Put on Autopilot

“Many of our daily habits are put on autopilot, which conserves valuable thought-fueling energy that needn’t be wasted on familiar movements, experiences, and interactions.” Author Colin Wright writes in his book Come Back Frayed. Wright uses this quote to explain the way we build routines in our lives and the danger that automating our actions can have when we forget to experience and focus on the present moment. The quote above introduces the idea of autopilot, giving us a perspective of autopilot’s usefulness in terms of conserving energy and decision making power, but Wright continues to explain what can go wrong when we let too much of our lives be controlled without our conscious thought:

 

“As a result of this routine-building predisposition, we barely notice the drive to work, and sometimes find ourselves looking up from the steering wheel, already at the office parking lot and unable to recall the specifics of how we got there. … This automation goes far beyond commuting. We listen to the same, familiar music, have the same conversations with well-known, comfortable friends, loop through the same meal-time, bed time, and after-work habits that we’ve been repeating for months, years, perhaps decades. It’s no surprise that time compresses under these circumstances. … At some point it’s not the parking lot that we notice when we look up from the steering wheel, but life. We’re here, experiencing this point in time, but unsure of how we got here. Where did all those years go? Why doesn’t anything from the time between now and back then stand out?”

 

The danger of autopilot is that we put off being an active participant in our lives, and as a result, we fail to build a real history for ourselves. The problem that Wright explains is not with our routines and habits, but it is with our failure to be mindful and present in familiar moments. The more we can be present in even the simplest actions, the more we can become aware of the world around us and engage in a meaningful way to shape the direction of our life. Time will likely still go by too fast and some points will feel compressed, but by being more present in our actions we open new opportunities for ourselves to connect with others, grow, learn, and produce something meaningful with our time.

 

Wright travels frequently and actively believes in changing his surroundings by changing his physical location on the planet. This keeps his habits and routines constantly in flux, and forces him to be aware of his thoughts, actions, and decisions. It is hard to build a similar lifestyle, but we can build habits in our lives that put us in new positions and unfamiliar surroundings, rather than just building habits that replicate the same experience day after day. Creating situations that are not routine forces our brain to be active and present to process the world around us, and these moments may be the defining points in life that help us understand and delineate our growth through time.

The Process

In The Obstacle is the Way, author Ryan Holiday looks at the unprecedented success of Alabama head football coach Nick Saban to share a lesson about reaching our goals. He includes the following quote from Saban,
“Don’t think about winning the SEC championship. Don’t think about the national championship. Think about what you need to do in this drill, on this play, in  this moment. That’s the process: Let’s think about what we can do today, the task at hand.”
This brilliant quote about focus shifts our perspective from the long run success we aim toward to our current actions, but in a way that ensures that our actions always align with our ultimate goal. Holiday pieces apart Saban’s quote by writing,
“Okay, you’ve got to do something very difficult. Don’t focus on that. Instead break it down into pieces. Simply do what you need to do right now. And do it well. And then move on to the next thing. Follow the process and not the prize.”
What is so powerful about the process is that each step and each action builds toward the final goal. We do not arbitrarily shoot toward where we think we want to go, but we build each moment into a blueprint that guides us to our ultimate destination. By constantly reflecting on our actions and striving performing at our best with each task in front of us, we make sure that we continually grow. We push ourselves to bring excellence into each moment so that whether or not we reach out goal, we end up in a place where habit of excellence allows us to be successful.
Holiday’s quote shows us that success stems from growth through the process and in being mindful of how we perform each action. We may not end up being the champion, receiving the promotion, or winning the contest, but we will have built skills that will serve us in the future. The process may not always give us the reward we hope for, but it prepares us for any obstacle that we may face, and will build toward exceptional outcomes.
I think this quote on its own seems to contradict the message I presented from Holiday in my last three passages. However, when you look deeper you see the way the process aligns with the idea of playing for the long run and going beyond the whistle. The process allows us to take our long term goal and break it into bite size mini goals that constantly build in an intentional direction. The process provides us with clarity to overcome obstacles and challenges by focusing on the here and now, rather than the cumulative roadblocks we know we will face. It is also aligned so that each individual action builds toward our final goal and allows us to persist toward our destination.

More on Perception

Ryan Holiday in his book, The Obstacle is the Way, looks at the ways we think about and approach the world around us, and offers suggestions and ideas for how we can become more adaptive and better suited for the challenges of life’s journey. A common theme in his book is the power of perception and the importance of being able to step back and expand our perspective. Holiday writes, “It’s our preconceptions that are the problem. They tell us that things should or need to be a certain way, so when they’re not, we naturally assume that we are at a disadvantage or that we’d be wasting our time to pursue an alternate course. When really, it’s all fair game, and every situation is an opportunity for us to act.”

