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Study: The mass of men really do lead lives of quiet desperation

Do you ever feel like you’re just going through the motions during the work week, and not making thoughtful decisions? You roll out of bed, get ready for work, mindlessly work on projects, head home for dinner, go to sleep and do the same thing in the same order the next day. The routine has taken out your energy and worn down your brain so that you feel mostly numb.

It’s a shockingly common feeling. British retailer Marks & Spencer released the Autopilot Britain study last month, showing that a staggering 96% of people surveyed say they operate on autopilot— that’s reportedly an average of 15 decisions made while in that mindless frame of mind every day.

“People recognize that the choices they are making don’t add up to the life they want to live. We can all do better at living more purposefully. The opposite of autopilot is purposeful living,” Dr. Mark Williamson, Director of Action for Happiness and a contributor to the study, said in a statement.

Here’s what the research found, and how we can turn this mode off in our daily lives.

Living on autopilot

The research team surveyed more than 3,000 people online, ages 18-60 and up, in the UK. The study was “commissioned as part of” #SpendItWell, the retailer’s initiative designed to get Brits “to make the most out of every moment.”

What stood out: we spend most of our mornings, especially, in a mindless state.

There are, for instance, decisions we’re much more likely to make on autopilot. Choosing an outfit, making weekend plans, what path to take to work and what to eat when lunch or dinner roll around are a few decisions respondents said they were most likely to make while on autopilot.

While in this numb frame of mind, we’re letting things slip and agree to things without really thinking them through. Around 44% said that while on autopilot they have “forgotten something,” 20% fail to listen well to others and 25% have agreed to go to a social gathering they know they won’t make it to. Around 76% said they recalled moments when they think the weren’t using time wisely, and 61% said they play it safe in terms of “patterns and decisions.”

Around 47% of people surveyed reported agreeing to something four times each day while more inclined to say “no.” Almost half of this group said it’s due to a fear of “letting others down.” Some moments when people wanted to say no instead of yes were: working greater hours or later hours and joining people for drinks after work when home was more appealing.

The really chilling part: Only 38% of people said they were “living life to the full” that day. In other words, we’re letting our lives pass us by.

The paper identified specific pressures Brits face, saying that it is “a distracted nation” because people are “too busy” to pay attention to their decisions, “tech makes us sleepwalk into our choices,” and that an excessive amount of time is spent on comparison to impossible
standards.

Professor Renata Salecl, a contributor to the study, told Ladders about living in this state of mind.

“People are rarely fully in an auto-pilot mode. No matter what, we are conscious being capable of making decisions. However, we should not forget the power of social influences as well as our unconscious impulses which often undermind our conscious goals. Severe exhaustion, traumatic experience, depression and anxiety can make us go into what might look like auto-pilot mode where we seem to be just following a certain course of life without having the perception that we can change it. Sadly, in today’s society where people work longer and longer and feel very insecure in their work place and in life in general it often appears that that such auto-pilot behavior is on the rise. One should not look negatively at such auto-pilot behavior. It might very well be the case that people are trying to protect themselves by just going through the days without much thinking,” Salecl said.

Why are we on autopilot? Managing fear of disappointment

As we dig deeper, there appear to be two major reasons we’re on autopilot: we’re preoccupied in our own thoughts and want the easiest path as we work them out; and we are afraid of screwing up and say no without thinking about it.

Williamson explained his theory in a statement.

If you’re managing someone you believe is on autopilot, the best approach is compassion.

“We are always on. If you pause, you risk letting yourself or others down. When you stand still, it’s perceived that you’re going backwards. As we look around us, it seems like other people are living successful, perfect lives. Autopilot makes it harder for us to make instinctively good choices so we feel trapped, and that we’re living someone else’s life,” Williamson said.

If you’re managing someone you believe is on autopilot, the best approach is compassion, research shows.

Peter Bregman writes about how leaders should respond to employees when things don’t go according to plan in the Harvard Business Review.

He recommends taking a moment to breathe, picking your desired result, not making people feel fear or “punished,” and to “choose a response that will achieve the outcome you want.”

“In hard times, people want to feel more connected to their leaders. They need to have reasons to trust you. They need to feel trusted by you,” Bregman writes.

The three reasons we’re on autopilot

Even though everyone isn’t the same when it comes to living life numbly, here’s some of the advice the study offers to people in the three kinds of autopilot they identify.

“Pleasers” literally try to please others by saying yes, and end up “resentful” of their own responsibilities. They recommend saying no in a nice way more often, and displaying the phrase on a post-it note, and canceling events you don’t need to go to as you look at your schedule on Sunday night.

“Pacers” are always going, going, going— they focus more on getting things done and packing their schedules than “being.” The recommend setting an alarm to hit the sheets on time, and doing the most important thing you have to get done that day first, instead of something else, like emailing others back.

“Passengers” let others make decisions for them and get caught up in “following the crowd too often.” They say that each week, these people should do “one thing differently” among other advice.

The study also details how people can escape autopilot mode. There are ways to make decisions more consciously.

How to get away from autopilot and live your live more fully

Here are some of the ways the researchers recommend transitioning from autopilot mode to making decisions more purposefully.

1. Focus on your own life

The researchers caution against trying to see how you stack up to others. Instead, you should do things that boost your self-esteem.

2. Include some joy in each day

You should be more deliberate in your thinking by writing down what you value, and see whether your processes and tendencies have a positive effect on you, and that you shouldn’t only save “the special things in life” for the big moments.

3. Take positive action to change your state of mind

Passivity makes us numb. To regain control over your life, the study says to: change your mood through exercise, to do one thing towards a goal you want to accomplish and tell three people about it.

To strengthen connections with others, the researchers advise saying “hello” more frequently, not using electronics while eating or talking with people, having a “screen-free bedroom,” and thanking others more often.

To be more involved in your community, the researchers say to become a member of a club, to head outside more often, to go out of your way to interact with three more people than usual, to be of service, like volunteering.