Living on Autopilot

Making Better Decisions, Every Time

The buzzword “autopilot” carries negative connotations, implying that if you are on “autopilot,” you are disconnected from your life and decisions, mindlessly going through the motions.

But as we round the corner into the second month of the “Making the Changes That Matter” project, I can make a case that shifting your habits into autopilot mode could be the best decision you ever make for your health. 

“Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff”

The concept of “autopilot” is an important one for our brains, because having some behaviors that are automatic save us the conscious effort of decision-making minutiae.

Our physical bodies do this marvelously, keeping our lungs pumping and our heart beating without conscious effort. We don’t have to think about breathing, for example.

In other words, having some behaviors on autopilot allows us not to “sweat the small stuff” and frees up mental bandwidth for the bigger picture of life – relationships, ideas, and personal growth, for starters.

This kind of swift, sub-conscious decision-making has the potential to make life better.

However, the word “autopilot” can suggest that somehow we are going through life like robots. But I think this unwarranted ire makes the assumption that we are already living mindful, conscious lives, examining each decision thoughtfully as it comes our way, weighing our options, and soberly making rational choices every time.

You and I both know that this is simply not true. 

Instead, it’s important that we are honest with ourselves that most of our choices are made on autopilot already – it’s simply that the setting does not give us the outcomes that we want from life.

We think we’re being conscious and intentional, but the reality is that our lives – our decisions, our thoughts, and our behaviors – follow familiar, predictable grooves that we have essentially programmed into our brains through repetition and socialization. We don’t always like the results of our lifestyle, but it’s difficult to re-program this swift type of thinking and decision-making.

This is especially true of food and exercise decisions. Most of our choices are automatic, fast, and almost pre-determined, and change is hard.

If you remember January’s theme, “Keeping Things Simple,” and you’re recalling the extremely basic strategies that we covered over the last five weeks, you may be asking: “But shouldn’t changing my behavior be easy?”

If January’s quote was drawn from the simplicity of Ockham’s razor, then February’s reply would be: “What’s simple isn’t always easy.” 

Yes, all of the strategies suggested during January are simple. The hard part is getting your mind and body to cooperate – to re-program those habitual grooves so that they run in a direction that you want, rather than simply following ingrained routines and beliefs that leave you tired, frustrated, and unhealthy.

In other words, we want your knee-jerk responses to transform from liabilities to assets. 

Repetition and Context

Changing your automatic behaviors is a lot like trying to address your implicit racial biases.

Whoa – hard left turn, right? 

Nope. It is essentially the same set of beliefs and behaviors, because the brain operates very similarly with biases as it does with habits. I promise I’ll get back to weight loss – just follow me!

Biases, which are typically unconscious, operate in the “autopilot” range of our thoughts and behaviors – swift and unthinking. We may think we’re “woke,” but still make automatic snap judgments based on race without realizing it.

We can improve our unconscious thought patterns and behavioral grooves, but it takes consistent and deliberate effort over a long period of time to create meaningful mental change.

But time and effort isn’t all that’s needed. According to this study, participants in a race bias reduction study also needed:

  • Self-Awareness – participants needed to recognize that they had implicit race bias
  • Concern – participants needed to feel ethically worried about the consequences of their way of thinking
  • A Plan for Confronting Triggers – in addition to other exercises and strategies, participants needed to identify which situations and contexts elicited more racially-biased thinking, and to have a plan for how they would use different behaviors

In the words of one of the researchers on the study: “Such change is likely only after the application of considerable goal-directed effort over time.”

In other words, changing your “outer thinking” – the you that you perceive as you – is easy. But changing your inner thinking – the you that you don’t even realize you have? It’s difficult. It not only takes time and effort, but it also requires that you know you want to change something. Although this kind of self-awareness is hard work to cultivate, we all know that there are areas of life that are well worth the effort.

As we start a month in which I will be focusing on autopilot thought systems and behaviors, we need to start with the three-step process of change that was summarized above. Your strategy for this week will focus on identifying the three aspects of this process for yourself:

  • Which behaviors consistently create “health regret” for you, but you feel that these behaviors are difficult to change?
  • Why do these behaviors concern you? What are the long-term consequences of these behaviors?
  • What situations and contexts trigger these behaviors for you? Please note that this does not have to be a negative situation – it may be a benign context that provides a trigger for behaviors that you don’t like.

The goal is that you can answer these three questions for yourself this week, and we will re-visit next week as we move on to formulating new thoughts and behaviors for your new autopilot setting.

But first… let’s reflect on last week!

Follow-Up Questions from Last Week

If you want to jump into this free healthy living project, all you have to do is start today by shooting me an e-mail to let me know you’re “in!” Each week, I e-mail strategies to my mailing list on Monday. If you would like to be on this list, please scroll down and sign up!

Last week, we talked about optimizing your eating environment, both at home and at work. Answer these questions via e-mail:

  • What did you change about your kitchen and living environment at home, if anything?
  • What did you change about your work environment or work routines, if anything?
  • What did you change about your morning and evening routine, if anything?
  • What differences did you notice based on the changes that you made?
  • Based on your experience last week, will you make any more changes or alter any of the adjustments that you’ve already made?

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Rachel Trotta

I am a Certified Personal Trainer, Fitness Nutrition Specialist, Physique and Bodybuilding Specialist, and Women's Fitness Specialist. I live in New Jersey in the NYC metro area, and I coach clients online all over the world. As a trainer and health writer, my mission is to make healthy living sustainable for the average person. I’m also a wife, mom, nature lover, runner, avid cook, weightlifting aficionado, history nerd, travel addict, and obsessive podcast listener. Get in touch!

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