 

Holiday’s quote has two parts for me. The first part is the idea that we are constantly approaching the world with certain perspectives, and as we do so, we have preconceived ideas about how things should be. Our expectations become powerful guides dictating the experiences we expect, and how we interpret those experiences. If we can begin to better recognize our perspective we can hopefully get to a point where these preconceived ideas are no longer hidden from us, but rather are clear for us to see and leave behind. When we can get rid of ideas for how the world should be, how we should feel, and what is the right way for  the world to organize itself around us, we can be more complete and true versions of ourselves. Our emotions cease to drive our behavior and we can remain more level in our emotions as we are not wrought by the failure of the world to reach our expectations.

 

The second part of Holiday’s quote focuses on an idea of taking action and thinking about ourselves relative to others. It is challenging not to think of the world as a constant contest, and it is hard to avoid comparing ourselves with others who come from different backgrounds, have different interests, and have different skills. Constantly expecting a certain outcome because we have confidence in our ability can only lead us to frustrations when the outcomes we want fail to materialize. What is even worse, we may fail to act at all because our preconceived ideas about what will result from our action do not line up with what we would want. The true problem when we dictate our world based on hidden preconceived ideas is that we are giving up our focus on the present for our imagination of what the future provides. Our preconceptions are driven by the past and keep our attention fixed to an uncertain future. Remaining present in the moment grounds us to our current actions and eliminates our preconceived ideas for what we want and expect, allowing us to be the best version of our selves and to put our best effort into what is currently in front of us.

Presence During Tough Times

Author Ryan Holiday wrote about the ways in which we can take the challenges and struggles in our lives and turn them into opportunities for us to grow, learn, and become more complete human beings in his book The Obstacle is the Way. Holiday’s message is always relevant and important for anyone, regardless of your situation. He offers strategies and ways of thinking based on stoic philosophy, but he does so in a way that recognizes our humanity and recognizes that though simple in theory, his recommendations are challenging in real life. What his book gives us is a new perspective on struggles and a practice that overtime can help us succeed when we face obstacles and frustrations.

 

One of the key ideas from his book is our ability to focus on the present moment and to reshape the way in which we interpret events around us. Often times we tear ourselves apart in fear of the unknown future and regret of our past. Holiday encourages us to stay in the present moment and to truly understand our current situation to better handle the mistakes we have made and to better navigate the uncertainty of what is ahead. Holiday writes, “You can take the trouble you’re dealing with and use it as an opportunity to focus on the present moment. To ignore the totality of your situation and learn to be content with what happens, as it happens. To have no “way”  that the future needs to be to confirm your predictions, because you didn’t make any.”

 

In this quote Holiday reminds us that each struggle and each moment of frustration, fear, and doubt can be a tool for us to use to change our perspective. We may be working hard to have life be a certain way, and our obstacles can help us analyze our current situation, recognize that all we have control over is our own thoughts, and let go of the anxiety that builds when we try to force our lives to be a certain way. The act of presence during tough times helps us see the positives and keeps us from letting our mind connect current troubles to past challenges or future fears. Staying present in these difficult moments helps us learn how to be present in every moment, and helps us recognize that all we ever have is the current time.

The Need To Be Present

Author Ryan Holiday writes about what it means to persevere through challenges and struggles in his book The Obstacle is the Way. He builds on ideas of stoicism dating back to Marcus Aurelius and Seneca, and helps us understand how greater awareness, presence, and focus can make a big difference in the world in 2016.  Looking at those who marched forward in the face of adversity, Holiday presents us with a list of major businesses that thrive today, but were founded during economic challenges and depressions. These companies, he argues, found success in difficult times by staying present, and not focusing on the doom and gloom around them, but rather on their own strengths and innovation.

 

When we incorporate this into our own lives we can find the same benefits, and Holiday writes, “…in our own lives, we aren’t content to deal with things as they happen. We have to dive endlessly into what everything “means,” whether something is “fair” or not, what’s “behind” this or that, and what everyone else is doing. Then we wonder why we don’t have the energy to actually deal with our problems. Or we get ourselves so worked up and intimidated because of the overthinking, that if we’d just gotten to work we’d probably be done already.” Through this quote holiday writes about the ways in which we focus on things which distract us from our true goals and worry about things which lie beyond our control. These fears and worries steal our energy and focus, preventing us from driving toward our goals.

 

Holiday would argue that we would be more productive in our lives and reach better outcomes by turning inward rather than being distracted by things external to our mind. It is not up to us to determine what others think or do, but it is up to us to decide how we will react to others. We can think deeply and critically about the world around us, but we can never be certain of the forces surrounding us and the thoughts and ideas of others. Living in a world where external validation and success is determined by what others think of you is dangerous and unpredictable. When you value yourself based on how you perceive others to value you,  you are giving up control of your own life. Building in more reflection of your actions and dropping a worry about the opinions of others will help you find more freedom and power in your own life.

