The Case for Life on Autopilot

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So much of personal improvement calls for overcoming ingrained behaviors and replacing them with awareness and conscious decisions. Yet living on autopilot can be useful, as long as you take care to design the course you follow.

Shopping Every Day

One great side benefit of tracking finances from day to day is knowing not just where your money goes, but where you go and what you do as well. One thing I noticed while reviewing my own accounts was that I had about 30 grocery store transactions each month. And it wasn’t a fluke. For some reason, either I or my wife went to the store almost every single day — weekends included — usually to buy one or two things at a time, without any sort of grocery list. We were both shocked because we didn’t recognize how many trips we were making. Yet there it was, in black and white.

The cost was not primarily financial. Driving to and from the store cost us about 30 minutes both ways. Another victim of our ad hoc shopping was the pantry. It was filling up with foodstuffs we had bought on a whim, but never got around to cooking or eating. This non-system system worked well enough that we never considered it before, but noticing the cost in time, money, and space, something needed to change.

In the past, I’d made some half-hearted attempts at making a weekly menu and a grocery list. Yet the habit never stuck. Week after week, trying to decide on Saturday what’s for dinner on Thursday somehow became a herculean task, soon set aside in favor of more rounds of mindless shopping. Clearly, more planning wasn’t working. I had to try something else.

Set It and Forget It

What I decided to do was put the family menu, and consequently the shopping, on autopilot. An autopilot keeps an aircraft steadily maintaining the same altitude, airspeed, and direction indefinitely with little or no intervention from the pilot. In the same way, I found out what it took to keep our diet locked in on a small set of family favorite recipes that we enjoyed regularly.

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I also found a way to make this menu low-maintenance. Rather than buy for the week per se, I decided to create a checklist of all the ingredients we needed for our mainstay recipes, and put them in a checklist. Then every week, I brought out this checklist and matched it against what was already in the house. Any missing items from the pantry became the shopping list for the week.

Now, on any given night we can have any of our favorites because the necessary supplies are guaranteed to be on our shelves. The same flexible, easy-to-execute plan will keep us fed for far less time and effort, week after week.

Brilliantly Brainless

At first, I had tried to replace a mindless habit (shopping every day) with a mindful habit (detailed meal planning and shopping against a defined list.) That first plan failed because it was too cognitively demanding. It’s not as if I’m not smart enough, in absolute terms, to make a meal plan and shop for it. Rather, weekly meal planning is costly enough that I’ll avoid it, given all the other interests I have.

What did work was replacing a mindless (though expensive) habit with one that’s even more mindless. Remember, the checklist remains absolutely the same every week. One new added step was the inventory, but again, that’s done by rote with no need for creativity or decision-making needed. That effort is more than offset by an average of six less trips to the store each week. This new system also saves emotional wear and tear because we never have to consider whether we need to make a trip to the store on a weeknight.

Making the Solution Easier than the Problem

What does my family’s shopping problem have to do with therapy? A lot, I think. One of the sad truths of therapy is that our clients fail to change, much of the time. Like grocery shopping, most therapeutic problems I treat are problems of habit. Some of my clients would like to be sober, but they’re addicted. Others would like to start a relationship but they have a habit of avoiding people. I’m beginning to believe this happens in part because the plans for change we give them are too complicated and demanding.

In the therapeutic literature, there are thick tomes called “treatment planners,” that provide detailed bullet-point lists of activities designed to help various common psychological complaints: journal this, log that, reflect on a third thing. The lists go on and on. As a therapist, I love the lists. I enjoy looking down at all this technology like some elaborate landscape decorated with hundreds of ways for my clients to get better. I love recognizing when a technique can help one of my clients, and I love figuring out how these techniques can be usefully applied to the problem at hand.

But now, looking back on this complexity in light of my own small, simple change, I realize that I didn’t change because I used a lot of sophisticated techniques, but rather, I changed when the change made my life simpler and easier than the bad habit it replaced. So perhaps what my clients need is not more clever thinking, or more willpower to execute heavyweight, elaborate plans, but a simple way to live that automatically reuses good decisions over and over again without additional effort, indefinitely, like an airplane on autopilot.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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