Rejecting "Autopilot:" Small Daily Changes, Big Life Impact

With the doldrums of winter right around the corner, that seasonal switch is about to be flipped that often puts our lives on the dreaded autopilot mode. We plan for the weekends, keeping them full and festive as something on the calendar to look forward to. But on the weekdays, we may come home from work having never seen daylight and feeling flat and uninspired. 

Read on for ten very small changes to implement that can largely impact your happiness on a day-to-day level, for this season and each subsequent season of your life.  Let's choose to reject the autopilot. 

1) 7:00 a.m. Wake Up Mindfully.

How many of you groggily reach for your phone in the morning to shut off the alarm, and then continue holding it? And then you open an app, whether it be social media or news outlets, and scroll, scroll, scroll? There are some inherent problems with waking up this way, and let me share why: You're on the hunt for an external source to begin your thinking. Remember back when ubiquitous tech and television were not yet a thing, and we had to wonder for a minute what was going on in the world, or with our friends or family? Or, better yet, we'd roll over and have a chat to the person next to us, or a few doors down, rather than seeing what memes were posted in the last 7 hours since we scrolled ourselves to bed at midnight? 

Tech is becoming the bookends to our days, and it is stimulating us in all the wrong ways. There is no introspection, reflection, or exploration in scrolling. Reading the news or seeing what everyone is up to is not necessarily a bad thing, but doing so first thing in the morning prevents us from waking up to the possibilities of the day organically, and within ourselves rather than from an external source. 

So, how do we ween ourselves off the morning scroll? With any habit or addiction to quit, introducing a replacement behavior is one of the strongest ways to cut down. Going from 60 to 0 - scrolling vs. waking up without anything to help us ditch the groggy - may be difficult. I'm in the process of quitting this behavior myself, and I recently purchased a journal called "642 Tiny Things to Write About" with offbeat writing prompts, such as "Write last year's fortune cookie. It got everything right." and "Your last word before you die." to keep on my nightstand. These prompts are about my life or require my thinking rather than someone else's. They encourage me to be introspective in the very first moments of the day, rather than mindlessly scrolling as a way to "rouse" my brain. 

2) 7:30 a.m. - Set an intention for the day.

You know how we set New Year's Resolutions 1x annually and then totally forget about them within the first 30 days because having one or two things to "fix" for the entire year is just wildly unrealistic? Well, setting a daily intention is the realist's savior to modify this practice. Setting an intention could be as simple as, "Today I will schedule my time in a way that I am not rushed for anything I do," or "Today I will be mindful about being honest with my emotions rather than "silver lining" things that just aren't going well." It's a very simple practice that allows us to live with intention rather than just going through the motions. Write it down on a post-it if that helps, but it can be as simple as a few words. 

3) 8:30 a.m. - Practice mindful eating.

I also recently made it a practice to try to stop eating at the same time as doing anything else. It started with me buying these insane peanut butter cookies at my old workplace about once a week and then eating the cookie while walking (at my 40mph walking-pace) down a crowded block in Manhattan with my headphones on. I would eat the cookie and realize that I was only somewhat able to savor it, because my mind was focusing on dodging, weaving, and walk-sprinting past anyone in my way. I would waste my weekly treat because I didn't have enough focus to really savor it! This also applies with eating while watching, listening, talking, reading, and even daydreaming. Our food deserves our full focus, especially if it's a delicious peanut butter cookie. I encourage you to try this - take a bite of something you love with no external distractions, and attempt to focus your mind on the flavors of the food rather than the constant stream of thoughts that often crowd our brains. Chew the bite fully before loading up the next one onto your fork.   S l o w   i t   d o w n.

Slow everything down. Revel in the clarity and peace that comes from doing one thing at a time. 

4) 9:00 a.m. - Take a different route to work.

Studies have shown that changing up the norm, even in the most "normal" of ways, increases creativity and innovation in many different areas of our lives. Why? Because having cognitive flexibility to drive a different way or take a different train necessitates for us to problem-solve, increases our openness to new experiences, and helps us embrace unexpected scenarios as they happen - all of which will perpetuate this positive behavior in many more areas of our lives. Think of it as a little short-cut (or rambling route) to becoming more open. And all it takes is taking a few backroads.

**If your gut reaction is "Ahhh, I can't do that! I might end up late for work," then you would definitely benefit from slowing everything down.

If every single minute is planned for, where would the spontaneity that may arise fit in? 

Answer: It won't. It would need to be shut down due to lack of time or energy to embrace it. Being "too busy" keeps us on autopilot. Embrace the unexpected - and make time for it!

5) 11:00 a.m. - Activate your "Past Happy."

To all of my millennials, have you ever noticed that rocking out to 90's music hits you right in the feels in a way that even your favorite new stuff just can't quite seem to reach? This rings true for any generation - think back to songs you loved in high school; the ones that spoke to you emotionally and gave you a mood boost. They hold a special place in your heart, right? This is because nostalgia feels good. Some theories explain this phenomenon with the idea that being able to relate past experiences to our present lives helps us create greater meaning in the here and now. In essence, nostalgia creates an emotional timeline that helps us see how we've gotten to where we are today. 

To summon the power of nostalgia, take some time to listen to an album that was both beautiful and impactful at a past stage in your life. Dance at your desk, cry, laugh, think of beautiful and terrible moments with your ex, and reflect on how that time in your life helped you get to where you are today. Reflection and introspection are the wonderful enemies of autopilot!