The Practicality of the Present

In the book, Meditations, Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius offers us insight into the mindset of stoicism and shows us both how to practice stoicism and the benefits that it can bring to our lives. The power behind stoicism lies in shaping our thoughts, controlling our emotions, and giving ourselves the power to choose how we wish to behave in any given situation.  It requires ardent self-awareness and self-reflection to truly recognize how we are living and to adjust our lives, thoughts, and actions to better align.

 

Part of stoicism requires the ability to be fully present in any given moment so that you are conscious of your thoughts and deliberate in your actions. Aurelius writes,

 

“Wipe out the imagination. Stop the pulling of the strings . Confine thyself to the present. Understand well what happens either to thee or to another. Divide and distribute every object into the causal and the material. Think of thy last hour. Let the wrong which is done by a man stay there where the wrong was done.”

 

His passage is full of short stoic soundbites that reveal the importance of staying present, and the importance of controlling your mind as opposed to letting other people or other things shape your thoughts. He leaves it to the reader to imagine the benefits of his advice in this section, but it is easy to see that you can be more at peace when living in the present without your mind overflowing with fears of what the future holds or with grudges against those who have done wrong to you.  When you sort yourself into the present and become more considerate and clear regarding the world around you, it becomes possible for you to achieve more and build better perspectives of the world.

 

When Aurelius encourages us to put a stop to our imagination he is not encouraging us to leave all creative thought behind. What he is urging the reader (originally himself) to do is to avoid thoughts of the future that leave one full of fear or with specific desires.  Anticipating a future that one imagines to be difficult and unhappy may cause one to become depressed in the present. At the same time, imaging a future that is bountiful and rich may lead one to feel unnecessary pressures in the present to ensure that ones life lives up to the luxury imagined. In both cases, visions of the future can impact the decisions made in the present, affecting the way in which we approach our current tasks.

 

By staying present we avoid thoughts of what we cannot predict and reduce the amount of stress that we have.  We can leave our grudges behind by recognizing that a wrong can only be harmful to us if we carry it with us at every moment.  Making decisions in the present that we know will benefit us in the future will help to prepare us for the challenges we will face, but being focused on just the future may cause us to loose sight of where we are now, abandoning the life that sustains us on our way to our goals.

Focus and Presence

Marcus Aurelius, in his work Meditations, wrote about the importance of presence in our daily lives, and how focus and the ability to be grounded in the present moment can bring us happiness.

 

“If though workest at that which is before thee, following right reason seriously, vigorously, calmly, without allowing anything else to distract thee, but keeping thy divine part pure, as  if thou shouldst be bound to give it back immediately; if though holdest to this, expecting nothing, fearing nothing, but satisfied with thy present activity according to nature, and with heroic truth in every word and sound which though utterest, though wilt live happy.  And there is no man who is able to prevent this.”

 

The quote above shows the value in giving your self over to what it is you are currently working on, and focusing on that thing with 100% of your attention. The quality of your work will be maximized, and with greater focus your determination and effort will culminate and build into greatness.  When that mindset is coupled with self-awareness, you can create something  that you are proud of, and ensure that all of your actions aimed toward your current goal help fulfill your mission and the task in front of you.

 

Aurelius is writing about more than just today’s popular idea of monotasking. He is writing about focusing on a single thing and doing it well, which is the base of monotasking, but he is also diving into the idea of staying grounded in the present moment, in every moment of our lives.  Rather than being distracted by thoughts and feelings of our past or future, he encourages us to look at what is in front of us at each moment and consider how we can make the most of it and build the most in ourselves from it.  Monotasking is the idea of doing one thing at a time and bringing our full focus to that thing, but it does not include the same type of grounded awareness that Marcus Aurelius writes about when describes the benefits and importance of staying grounded and true to oneself in every action and decision.

 

When I first read the quote above it stood out to me as a quote written about achieving flow in the work that we do. When I look back at it I understand the ways in which Aurelius is describing flow, or that state where you are so absorbed in your work that time seems to act strangely and you are able to produce wonderful work with a clear focus and minimal effort, but I am not sure that is exactly what Aurelius is hitting on.  Flow usually accompanies actions that are truly engaging or are activities that we are passionate about. Finding that area for any individual is a powerful feeling and a very rewarding experience which does bring happiness, but Aurelius is encouraging us to find the same type of happiness through the grounded awareness of ourselves and our activities. In being focused on how each action and decision builds into the person we become, we are able to stay present and focused on those activities so that they are in alignment with who we are and want to be, and ultimately, we will find happiness through rigorous self-awareness, determination, and self discipline.