that need to get done, or that you want to get done—which just perpetuates that same cycle of putting out fires.

Portrait of beautiful young woman with depressed facial expressionevrymmnt, Shutterstock

Sign 3: It’s All Too Much

If you’re constantly feeling overwhelmed by all the demands of everyday life and like you can’t catch your breath, you’re not alone. When we feel this way, we can go into survival mode—which can put us on autopilot.

man holding picture frame with smiley emoticon printed.Bits And Splits, Shutterstock

Sign 4: That’s A No For Me

When we can barely get through what we’re expected of during the day—and what we expect of ourselves—we can get so exhausted that we end up saying no to the little extras that make life a little more livable. Sadly, this can mean saying no to things like social events with friends, a little extra playtime with the kids, or even just taking small opportunities for time to ourselves.

Mom and Daughter having fun togetherRDNE Stock project, Pexels

Sign 5: Apathy Or Agitation

Like thinking that we always have to say no to the “extras,” living life on autopilot can results in apathy and listlessness. But of course, everyone reacts to different things in different ways. On the other end of the spectrum is the feeling of agitation or restlessness.

Photo of Man Leaning on Wooden TableAndrew Neel, Pexels

Sign 6: Distraction

One way that humans will always come back to when it comes to an “easy way out” instead of solutions is distraction. If you’re endlessly scrolling Tiktok, you can’t really reflect on your uncomfortable you are. We all do it—but if you’re constantly seeking distraction, you should ask yourself why it feels so necessary.

Focus Photography of Person Scrolling on phoneKerde Severin, Pexels

Sign 7: Dreading What’s Next

If you find yourself going to bed with a sense of dread about having to wake up the next day and go through it all, all over again, that’s a sign that something isn’t right and that you need to check it.

Sad woman laying in bedGladskikh Tatiana, Shutterstock

Sign 8: You Do Things Without Thinking About Them

Yes, it’s basically the definition of autopilot: doing things without being conscious of them. And sure, there are routine parts of our day that we don’t need to be totally present for—but joy can be found even in the most mundane parts of the day, and we shouldn’t take that away from ourselves.

Man tie his shoes in his bedromAndrew Neel, Pexels

Sign 9: “Just Trying To Get Through The Day”

It sounds trite to drop a “carpe diem”—after all, we all have obligations in our daily lives that can take the drive to “seize” out of the equation. But we shouldn’t just be trudging through each day in order to trudge through the next. The buck has to stop somewhere.

Sad woman sitting on couchLiza Summer, Pexels

Sign 10: Something’s Missing

If you move throughout your life feeling like you’re checking off every box but yet something is still missing at the end of the day, you might be stuck in an endless cycle of autopilot. It’s not that you’ve done anything wrong

Close Up Photo of an Unfinished Jigsaw PuzzleAnn H, Pexels

Taking Stock

If you read the previous list and found that you could relate to more than a couple of the points mentioned, you might be living life on autopilot and missing out on some great experiences. It can happen without us really noticing—but luckily, it’s something we can break out of.

image of Calendar and a SandglassTowfiqu barbhuiya, Pexels

No More Living By Default

Trudging through the day can cause us to miss out on life’s pivotal moments. We end up choosing things by default—our activities, the people we spend time with, our purchases, our clothing, our meals, our work—when both small and big decisions like these can end up being part of a more fulfilling life.

close up photo of Chessboard gameHARUN BENLİ, Pexels

Live Life By Design

Small, mindless decisions are a necessary part of everyday life—there’s no reason to belabor the choice between two brands at the supermarket. But making slowing down and making thoughtful choices throughout the day can bring us back to ourselves in unexpected ways.

Smiling young ethnic female selecting notebooks in souvenir storeSam Lion, Pexels

The Opposite Of Autopilot

Whereas life on autopilot necessitates things be quick, automatic, and unconscious, being more intentional involves an approach that’s slow, logical, conscious, and effortful—with complex decisions.

Girl showing bright brainteaser in handsMonstera Production, Pexels

Finding Balance

There’s a reason we end up on autopilot. It’s the easy way out. And this is not to say that we eliminate it entirely—it’s more about finding a balance between autopilot mode and a slower, more intentional way of living. It’s one that we might have to train ourselves into, instead of the default—but there are steps to take to kickstart the process.

Woman Hugging a Blue PillowAndrea Piacquadio, Pexels

Step 1: Practice Self-Care

It’s a directive that might seem trite when you read it on the internet in 2024, but self-care isn’t just about taking baths and journaling. It’s about stopping and taking time when you need to, and being patient with yourself. Change doesn’t happen immediately, nor does life always take a linear path. Don’t blame yourself when setbacks happen—because believe me, they happen to everyone.

Woman applying cosmetic cream on faceSora Shimazaki, Pexels

Step 2: Identify What’s Important To You

When we’re on autopilot, we can spend so much time taking care of the necessities that we forget what’s really important to us. In fact, for many, the question can leave us stumped. Sit down and think about the things in life that fulfill you. Is it other people? Family? Being outdoors? Creative pursuits?

These are the things we need to keep not just in our hearts, but also in our minds, as we move through life.

Man Standing on a RockAndrei Tanase, Pexels

Step 3: Find Your Purpose—Not A Purpose

Once you’ve identified what’s important to you, you can identify ways to shift the focus of your life from the mundane to what really matters to you. Set small goals that will allow you to focus more on what’s important to you—and make time to work on them.

green Typewriter on Brown Wooden TableMarkus Winkler, Pexels

Step 4: Focus On One Thing At A Time

Of course, just because we’ve identified what really matters and what our purpose is, doesn’t mean all our problems are solved. We still need to get through day-to-day life. To keep your brain from shifting back into autopilot, focus on one task at a time. And when you do take a much needed break, try to stop yourself from constantly thinking of what needs to be done next.

