Brain scans have revealed that your mind switches into “autopilot” mode when you are doing routine tasks or when you allow your thoughts to wander aimlessly. Autopilot is helpful when you need to do routine tasks quickly, accurately, and without conscious thought. It’s also a beneficial ‘break’ or ‘time-out’ for your brain—many studies have shown the benefits of meditation, for example. However, there are other times when autopilot is counter-productive or possibly even dangerous.

When to Use Autopilot: Daily Routines and Intentional Habits

Many people have begun to focus on the benefits of establishing personal routines, habits of doing the same set of actions in the same order at a specific time of day. For example, your morning routine may consist of waking up, taking a shower, eating breakfast, brushing your teeth, getting dressed and leaving the house. Your routine may include yoga, a workout, or a devotional. It’s entirely unique to you, but the key is to keep the same and consistent each day—so that your brain gets in the habit and turns into autopilot mode during these tasks. Because, let’s be honest, after thirty years I should be able to brush my teeth without too much thought.

When to Avoid Autopilot: Active Listening and Active Work

Just as meditation can be useful, the opposite—full awareness and engagement in the moment—is also useful (some would argue more often than not more useful, but that’s an argument for another day). Sometime, the monotony of our lives at work turns our brain to mush and we carelessly slip into autopilot. At work—each day is a new opportunity to discover something new, to grow in our career, to coach and foster those around us, and to be coached in return. These moments should never be wasted in the ruinous state that is autopilot at work.

Recognize the Moment

The moral of this story is this…. recognize the moments of your life and spend your energy wisely. Establish your morning and evening routine, a cleaning routine, establish the pillars of your life that cannot be anything more or less than what they are–then stop thinking about them. Use your mind to be creatively engaged at work and with your spouse and your children. Be present, fully present, when you need to be and recognize when it’s time to slip into autopilot.