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Getting Off of Autopilot in the New Year

Ah, a brand new year stretches out before you. This will be the one where you eat less, exercise more, cut down on booze or caffeine, spend more time with the family and do more personal development. Just like last year, and the year before, those intentions will likely fade as you quickly find yourself running the same old maze. Here’s why:

Airplane! (1980) via Movieclips.ComThe newest brain research shows that 40% of your behavior during a given day isn’t governed by conscious decisions at all. You are on “autopilot.” You may THINK you are making decisions about what to eat, when to go to coffee, how late to work, but about half of your day is completely governed by automatic behaviors that are linked together in lists and performed without engaging your cerebral cortex.

Getting up, taking a shower, getting dressed, commuting to work, having coffee; each of these complex sequences of behavior is performed on autopilot. These linked lists of behavior (let’s call them “habits”) explain how you can find yourself driving towards the office on a weekday morning when you meant to drive somewhere else, or walking into a room and having no idea why you are there.

Your Brain on “Power Save” Mode
If you think about it, it makes sense. Your brain uses 25% of all of the calories in your body, so just like the power saver on your computer, shutting it down when not in use is more efficient, saving cognitive energy for more important tasks. Remarkably, researchers can actually watch your brain go into power saver mode, with spikes of glucose being used at the start of a habit (as you look for triggers that tell you what to do next) and another spike of at the end (as you pick up your reward at the completion of the sequence and select the next habit).

All of this explains why, despite your best intentions last year, you failed to get fit, volunteer to help others, get a better education, eat better and save money. Instead, you did what you have always done without thinking much about it at the moment.

reminder - routine - rewardFortunately, understanding how habits work also gives us some clues about how to change them. It turns out that all habits feature “the three R’s”:

  • Reminder – the trigger that initiates the habit
  • Routine – the sequence of steps that comprise the habit
  • Reward – the benefit that you receive that reinforces the habit

You can foster the formation of new, more desirable habits, by attacking any of the three R’s. What you can NOT do is eliminate a habit, or change your behavior through sheer willpower.

Athlete and performance coach James Clear explains in this article how you can use this knowledge of “reminder – routine – reward” to create new habits that will accomplish those New Year’s resolutions for you. It isn’t necessarily easy, but it does actually work.

The Power of HabitIf you’d like to read more on the subject, I highly recommend Charles Duhig’s book “The Power of Habit.” In it, he explains the tactics that researchers have found for diagnosing and shaping habits within our lives and gives some thought-provoking examples of how habits shape our lives, our society, and our shopping experiences.

You can read his recipe for habit change in an article called “How Habits Work” on his website.

Happy New Year!

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