How has your week been? Halfway through October, a few days of warm sunshine and now some autumn rain. Gales around the corner. Sounds about right for the UK.
Last week I took my first long drive in two years, We have two cars as a family, one automatic, one with a manual gearbox. For the long journey I resorted to the car with the manual gearbox. We have driven it occasionally during lockdown, just enough to keep it and the battery in good condition but I’m not as familiar with this car, nor with long journeys as I used to be.
As I approached Bristol on the M4 the speed limit was lowered… this was just between the comfortable ratio for 5th gear and 4th gear. If we stayed AT the speed limit, 5th was fine, if traffic slowed a little I could feel I needed to drop a gear – BUT HOW?!
Sitting in the driving seat I was surprised, even slightly panicked at the question. How do I change to 4th?
OK. I know. Clutch in, hand on gear stick and… did it simply fall back into 4th or did I need to nudge it to the left?
As I drove, praying we wouldn’t slow down, how could this even be an issue for me? I know how to change gear and I’ve been driving this car for 7 years!!! If I nudged the gearstick left would I grind into 2nd?
I smiled as I realised that this was a conflict between two parts of my brain – the part of my brain, the pre-frontal cortex, that consciously wanted to do and control things, particularly new things and a deeper part that unconsciously had the answers without my knowing how (basal ganglia). Here I was, seeing that conflict in action.
When we are doing something new, learning things for the first time it takes conscious effort, thought, focus. I’m sure you can see that face, the furrowed brow and maybe the tongue just protruding slightly or a gentle bite of your lower lip as you concentrate. This is your prefrontal cortex taking control.
Learning how to tie your shoelaces. Signing your name. Changing gear in the car. All examples of complex processes that we once learned to do through the exertion of our conscious will, lots of practice and a lot of energy.
Then something magical happened. Mastery. It became something we knew we could do. Easy. Simple. Automatic. We didn’t have to think about it any more and we certainly didn’t need to trouble the energy-hungry pre-frontal cortex of our brain with this.
These routine actions were now the domain of a different set of brain structures, four areas known as the basal ganglia that are still well connected with other parts of our brain controlling motor functions for example but operating beneath our level of conscious awareness.
Much of our lives happens at this unconscious level and perhaps for many things this is in fact the goal – to learn a new skill and to then have it happen, flawlessly, effortlessly, unconsciously. In this state it takes minimal energy to execute the action
In terms of our brain functioning this is good news – until it isn’t.
Have you ever found yourself on “automatic pilot”? Making tea only to realise that I really wanted coffee. Driving the route that I know like the back of my hands only to realise that today I was going somewhere different and here I am already turning left when I really needed to turn right?!
These slips are small, sometimes amusing, occasionally costly.
Automatic pilot can also be the reason it is sometimes difficult to learn new or better habits
Let’s look at our early morning, start work routine – what is it we do?
Make tea, open laptop, download email and spend the next 90 minutes going through our inbox?
Can I check: did you consciously want to do that? Did you really choose to spend the best 90 minutes of your morning answering emails? Will emails make or break your day, boost your business, hit your KPIs and make your manager happy? Honestly?
Some of us may be able to answer yes, but for many of us, that’s the part of our morning routine, that’s easy, habitual yet probably not very productive.
Now I know email is a real part of life and work for many of us. I know many emails do need answering but would it really make or break your professional reputation if they didn’t get answered until lunchtime?
For most of us, our work has priorities that are more meaningful or important than routine emails.
Are emails a better use of that resource than actually working on our most important priority for 90 minutes while we are still focussed and fresh? Are those email replies more valuable to us/our work than planning a project outline, producing a valuable resource or delegating work to a colleague?
Every now and then it’s really helpful to check whether our automatic habits are serving us well. If we find we’ve slipped into unhelpful habits we need to draw on the resources of our consciously aware, pre-frontal cortex to help us make better decisions.
Ideally we want to embed those new, more helpful habits so that they become the automatic default. When we can trust that autopilot really does lead us to our most productive habits we are in the best place to use our resources wisely.
As for me and my car journey… understanding what the conflict was I trusted I would know what was needed when a gear change was necessary. I gave it no further thought and, as you might guess, arrived at my destination safely.
The experience has had me reviewing my habits for the rest of the week. Checking in on what serves me well, the good habits that have slipped or identifying others that have outworn their usefulness.
Maybe now is the time to check-in on yourself. In terms of your habits:
– what’s working?
– what’s got stuck?
– what needs to change?
Let me know what you come up with!
PS If you want to make space for the time to review your habits maybe it would help to have my free, Out of Overwhelm Route Map. When we’re struggling to find the time to stuff that we know would help and make things better but we’re just too busy fighting fires and keeping out heads above water, let me throw you a lifeline…