6) 1:00 p.m. Connect with one person in a meaningful way.

Someone dear to my heart always makes it a point to say something kind, offbeat, or silly to customer service people who work phone lines, since their day so often consists of scripted repetition and they don't get the social benefit of face-to-face interactions. And more often than not, a small but interesting conversation comes out of it, rather than the autopilot back-and-forth that we often get into with strangers. Connecting meaningfully could mean calling an old friend, or it could just be to spend an extra minute chatting with a store clerk. Every mundane encounter is actually a small opportunity for two humans to connect, and when we do it, it feels good! No matter how small. 

Connecting can also boost your intelligence: Researchers have found that conversing and considering the perspectives of others increases our executive function in the brain and improves cognitive abilities in our memory, attention, and control centers. Brain boost and mood boost!

7) 5:00 p.m. Connect with nature in a meaningful way.

This one is essential now that Daylight Savings Time did its annual damage on our collective hearts. Seasonal Affective Disorder is a real thing, and not seeing the light of day due to long work hours is a weekday tragedy for many. It may be tougher to find ways to connect with nature, but I challenge you to continue to do so as you would in the summer - standing at the end of your driveway for a few minutes to look at the stars, (even if you're freezing), or - my personal favorite as I was caught doing last weekend in the North Woods of Central Park - picking up a huge handful of leaves and just huffing in the smell. I'm pretty sure my born-and-raised NYC clients think I'm kind of crazy when I talk about this stuff, but nature reminds us that we are part of something bigger. It's also allows for the unexpected, un-calculated, and un-replicable. Reruns of your favorite show will not surprise you in the same way that a shooting star would. Put on a bigger jacket and go outside. Take walks on your lunch break even if it's chilly. It is so worth it.

There are also proven psychological benefits to this one, too: A study published by Stanford University had one group of participants take a 90 minute walk through the city, and the other group took a walk through the forest. The forest group had markedly lower blood flow to the area of the brain, the prefrontal cortex, that causes ruminating thoughts. Loads of other research has also shown that even just looking at beautiful imagery of nature can lower our stress hormones. 

8) 7:00 p.m. Treat yo'self. 

Have you ever had one of those bummed-out moments where, at the end of the day, you realize that nothing about your day was really spontaneous or special at all? You may not even consciously recognize it, and instead you're left with a sort of nameless empty feeling when you go to bed. To be honest, those days have the propensity to happen often - sometimes we don't encounter any doses of small daily magic. On these days, we need to create it for ourselves. 

Ice cream cones, bubble baths, colored pencils and adult coloring books, watching a movie in bed, campfires in the backyard, sing-alongs with the spouse, bundling up and taking a winter walk in the dark. Building a fort. On a Monday. And you don't have kids. Whatever. Think outside the box and do a little thing to make this day a little better. It's not too late, and no one else is going to do it for you.

9) 10:00 p.m. Reflect.

Now we are back to the concept of #1: The bookends of the day. So many tiny moments happen every day of our lives, and they disappear from our crowded memories as soon as the next day comes along to make new space in our neuronal pathways. Your working and long-term memory stores can only synthesize so much. This is why no matter how hard we may try to remember exactly what "A Day In The Life of Me, 5 Years Ago" felt like...we just can't. Everyone falls somewhere on the spectrum of fretting about this wildly (nostalgia-lovers, I am with you) and not caring at all. Wherever you fall is fine, but reflecting on the day helps us learn from it, synthesize it, and make mindful choices about what we want to take from it. 

Scrolling our phones stifles this opportunity. Again, this is something I'm actively working on quitting right now, and in addition to my morning journal of writing prompts, I also purchased a "5 Year Diary." Sounds intense in its time-length but it's actually the opposite - it has space for only a few lines to write each day, but allows you to look back on that same day (same page, even) for the last 5 years and see where your head was at. Minimal pressure because there is no room for a full entry - just for a few thoughts to help synthesize the day. And to my fellow nostalgia-lovers out there: Can you even imagine how it'll feel to reread cover-to-cover five years from now? It's a time capsule, and I'm a huge advocate for journaling's dual purposes of present-moment catharsis and future-based reflection. (More about that here.

10) 11:30 p.m. Restore.

Sleep is the ultimate synthesis, and the one that nature gave us to restore our minds and bodies to prepare for our next wildly unique and non-autopilot day. So just a few things to remember: Minimize blue light (screen-time) for at least 2 hours before bed, cover or face away all lights in the bedroom (cable boxes, LED alarm clocks, etc.), minimize eating before bed to slow your body's digestion, and most importantly, leave ruminations back at 6:00 p.m. Don't wind your mind up right before bed and then expect it to magically shut off the second you dim the lights. Meditation, listening to quiet music, or zoning out on a flickering candle in the moments before bedtime may help you unwind. Don't climb into bed until you are ready to actually sleep, and if you can't sleep, be gentle with yourself - anxious thoughts about not sleeping will release the stress-hormone cortisol, which will wake you up even further.

So, in review, you are a special little snowflake, but the special moments of non-special days sometimes need to be uncovered...that's just the way it is! It doesn't take a lot of work; rather, a few small changes to spread throughout your day to increase presence, appreciation, connection, and reflection. 

So breathe in, breathe out, restore, rise, and repeat steps 1-10 for a life that's far from "autopilot."