Have you ever wondered why you fail to notice small details around you? You drive to work everyday but not noticing the new sign road, or you say hello to Sissy in the front desk every morning but not noticing her new hair colour. These all happen because you do those activities subconsciously. Your habits of driving to work and greeting Sissy has created a monotone motion which leads to an autopilot mode.
In a fine term, autopilot is commonly described as being “zone out” from the present moments. You do not notice what you are doing but you are able to complete the activity as a result of constant repetition of the said activity. You are doing the exact same things for quite a long time until your brain saves the memory of your movement, thus, creating a subconscious motion. When you do the same activity again, you do not need to recall how you should do it, but your brain will lead you to complete the activity automatically.
Observing the behaviour of individuals on an autopilot state, Ira Hyman et al. did a little experiment called Failure to See Money on a Tree. Hyman and team placed a signboard on some of campus walking paths and observed people moving fast past the object. After a few moments, none of the pedestrians walked into the sign, not even those on a cell phone.
A few moments later, Hyman and team asked some of the pedestrians if they had avoided a signboard. Some people said they were unaware that they had avoided a signboard. Those with cell phones were particularly unaware. The pedestrians are people who constantly pass the same road over and over again, hence, they have built good memories of the place. That is why these pedestrians are able to walk quicker without being aware of the new signboard, Hyman added.
In a working condition, the subconscious mind can help us finish a job quickly as we do not need to recall how to do things. In other words, automaticity helps us work faster on repeated behaviour, making us more productive. Going on autopilot at work is also indicated to be effective and help staff do a project faster.
Dr Deniz Vatansever on his study “Running on Autopilot” found that work driven by the subconscious mind can be done faster and produce a more accurate decision. With 28 volunteers, Dr Vatansever conducted the study by playing a new card game. These participants did not know the rules, so they just focused on how the game worked – matching colours and shapes. The researchers used a brain scanner to find out which portions of the brain were active.
The result of the study showed that there is a collection of brain regions called the default mode network (DMN) that is more active while the participants make automated decisions. And when the participants switched to autopilot mode, they became more efficient and worked faster at the game. The study also suggested that people might be able to improve their abilities in autopilot mode to become more efficient through training and repetition.
While automaticity seems to benefit more on a repetitive task, how does it affect employees who demand full focus and great attention to detail?
To illustrate, you are constantly crossing the same road to get to the office faster. You develop a sense of automaticity of walking the same path. The next day, as you are busy with a call, your subconscious mind guides you along the way to your workplace. You do not notice that the same road is busier than ever that cars are whizzing back and forth. This could put your life at risk when you are operating on autopilot on a day that requires attention to detail.
Autopilot does not always work or create effective outcomes, especially for a job that requires great attention and focus. According to Killingsworth and Gilbert research, we do our activities on an autopilot mode nearly half of the time such as driving to work, typing a report, attending a monthly meeting, going on the same floor by lift, etc. Yet, this automaticity does not always lead to happiness of finishing a job earlier. It can lead to more stress and job dissatisfaction, instead.
Killingsworth said that respondents’ minds wandered no less than 30 percent of the time. During this period, these individuals reported being unhappy during mind wandering. The most common reason is that automaticity leads to a mundane task that prevents employees from developing themselves. Autopilot also makes employees feel disconnected because of their dissatisfaction from a task or project.
Therefore, there might be a great time to let employees be in an autopilot mode. There is also a time when leaders should break this autopilot habit to make employees feel satisfied and engaged with their job.