No matter who we are or what we do, we spend a heck of a lot of our lives on autopilot, doing the things we normally do without paying much if any attention to them. This is both a good thing and a bad one.
Good, because if we had to actually concentrate on everything we did, we’d never get anything done. Not so good because human autopilot mode is largely a stimulus-response model of behavior where we react to a pattern of events or a stimulus with the set of actions that we’ve learned to use with this pattern – and miss things. Sometimes seriously important things.
For instance: my medical conditions mean I have to take a positive drugstore’s worth of pills each morning. I have them set up in a way that they get taken in the same sequence every time so I don’t forget anything – using the stimulus-response pattern to my advantage – but if I should get distracted partway through the process I can and do forget which pills I’ve already taken and which ones I still need to take. Most of them I can survive missing a dose, but for some of them a missed dose is a serious issue. There’s a reason I keep an emergency stash of the most critical medications in my purse so if I do forget one of them, I can take use the emergency stash when I realize I missed it.
On the flip side, one I’d learned to drive, the trained reactions took over and I mostly don’t have to think about the immense number of mental calculations driving requires. My body knows how much pressure to put on the gas pedal, when to back off, what a good traffic pattern looks like and what a bad driver disrupting things looks like. I’ve got to be really tired to need to focus on actually driving these days, but when I was first learning? There was so much to think about: I was sure I’d never sort it all out.
For that matter, when the Husband and I bought bicycles earlier this year (that being one of the few forms of exercise I actually enjoy), it had been well over thirty years since I’d last done any cycling, and that had involved a rattly old beast without any modern conveniences like, oh… gears. It took me a while to get the hang of working the gears, and balance is kind of an issue because of the assorted medical things that have happened since I was a teenager, but it feels more natural now, and the basic principle came right back. Next project is to get halfway decent with the multitudinous hills around where we live.
Thing is, it can be interesting to sit back and observe your autopilot responses occasionally. This may be a writer-thing, because there’s always that little part of me that’s mentally taking notes about how something works and how it feels, but it’s illuminating to train that mental note-taker to look at the things you do when you’re on autopilot. It leads to recognizing when things aren’t working as well as they could be and training yourself into better methods (which, I will note, is quite doable but not in any way easy).
It’s what lies under a lot of self-help advice: training yourself to observe your stimulus-response actions, then to do an interrupt and redirect on the ones you want to improve – just make sure you pick only one pattern at a time and get the new pattern stable before you try to change a different one. Otherwise you risk overloading yourself and failing to get anything settled, which almost always leads back to the well-worn path you’ve followed for however long it’s been (been there, done that more times than I want to try to count).
Of course, there are some it’s not worth trying to improve. I could break all my current typing patterns to learn to type properly, but it’s not worth doing when I’d be damaging my work every day on the job and when I’m writing, particularly when my rather less efficient but decently fast quasi-touch-typing is good enough for what I need it to be. I’m still quite capable of typing half-asleep with a keyboard that’s got half the letters worn off.
So observe, evaluate, then make your decisions and intervene where there seems to be a need. It’s a pretty good recipe for most things, really.