95% of your decisions are unconscious
Would you believe me if I told you that only 5% of your daily decisions are made by you consciously. 95% of your daily decisions – big and small – are being made by you unconsciously. This is not a bad thing on its own because we have limited cognitive resources and running all that we can on auto-pilot conserves the limited resources for more important things like strategic planning and execution. See Bargh and Chatrand’s well cited article from 1999 for more on this subject.
The problem with automaticity
The problem is when we start to automate everything. For example, we start to relate with people in our life based on past memories and judgments of them instead of who they are in this moment. When we go to work, the environment automatically triggers the same thoughts and ideas and we are likely to act based on old patterns with little or no creativity in the absence of conscious intervention. When we automate life we take away choice and limit the potential of our creativity, relationships and life in general.
My most recent experience
My most recent experience of recognizing what it means to live on auto-pilot happened in the midst of people I love and know to have the best of intentions. I was visiting my family in India with my husband and son. My family is Indian and we speak Hindi at home but are very comfortable speaking in English as well, which is commonly spoken among the younger generation and at work. My husband is American and doesn’t speak Hindi beyond the few words he initially learned using Rosetta Stone and his favorite Indian foods. It is very logical then that when we met everyday for two weeks we would all speak in English. However, despite continued reminders to speak in English, and the large presence that my husband has, within 2-5 minutes, everyone would return back to speaking in Hindi. Like I said these are people who love us and have every intention to be inclusive and yet here they were, a prisoner to their autopilot nature. Unfortunately, I don’t think many of them even realized that they are operating unconsciously.
Even more surprising was..
What was even more surprising to me was that being in that environment, even I succumbed to the habitual use of Hindi. In the US I never speak in Hindi other than a contrived conversation that my son and I have in Hindi so he doesn’t forget his native language. It was most surprising to me that in that environment, my initial impulse very often was to respond in Hindi. I have been practicing mindfulness and teaching mindfulness for many years, which is what I attribute my awareness to, and which allowed me to catch myself before I spoke in Hindi or immediately followed up with an English translation. Even though my immediate response was unconscious, there was a meta-awareness in many situations, which gave me choice to follow through with my initial reaction or choose differently.
How mindfulness can help
This experience made me see first hand the power of the environment on pushing the autopilot button. It also validated the importance of mindfulness training to cultivate meta-awareness which gives us the freedom to make the final choice. In the absence of this awareness we can continue to make sub-optimal decisions at work and in our family lives as well.
“People trained in mindfulness meditation develop a meta-awareness of whether their minds are present or wandering and can choose what mode they want to be in, unlike non-meditators, who are not even aware when their mind wanders and have little control over it.” Bahl et al 2013
By actively cultivating attention with the attitude of non-reactivity and a gentle curiosity, mindfulness helps us optimize the use of our autopilot nature by introducing choice about when to go on autopilot and when to be more conscious and open to new perspectives. Further, mindfulness frees up our limited cognitive resources by overcoming the unconscious resistance to tasks we don’t enjoy and doing work with more ease. See the fascinating study by Slagter et al (2010) that shows that mindfulness training can change even an adult brain and improve the distribution of limited brain resources.
Are you aware when you are on auto-pilot?
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