A Is for Autopilot


You can probably think of a few examples of operating on autopilot. An obvious one is driving a familiar route while you’re lost in thought and then being unable to recall the trip itself afterward. That can be a bit unsettling, but it happens all the time. It’s normal. Your brain knows how to operate your vehicle because operating your vehicle is a routine and your brain is wired to commit routines to memory. You can access them faster that way, and the conscious part of your brain is free to attend other things. Autopilot allows you to do one thing while you’re thinking about something entirely different.

Because your unconscious knows how to operate your vehicle, you don’t have to think about it while you’re doing it. It wasn’t that way when you were learning how to drive and you had to focus all your attention on it. And it isn’t that way now when you’re on a steep or dangerous road, trying to locate an unfamiliar address, or faced with a detour. But under ordinary circumstances, your unconscious can handle the task of driving, and many other tasks, just fine.

Estimates are that close to 80% or more of what we do every day we do on autopilot, which means without conscious intention or volition. It’s not just what we do, either. The majority of our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are the result of automatic brain processes.

Our brains run mostly on autopilot, and the conscious mind has little access to the giant and mysterious factory that runs below it.David Eagleman

The conscious part of our brain, which thinks logically, sets long-term goals, and can imagine things being different—the source of our desire for change—processes only about 40 bits of information at a time. However, the part of our brain that usually runs us, which is completely uninterested in our long-term goals and is intent not on change but on maintaining the status quo, processes a whopping 11 million bits of information at a time. So it’s just easier for us to follow the path of least resistance, go with the flow, and think, feel, and do whatever we’ve always thought, felt, and done before.

Get Me to the Church on Time

When you get into your car to go to work—or to the supermarket or to your friend’s house—you don’t need to think about how to start the car or back out of your garage or get to your destination because you do it on autopilot. Autopilot is less effective when you want to take a different route or make an extra stop. It can also take you somewhere you don’t want to go; for example, if you head out in the direction of your workplace and forget you need to turn left instead of right because you’re meeting a friend at a restaurant instead of going to work.

Your brain’s autopilot thinks it knows where you want to go, and it’s going to do its best to get you to the correct destination.

It does the same thing with other routine behaviors, such as opening a bag of potato chips. If you usually eat the entire bag of chips, once you open the bag, autopilot will get you to your destination of eating everything in it. You don’t need to tell it to do that. But if that’s not what you want to do, you’re going to have to tell it over and over again until it rewrites the chip-eating program.

alphabet-changeThe conscious part of your brain may clearly see the benefit of change and may want to make a change, but it’s slow, lazy, and easily depleted. Much of the time, it’s offline. The unconscious part of your brain—your autopilot—actively resists change, and it is fast, vast, and always on. Unless you make a persistent effort to convince it otherwise, your brain’s autopilot won’t take your half-hearted attempts to chart a new course seriously. It will keep “correcting” you back to the same old well-worn path, taking you to work when you want to go to the restaurant and taking you through the entire bag of chips instead of stopping after a handful.

Repetition and Persistence

Just as an airplane’s autopilot is a sophisticated navigational system that makes flying safer and more efficient, our brain’s autopilot is a sophisticated navigational system that makes living safer and more efficient. We can’t disable it, and we wouldn’t want to. But we need to know its limitations and how to work with it if we don’t want to simply be at the effect of it.

Think about how much repetition and persistence it takes to learn to play a musical instrument well or ride a bicycle or ice skate or dunk a basketball. You can’t become a pianist after a few sessions with a piano or by willing yourself to get better. It takes hours of practice, playing the same exercises over and over until both your hands and your brain know how to play them without your having to consciously think about every little movement.

You can get autopilot to work for you rather than against you, but only if you recognize that repetition and persistence—not willpower—is the key to lasting change.

This is the first post in the series A-Z: An Alphabet of Change.

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  1. I would be deliriously happy if my autopilot worked for, not against me.

    ‘…repetition and persistence—not willpower—is the key’.

    Surely I need willpower to repeat and persist? Please tell me a way to not give up without using willpower. That is, persist and enjoy the task when autopilot is telling me not to bother anymore.

    • Hi Graham. Good question.

      If you want to change autopilot behavior, you need to have a clear direction (what do you want to do and why do you want to do it?) and a sense of urgency. Otherwise the change you want to make won’t be compelling enough to wear down System 1—in which case, System 1 will wear you down.

      Once you have a direction and a sense of urgency:
      (1) Create an intention; make it specific; write it down.
      (2) Find a way to keep your attention focused on your intention.
      (3) Decide what you will do when things don’t go according to plan. How will you get yourself back on track?
      (4) Reward yourself each time you follow through. Identify the reward ahead of time and be rigorous about applying it. The reward, which activates memory and learning circuits in the brain, is more powerful than willpower. Yet people have a surprisingly difficult time using rewards effectively.

      The process of behavior change has been described as gradual, mundane, repetitious, and tedious, which is one of the reasons we need rewards. But I think the payoff is worth the effort (and the tedium).

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