Person Holding Blue Dart PinKhwanchai Phanthong, Pexels

Step 5: Start Cutting Out Bad Habits

One easy way to claw back a little time to fulfill your goals is to cut out the habits that don’t serve you. I’m not talking about biting your nails or a glass of wine in the evening. These are the activities we return to when we’re feeling overwhelmed—doomscrolling, filling up that online cart, or mindlessly swiping through a game.

Close-up view on the woman biting nailsArman Novic, Shutterstock

Step 6: Connect With The Things That Matter

You don’t need to cut the aforementioned activities out completely—everything has a time and a place. But often, it can be a bit of a shock when we look at how much time we spend in front of screens vs the time we spend on the things that matter to us. Be conscientious of the balance between the two, and adjust accordingly.

You’ve identified the things that matter to you—and now you need to check in and make sure you’re prioritizing them.

Group of Friends HuggingElina Fairytale, Pexels

Step 7: Rock The Boat

Part of the comfort in living life on autopilot means that we spend more time in our comfort zone—which can lead to stagnation. We become attached to our routines and the activities we do most often, but don’t forget to shake things up and try new things every once in a while. It’s the easiest way to shake your brain out of its comfort zone.

People with Parachutes Landing on SeashoreCristian Loayza, Pexels

Step 8: Get Physical

Somewhat ironically, one of the easiest ways to get your brain in check is actually to move your body. The mental and physical boost from movement—be it serious physical exertion or just a simple walk—can break you out of a rut.

If exercise is already part of your routine, try something new to shake things up, like a swim at your local pool instead of a walk, or a group fitness class instead of a run.

Person Holding Black and Silver Steel in gymVictor Freitas, Pexels

Step 9: Get Help Where Needed

You’re not just changing your perspective by trying to shift out of autopilot—you’re also changing your life. Be open about your goals with partners, family, and friends, and if you’re having trouble, consider getting help. Would a therapist help break you out of negative thought patterns? Or would a life coach help you identify your goals and passions better? You don’t always have to do everything on your own.

man sharing complains with female psychologistAlex Green, Pexels

Step 10: Embrace The Journey

We can’t expect to fully break out of life on autopilot in a day, or even a week. We’re wired to default to it. It’s something we have to choose every day, and to continue to work on. This goes back to being patient with the process, and with ourselves—and to a sense of acceptance in general. There will always be things to knock us off our paths. Setbacks happen, so don’t waste too much time getting frustrated with them.

A Woman Chilling on a HammockArtHouse Studio, Pexels

Continuing To Work On It

It can seem intimidating to take on these ten steps all at once. Make no mistake: Even though they all seem simple in theory, they can feel really big in practice. To keep yourself focused on your journey, you can also do small things every day that can help break you out of “autopilot” thinking and keep you on the right track.

Woman sitting and painting on deskAndrea Piacquadio, Pexels

Be Still

It’s easy enough to tell someone to meditate—but in practice, many of us are far too “go, go, go” for that to be a viable solution. Instead, take the time to sit and do your best to slow your mind down. You don’t need wait until you’re overwhelmed to do it. Just carve out a few minutes here and there. Also, you don’t need to succeed at it—you just need to try.

Thoughtful woman writing in notebookAndrea Piacquadio, Pexels

Ground Yourself In Nature

You might not have time to throw a whole walk in there, but getting a few extra breaths of fresh air when you can will make a world of difference. Start with just walking around a bit and observing the birds and the trees for a few minutes after taking out the garbage or getting out of your car. Eventually, you’ll find more excuses to spend time outside.

A Man Sitting Under the Treeabdullah çadırcı

Connect With Others

Falling back into autopilot brain—even if you’re doing things for others, like taking care of kids or family members—can leave you feeling isolated. Nothing can break a person out of thinking about what’s next better than simply talking someone. Sure, asking a friend for coffee is great—but even taking the time to smile, make eye contact, or make small talk with a co-worker or cashier can have a grounding effect.

Two women and a dog sitting under the treeVitaly Gariev, Pexels

Use Your Senses

There’s a well-known grounding exercise for dealing with panic attacks that’s often called the 54321 method. It involves identifying 5 things you can see, 4 things you can touch, 3 things you can hear, 2 things you can smell, and 1 thing you can taste. The good news is, it can also help to break your brain out of autopilot mode and to acclimatize you to being more in touch with your physical senses in general.

Woman Holding Brown Labeled Pack and smelling itIon Ceban @ionelceban, Pexels

Make It Memorable

Part of the problem with autopilot brain is that we let life rush by us when we should be living it. That’s why things can end up feeling foggy. Bring them back into the real world by keeping a diary and/or taking more photos—even if you end up writing about and taking pics of mundane things.

Woman Taking a Picture on a Sidewalk in CityÁnh Đặng, Pexels

Routine Isn’t The Enemy

When we talk so much about getting out of a rut, it can make it seem like our little routines are the reason we got here in the first place. In fact, a lot of us need routines to keep the train running on the right tracks.

A Woman Brushing her TeethMiriam Alonso, Pexels

Keep Re-Evaluating

If exercise first thing in the morning or doing the dishes right after eating weren’t part of my routine, it’s likely I wouldn’t do them. What can serve us best is regularly re-evaluating our routines to keep what works and cut out what doesn’t.

person making the bedcottonbro studio, Pexels

Take A Tip From The Kids

Living life on autopilot can be a side effect of getting older. The necessary tasks of everyday life supersede our sense of exploration and wonder. Do like the kids do and keep an open mind, prioritize having fun, and approach the world with curiosity, not apathy.

Kids having fun in natureGustavo Fring, Pexels


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