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Why Putting Your Life On Autopilot Is A Good Thing

As the school year came to an end, I began to prepare a schedule of activities and obligations ready to greet me as soon as I arrived home for summer break. I got a job, an internship, dates and times to meet my friends, and then started planning my summer training.

Everything was falling into place until I began to worry.

As my commitments increased, I had less and less time to keep up with my usual intensity of training. I began work early and got off in the late afternoon, only to be met with family obligations or online work to complete.

But then, as I became more familiar with my new routine, my days started to flow more naturally and that self-inflicted stress about my workouts soon evaporated. If work started at 10 am, I was out on the trail running at 7 am. If I had to work from 7 to 5, you could bet I was hopping in the pool at 5:30 pm.

I quickly found out that my stress to find time to train was irrelevant. Previous days without obligations, I had all hours under the sun to decide when I wanted to workout, which sometimes left me unmotivated and struggling to fit in my training before the sun had set. My commitments left me no choice but to make the best of the time I was given and, miraculously, the quality of my workouts improved too.

So as I had more to do, it became easier to fit everything in, and the quality of what I was doing also improved… but why was this happening?

As an athlete, practicing to perform your best under stress encompasses a lot of your training. Countless hours of practice, repeating drills until perfection, and visualization all require strenuous mental and physical effort that pays off when you’re able to execute skills and behaviors during a competition without expending any mental effort.

Athletes program themselves to perform their best under pressure

Essentially, athletes program themselves to perform their best under pressure, which grants the mental clarity to cope with high amounts of stress and still make rational, game-time decisions. Energy isn’t wasted on mundane behaviors or remembering how to carry out basic plays. All the actions of a pro athlete have been repeated thousands and thousands of times, broken down and perfected so that they flow and essentially put their best selves on autopilot, which means they can insert themselves fully in the moment of competition and perform with a rational mind. 

Harnessing this ability to put your life into autopilot can have major benefits on the rest of your life. And since a lot of this comes naturally to athletes, a little bit of awareness can make it super simple to reap benefits in your own life.  

Each day we’re faced with so many micro decisions. Do I have time to snooze my alarm? If I snooze it twice, can I still be on time if I skip breakfast? What should I wear? Should I bring lunch with me, or should I spend $12 on food at work? Do I have time to work out before my meeting? What if I’m too tired to work out later?

These micro decisions are constant, persistent, contribute unwanted stress to your life and unknowingly exacerbate your ability to make more important decisions later on. This phenomenon is known as “Decision Fatigue” and it explains why supermarket customers are more prone to buying junk food at the register after they become mentally fatigued from the decisions and financial trade-offs they made throughout their time at the grocery store. Simple decisions end up taxing your mind as it is constantly working to evaluate the costs and benefits of different scenarios.

Micro decisions are constant, persistent, contribute unwanted stress to your life & unknowingly exacerbate your ability to make more important decisions

Athletes can perform under high pressure because they have essentially hardwired their brains to perform skills even in the presence of extremely stressful circumstances. Day to day life yields a plethora of stress, so even the smallest of decisions add up enormously under this stress and will unknowingly produce mental fatigue.

But just like an athlete trains to cope with stress, you can learn to program parts of your own life. Learning to switch on autopilot through methodical habits and routines will simplify your life, decrease stress, and improve your ability to be present in each moment and act more rationally. 

We often hear about successful people like Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg who wear the same thing every day. President Barack Obama told Vanity Fair, “You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits… I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make… You need to focus your decision-making energy. You need to routinize yourself. You can’t be going through the day distracted by trivia.”

'You need to focus your decision-making energy... You can’t be going through the day distracted by trivia.' [email protected]

Some people hear this and assume it’s a robotic and unappealing way to live. I disagree. I don’t wear the same thing every day, but I have a morning routine that I strictly adhere to which gets me out the door and starts my day in under an hour. I wake up, drink water, get dressed, and then am sitting down to journal with my coffee and breakfast in hand, prepared to tackle my day.

My routine continues to be more polished with time, but it flows and has become a highly therapeutic and stabilizing aspect of my life. I have found that I am able to be far more present in each moment when I‘m not worried about what comes next.

The same I have realized with my busy days. The act of habits and a routine is liberating. It alleviates the stress that usually accompanies so many minor decisions. Instead of wasting mental energy asking what you will do, how you will do it, or when you will do it… you act because you’ve programmed yourself to act in your best interest.