Hands up if you’re not quite sure what’s happened or where you’ve been since January 1st? Is it all a blur of commuting, work and attempting to get back into the habit of eating at regular hours? Yes, us too - and the feeling is all too familiar.
Time really can fly by when you’re too busy to pay attention - sometimes even months seem to whizz past in a frenzy of diary dates and obligations, to the point that if you asked us what we did in November, we couldn’t possibly recall. It’s this phenomenon of living life on autopilot that author Chris Barez-Brown is trying to awake you from, with his latest book, Wake Up! Escaping a Life on Autopilot ( £9.99, Penguin Life ).
we’re running the risk of never being truly awake and present
Stating that over 80% of our waking time is spent on autopilot - doing routine activities in which our subconscious takes over - Barez-Brown argues that we need to counteract this in order to feel more in tune with our lives. Not all the time, of course; the writer explains that the autopilot mode is actually an energy-saving tool our bodies have in order to preserve our strength for bigger things, but now that we’re not cavemen and are spending so much time getting up, going to work, going to the gym, and coming home, we’re running the risk of never being truly awake and present.
Lending itself well to the mindfulness movement of recent years, the book includes 52 ideas to help you live a more ‘conscious, technicolour and extraordinary life’. Ranging from learning to breathe properly to ‘tuning in’ to your surroundings using activities such as climbing a tree or allowing yourself to get lost, Barez-Brown urges you to wake up and pay attention to your life and what’s around you. A columnist for Psychologies, his previous books Shine: How to Survive and Thrive at Work and Free: Love Your Work, Love Your Life are bestsellers, and it’s easy to see why his latest project could be too. Will you do every activity in the book? Probably not - some of the experiments are a little ‘out there’ and flying a paper plane might not have a profound effect on your life, but there’s a lot of sense in there too, from saying yes more, to finding an extra hour in your day to do something you love (by getting up earlier), to living on £5 a day to make more conscious choices.
It’s not necessarily a new concept, but by asking us to ‘wake up’, Barez-Brown is really asking us to take a look at our lives and our selves, and to make active choices rather than drifting along and doing what’s simply expected of us. As he says in the book: ‘Time is limited. Let’s not waste it.” Words to live by.
Wake Up! Escaping a Life on Autopilot by Chris Baréz-Brown is available now, £9.99, published by Penguin Life
Want to know more? Read an extract from the introduction of the book below
The reason that most of our lives are spent on autopilot is due to the way our brains work. The brain works in two ways, consciously and subconsciously, and together this uses up a large chunk of our overall energy – around 25 per cent, according to many clever science folk.
The conscious brain is used for processes involving logic, rationality and higher levels of cognitive processing. When we are trying to decide whether leasing a car is better than buying one, or whether ground-source heat pumps will really make us a saving while helping the planet, we are using conscious processing. This takes a lot of energy, which is why when we tackle a particularly tricky intellectual challenge we often feel very tired quite quickly.
The subconscious brain, on the other hand, is a more efficient machine. It is adept at looking for patterns and similarities in what we are experiencing now compared to what we have experienced before. If something looks like a close enough fit to something from the past, the subconscious assumes they are the same and therefore directs our behaviour accordingly so that we respond in the same way we did last time. So, if we have noticed that the kitchen door no longer shuts as it should, when we are carrying two glasses of wine out and we don’t the hear the tell-tale click of the latch, our heel automatically taps it in just the right place at just the right pressure to close it perfectly. Sweet. This takes no thought; and that is the beauty of autopilot.
It is a brilliantly efficient process that saves no end of effort and is absolutely necessary for us to function. We cannot consciously deal with every detail of our lives; if we had to do so, we would be exhausted. Just think how hard it is to learn a new language or an instrument, or even drive a car for the very first time. When we are carrying out menial tasks, things that are habitual or things that we have practised often enough for them to feel natural, then the subconscious is rather wonderful at conserving resources for use when we do things that are more taxing. The subconscious thinks faster and more ‘automatically’ than the conscious, which is why people who play tennis or the glockenspiel brilliantly have it to thank. They have practised to the point that the subconscious takes over and does a much better job than the slower conscious thinking. It’s undoubtedly an exceptional performer in those situations, and it’s important to make that distinction.
The challenge is that the subconscious has no ‘off’ switch. As we tend to live lives of habit with ingrained routines, most of what we do is stuff we’ve done before, and therefore autopilot becomes the default mode of existence. If we were a tennis player, that might be no bad thing, but most of us don’t spend all our time on a tennis court – life is more complex than that. We therefore need to manufacture a better balance between the two systems of our brains. It is impossible to quantify what the right balance should be, or indeed the capacities of the conscious to run more of the show, but most of us know instinctively that if we can become a bit more awake and liberated from autopilot every day, it can make a huge difference to how we live our lives.
Extracted from Wake Up! Escaping a Life on Autopilot by Chris Baréz-Brown, £9.99, published by Penguin Life