We all have an autopilot mode. When we do something over and over again we start to do it automatically, without conscious thought. We may refer to it as our routine or a habit or we might not even recognize that we are doing it.
When we learn to read we have to sound out each word. But over time we just breeze through the sentences. We gain an understanding and meaning but we certainly don’t have to sound out each word to do so.
When we learn to drive everything feels foreign. We have to think about steering the car, breaking and pressing the gas. But after years of driving, we can usually carry a conversation with someone and still break when the driver in front of us slams on his or her brakes. We didn’t think about it, we just did it.
Musicians don’t have to think about the scales they play. When they have practiced long enough that it becomes natural, their playing shifts from a constant focus on the technical aspects to being able to do those automatically and focus on higher level thinking, such as being creative or finding the flow.
In Hooked, How to Build Habit-Forming Products, author Nir Eyal states, “Habits are one of the ways the brain learns complex behaviors. Neuroscientists believe habits give us the ability to focus our attention on other things by storing automatic responses in the basal ganglia, an area of the brain associated with involuntary actions.”
Even though we all have access to this autopilot mode, most people take it for granted. They don’t understand the great capacity to use this autopilot to improve.
Instead of seeing the great ways to utilize this resource, they assume habits just form without our ability to control them. They usually feel habits are outside of our control because they are below our conscious awareness, but this isn’t the case.
We can form habits by consciously doing something over and over again. As we do this, we naturally start to form a repetitive structure. This structure helps form a way that the brain automates the behavior. The more consistently we do it, the less focus and attention it takes to carry out.
But this also makes it difficult if we want to break out of autopilot mode to do something different.
I see this at our company all the time. When we have a set process for quality control, receiving, repairing equipment etc. we tend to do it the same way over and over again.
If we have to make a subtle change to the process, we can’t just tell the technician about the new change we want them to make. We have to find ways to break their automatic response and incorporate a new behavior.
One way we do that is to force them to think about something else. As they go through their routine we put something in place that causes them to stop and think.
One example is when we wanted them to use a different part number while repairing a specific piece of equipment. We knew the propensity to slip up and make this mistake since some of them have been adding that part to the order in the same way for years.
So we changed the part in the system so that whenever it was added to an order for that piece of equipment the price of the part would be about 1,000% of the price it should be. Suddenly they would snap out of their routine to notice that the price of the repair suddenly looked really strange. That would be enough of a break in their routine to realize their error and correct for it.
I do the same thing for myself. If I want to remember to drop off a letter in the mail before work, I can’t just try to remember. Every time I tried this I would drive straight to work completely forgetting to make the detour.
I’ve done different things here. It could be as simple as placing the letter on my steering wheel the night before. Then when I would start the car to drive to work I would suddenly remember.
Or I would place a Post-it note on my door exiting my house. That strange yellow paper would be enough for me to stop and think, “what the?”
You could even do funny things like tying your shoes together. That would certainly get your attention since it is completely outside the norm.
Many of our bad habits can be broken in similar ways. We have to have something to break our routine enough so that we think about what we are doing.
If we can do this enough we can start to form new patterns and structures. Then we can start to form better routines and improve the processes we use all the time.
But if we don’t stop and think about what we are doing and realize the power of being able to control the autopilot mode of our brain, we will likely keep doing it the way we always did. We would gain more experience but never actually improve from that experience. Similar to the driver that retains their bad habits and doesn’t improve their driving skills throughout their lifetime, we will be doomed to keep doing it in a poor manner, never realizing there is a better way.