A man with brains and a shovel

A blog about goals and obstacles, motivation and procrastination, life's random events and getting things done.

The Habit Autopilot

The excellent Wait But Why blog has an article on procrastination. Tim Urban explains three forces that drive us to do stuff

  • rational decision maker
  • instant gratification monkey
  • panic monster

I think there is another force we need to know about: The habit autopilot.

If you are not familiar with the above mentioned article, please read that first.

Absence of the rational decision maker

Maybe it is expensive to operate the rational decision maker. Maybe the concept is too young, evolutionarily speaking. Fact is, most of us are cursed with a brain where is rational decision maker is absent most of the time.

Most animals survive just fine without any rational decision maker at all. Instincts provide the instant gratification monkey with all the incentives it needs. The creature is a natural pleasure seeker and pain avoider. No need to overcome instincts, or get out of your comfort zone.

Humans who live like that tend to procrastinate and regret or even suffer in the long run, because our instinctive incentives are too primitive.

The habit autopilot

What about important tasks that are too simple for the rational decision maker but too boring for the instant gratification monkey. We are not born with a tooth-brushing-instinct.

We have to learn to brush out teeth and then remember to do it regularly.

Thus evolution invented the habit autopilot. Doing an activity over and over creates a trail that's easy to walk. Once you set foot on the habit trail, the autopilot takes over and keeps going.

You have trained yourself to get up in the morning, take a shower, brush your teeth, maybe do your makeup or shave your face, pick clothes and get dressed. Most people do that without much hesitation or overthinking.

The habit autopilot is an extremely powerful tool. It's so common that we don't even realize we are on autopilot instead of making decisions. The habit autopilot decides what we eat, whether we train for a marathon, have a beer, or binge watch "How I Met Your Mother" after we come home from work.

By design, the habit autopilot does not want change. Just stay on the beaten track. That's why it's hard to change your life. Why wake the ration decision maker and grab a machete to hike in the brush when you have this nice trail right here?

Even after months of dieting, you fall back to your old eating habits. You might have made it through the thicket of wise eating decisions and you might have cut away some twigs and branches, but that's not a trail for your autopilot, yet.

As soon as the captain leaves the bridge, the autopilot gets triggered.

Triggering the Autopilot

Our autopilot is self activating. Every habit has its triggers. Getting up in the morning can be our trigger for switching into autopilot for our morning routine.

A certain time of day, a place, a smell, a feeling can activate the habit autopilot. What do you do first when you start your work day? Maybe you read your email or your calendar. You think you did that because you are a conscious and smart human being? No. Entering your office triggers your autopilot.


When the habit autopilot and the instant gratification monkey team up, it can lead to disaster.

The dopamine release when drinking, smoking, doing drugs, watching porn, or winning at gambling make the instant gratification monkey take that path over and over until the habit autopilot has a nice trail.

Literally before you know it, you have an autopilot on a crash course. When the rational decision maker finally finds out about the self destructive habits, he is too weak to stop it. Maybe the panic monster you can turn off the autopilot for the moment, but the trail and the triggers are still there.

Developing an Addiction

Some people are more prone to developing an addiction than others. To some the incentive for doing the behavior is higher. That's why hormone crazed teenagers are more likely to become compulsive internet porn abusers.

Others might have problems to deal with. The instant gratification monkey wants to avoid pain and finds itself something it enjoys. Self medicating a depression, a trauma and fleeing the real world.

That's why some people can abuse narcotics, play video games or gamble without becoming addicted while others get hooked on the first try. Don't think you are immune because you lead a happy life. The human psyche is a complicated beast and you are well advised to stay away from addictive activities and substances.

So next time you open facebook at work to give the monkey in you some play time, think twice if you don't want this to become a part of your daily work routine.

Habit Trails are Here to Stay

Studies have shown, that these trails which are paths in our brains, will never go away. Just like you can never unlearn to ride a bike, you can't undo the bad habit.

That's why alcoholics are never cured. They have to learn to live with their alcoholism.

Addiction triggers

If you want to get rid of a bad habit, you need to first understand your triggers. Be mindful and very self aware. As soon as you find yourself biting your nails again, smoking a cigarette, overeating or whatever habit it is you want to quit, ask yourself "How did I get here?" and "What triggered my habit autopilot?"

When you know your trigger, you need to change your life as you know it.

For substance addicts, one obvious trigger is the substance itself. That's why a dry alcoholic can't just have one beer. A gambling addict can't take a walk into a casino.

But what if your trigger is something you can't avoid? What if any stressful situation triggers your smoking habit? The feeling of loneliness, rejection, hunger or sexual arousal set off your autopilot?

Looking for a trigger can unearth something fundamentally wrong with your life and your addiction was a comping mechanism. Then you should seriously think about what you can do to change your life. Drug addicts need to make new friends and maybe move to a different place.

New Trails for Old Triggers

If you can't avoid your triggers, you need to build new habits that overpower the old ones. In his book "The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business", the author Charles Duhigg describes how a nail biter overcame her habit by resisting the urge to bite and instead rub her nails on a hard surface. That motion provided the reward she needed to form a new habit.

Productive Habits

One key to becoming more productive and efficient is developing and cultivating productive habits. Create artificial triggers and make sure they keep leading to the right habit trail. For instance, you might associate a certain song, a beverage or a smell with the next important work session. Then you need to make sure not to open facebook when you trigger yourself or you might associate that with goofing off on social networks.