It’s all too easy to go on autopilot. Maybe it’s time to stop.
You’ve undoubtedly met people like this: They complain about how hectic their lives are. Between jobs and kids, or jobs and jobs, they have no time for_________ (sleep, sex, couple time, hobbies, quiet time, thinking, etc.). And maybe this is you.
Routines and habits are essential to our lives: They help keep us from needing to reinvent the wheel every day; they provide a stability that helps reduce our anxiety. But for many of us, these habits, routines, and patterns of everyday life take over—what David Foster Wallace called living life as “Day In/Day Out.” Our lives are running us, instead of us running our lives.
Obviously, for some of us, our lives of routine are not a matter of choice but survival—you need to work those two jobs whether you like it or not; your struggling child or your elderly parent demands a good amount of your time and attention. You’re doing the best you can. The result is just what it is.
But for many more of us, we are fortunate to have options, to set our own priorities, and here our everyday lives reflect the sum of small choices that we’ve made and make. But… they no longer feel like choices. Instead, we do what we do because we do it; we run on autopilot. Life is… OK, or if it is not OK right now, it will get better “when”… when the kids get older, when I get that promotion, finish that degree, get out of debt, get divorced. Then I can start, then I can break out.
This absolutely may be true, but it also may be wishful thinking.
Often the real underlying problem isn’t the quality of the latest box of a life that we find ourselves living in, but the fact that we so readily settle into that box. We lose sight of our ability to choose; we accept being passengers in the life that drives us, rather than being the drivers ourselves. Over time, this can take its toll, this running-on-autopilot life becomes fodder for the 7-year itch, the 30-year or midlife crises. Suddenly we realize that our lives aren’t working, that too much of ourselves is left out of our lives, that the routines have become boring, stifling, and claustrophobic, and we feel depressed or angry. And so, you break out—quit jobs, end relationships, have affairs, do all the things you did when you were 16, or never did when you were 16.
There are two keys to avoiding this treading-water lifestyle, these periodic crises: We need to step back and take stock of our lives, and then need to stop being the passengers and instead be the drivers—a shift from being reactive to proactive.
How to get started:
The autopilot, reactive life is usually one filled with tunnel-vision and overwhelming details—time to pick up the kids, what to get at the grocery store, plodding along and filling the day with the minutia of job and out-of-job life. Time to step back and survey the larger landscape of your life. Some questions to get you started:
1. How is your life going?
On a scale of 1-10, with 1 being massively depressed and 10 being ecstatically happy, how is your everyday life going? If it is a 1 or 2, it’s time to get professional help and/or support. You’re emotionally underwater; you may have a real depressive disorder or be struggling with real issues that require some support to manage. But for many of us, we may land between 4 and 6.
Is this 4-6 range OK, really?
2. What is missing most from your life?
What would it take to bump it up not to a 10 (no winning the lottery fantasies), but up to a 7 or 8? What do you need that you’re not getting to improve the quality of your everyday life? Time for yourself? More time as a couple? Think both in terms of your individual needs and relationship needs. Think back to the time when life was better—last year, 3 years ago. What made it better? What do you need to do to bring some of that earlier goodness back into your life?article continues after advertisement
3. What’s stopping you from making these changes?
Here there may be real underlying problems—that you do have to work the two jobs, that you are clinically depressed and need to actively address it. But often it’s about anxiety or passivity, some irrational fear, often linked to old childhood wounds, about doing what you want or speaking up—that you don’t deserve more, that you are afraid of what others will think or how they will react, that change won’t really create change, that you feel guilty, and you don’t know why.
4. What are your goals for the next year, 2 years, 5 years, 10 years?
This is about having a vision for your life even if on bad days envisioning the future is difficult. But envision it anyway. Having dreams gives us motivation, a sense of purpose, and by taking baby-steps forward, propels us forward. And it’s okay to think in terms of the ideal—again not by being passive and waiting to win the lottery, but being active: imagining who you ideally want to be and do. Even if not fully attainable right now, your answers can help you see more clearly what it is you need and what has been missing from your life.
The next step is putting all this vital information into practice.
Come up with a plan
No, don’t quit your job, don’t go file for divorce. Instead, try taking the baby-steps towards redrafting your everyday life. Maybe you can talk to your boss about coming in a bit earlier and having a longer lunch to help you reboot. Maybe it is about getting the kids to bed earlier so you and your partner have more active couple-time at night, rather than just crashing in front of the TV. Maybe you realize you need to stop being over-responsible and need to quit that volunteer assignment for the church group or stop schlepping the kids to soccer four nights a week. Maybe you go to bed earlier so you can get up earlier and have some quiet time for yourself in the morning.article continues after advertisement
Mentally deconstruct your day, your week; question your choices and challenge those autopilot routines that are running your life.
Talk to your partner
Take those same questions, that plan, and have a conversation with your partner about you, the status of your life, but also ask about the status of his and quality of your relationship. See if your visions and values match. Take stock and see how your priorities have changed in the last years. Talk about what you both want to accomplish, what you both want to change in your overall lifestyle. Wait, you say, we have no time to talk? Start there—make the time.
And if this all seems too overwhelming, if you don’t know where to start, go talk to someone—a therapist, a friend, a life coach, a minister. You want to have someone who can ask the hard questions, challenge you to think differently about you and your life, who can help hold you accountable for changes you feel you want to make.
Do it. Step back and take stock. Upgrade the software that is running your life.
Start running your life, rather than your life running you.