The Practice of Constructive Autopilot
In our last post, we talked about getting started with mindfulness meditation. It's all the rage. I'd like to offer a counterpoint in the form of a practice that I utilize daily to limit my stress and mental processing load.
I call it Constructive Autopilot. It feels, to me, distinctly opposite of mindfulness. Mindfulness wants you in the moment, concentrating on what's happening to you and your body. I'm about to advocate vacating your body and letting it get things done while you enjoy some thinking time or a mental break.
My problem with Mindfulness is that it wants me to focus on the present moment and my body when I'm washing dishes, or folding laundry. The practice expects me to gain something from really getting into brushing my teeth. It wants me to center my mind on my intent to take out the trash. Maybe that is rewarding for some people, but it isn't for me.
Constructive Autopilot is how I make sure the dishes are clean, the garbage is taken out, and my laundry is washed and folded. It's how I keep my desk free of clutter.
I once heard the hilarious Bryan Callen tell a story on Tim Ferriss' podcast about how he was taught to be successful in school. The gist of the story is that he was in college at the time, in a gym throwing jabs at a punching bag. His trainer was talking with him and Bryan was confiding that he had a hard time concentrating in class and getting passing grades.
Bryan's trainer told him to punch the bag again. Bryan punched it. Then his trainer asked him if he concentrated on punching the bag. Bryan says something along the lines of "No, I just did it."
The point was that he was not concentrating on throwing the punch. He wasn't being "mindful", focusing on the alignment of his arm and knuckles. He told his body to punch and so his body did.
That's what we want. One signal sent to the body, and the body taking over from there. Half of the time you focus too hard on something you inexplicably screw it up. If I just run on the elliptical machine, I do fine. The second I start concentrating on my pace and being mindful about my stride, things fall out of sync and the machine starts to wobble. It happens in all kinds of situations.
Here's how I practice and train my body to take care of my monotonous tasks as though I were outsourcing the work or using a machine.
First Key: Be Reactionary
Is your trash bin full? Take it out right now. Someone give you a task they need you to complete in three weeks that's going to take two hours? Do it now.
If you can do it immediately, do it immediately. Every. Single. Time. Be reasonable, of course. There are times where things will have to wait, but when you have the time to get something done right away there is a tremendous advantage to doing so.
Your normal thought process is that it's going to take you a set amount of time whenever you do it, so why not just do it later? The flaw in that thought is that you're not accounting for all the time you might spend thinking about it in the meanwhile. The little moments of stress looking at the unwashed pile of dishes.
If the project is due in two weeks and it enters your mind even once daily for those two weeks, adds that amount of stress, and still takes two hours at the end of the two weeks, you've essentially made the task harder on yourself, and added mental load to every day in between.
Second Key: Just Punch the Bag
Or the "just peel the Band-Aid right off immediately" technique. Don't think about what you're doing. Think about whatever you want. You don't want to ever be consciously thinking to yourself "I just finished eating, I should wash this dish".
At first, you're going to need to actively think about changing these habits. But don't continue to remind yourself as time goes on, just do it. You don't need a reminder to take out the trash. That should be a reaction that you've trained your body to handle as soon as it sees the full bin.
Don't think about the task. Stop focusing on it, and you'll be surprised how much less of a big deal it was than you thought.
For shorter tasks, maybe this means occupying your mind with what your next e-mail is going to say or mentally preparing another work project.
For longer tasks, you're going to have a harder time not thinking about the fact that your body is still folding laundry. When you can't occupy all that time with your own thoughts, listen to a podcast. For a list of great starter episodes check out our blog post on Joe Rogan's five most interesting guests. You can learn about anything from automotive knowledge to how to write literature via podcast, and most of them are free.
If that's not your thing, try music. Make a phone call while folding that laundry. Whatever you have to do to keep your brain from thinking about what your poor body is dealing with.
Just punch the bag.
Third and Final Principle: Consistency
The most important part of this is training is being consistent. For your body to recognize subconsciously that something needs doing and start accomplishing that task right away, it needs to know that you don't just want to take out the trash right away once in a while.
Muscle memory will kick in if you can keep up the habit actively for a month or so. Then it's smooth sailing and your conscious mind will be able to mostly forget about those tasks that keep bugging you day after day, and your subconscious will take things under control.
If you're having a tough time being consistent, one tip I use is to place the task directly in your way. When my garbage bag is full, it pops right out of the trash and goes in front of the door. Then I can't leave my place without moving the damned bag. These kinds of moments help make that connection in your brain more concrete so that the next time the task needs doing, it's easier to remember to just take it out right away.
Get Out There, You Mindless Automaton, You!
So now you've got my technique for having chores and mindless tasks always done without having to actively think about them. Congratulations, you now have one of Tesla's coolest new features, autopilot!
Please don't let your body drive itself. That's a time to be mindful. But for the rest of the times, I hope you find yourself less stressed, and your body being more immediately productive.