Turning off Auto-Pilot

October 07, 2013

Turning off Auto-Pilot

By Rachel Girardi

Do you ever get into the car after work, start to drive and before you know it you’re home, but can’t remember any part of the drive along the way? You know your route and your body just goes into auto-pilot and gets you there. It’s a well established pattern in your mind that you no longer have to consciously think about to accomplish. This could be anything from ripping open 4 packets of splenda into your coffee every morning or clenching and unclenching your hands on the Olympic bar before every dead lift.

Some habits are harmless. They are basic routine and the fact that they are below our level of consciousness means that our minds don’t need to invest much energy to uphold them so we have more energy to invest in other things. Let’s take for example learning to drive a car. At first when you learn how to drive it’s a complicated endeavour – where to put your hands, how to hold the wheel, how to accelerate and slow down, obeying all the traffic rules, blinkers, bikers, streetcars and deer crossings. To remember all of those rules and steps is tough but the more you drive, the more routine it becomes and the more automatically you can get from one place to another. The energy that you no longer have to expend in thinking about how to drive allows you put your focus on getting to your destination (and singing along to the latest Justin Bieber on the radio…..you know you do it – we’re all friends here, there’s no reason to lie). This of course is a positive habitual action.

What about in the other direction? When can automatic behaviour cause us trouble? Well as I’ve seen with many clients (and myself) it happens a lot in regards to nutrition. You have a fitness goal and you change your nutritional behaviours to help you to achieve it. Because you’re just learning everything and excited about the changes you’re making you are careful, thinking about every little piece. You are focused, hypervigilant and careful. Some people looking in might think you’re a bit crazy, but at the start, this is what is often takes to make it part of our daily lives and make big changes.

Time passes. You learn the skills of eating clean and do it well. You relax a bit and no longer have to think much about it. But over time you notice that your results in the gym have stalled, you don’t feel the same energy you used to and your pants are a bit tighter than you last remember. So what happened? You’re working out properly and eating clean…right? Why does it seem like you’re going in reverse?

Maybe you aren’t as ‘on track’ as you think you are.

Chances are if you take a good look at what you’re doing, over time you’ve made subtle changes in behaviour that have become so automatic you don’t notice them when you are trying to figure out where you are ‘going wrong’. This happened with me and cheese. At first I made my morning omelet with just veggies – then I started added 1/3oz of cheese. Then 1/2 oz. Then I stopped measuring and just eye-balled it. 1.5-2oz became my ‘norm’ but I didn’t think anything of it.

Peanut butter played the same dirty trick on me. What I thought was a tbsp had somehow morphed from 1 tbsp into 2. My eyeballs had started playing tricks on me.

Much to my dismay I was consuming hundreds more calories a day than I had thought only because my breakfast and snack routines had become so…well…routine that I didn’t notice the changes I was making.

Once I identified the issues, I corrected them and got right back on track. It was totally below my level of consciousness and I didn’t even realize what I was doing.

What I learned from this is that sometimes you have to take your nutrition and fitness off cruise control and check out if you really are as ‘on track’ as you think you are.

Auto-pilot behaviours aren’t always about fitness – they could be waking up 5 minutes later each week until eventually you are racing out the door every morning, late for work on a daily basis. Or maybe your 1 or 2 social drinks on the weekend has morphed into 3 or 4 social drinks 2 or 3 times a week on the patio in the sun. Or maybe it’s shopping – going over your spending by $10 one week….$50 the next…..maxing out your line of credit by September.

The first step to changing behaviour is identifying the behaviour you want to change. Once you do that, you need to understand the root of your behaviour and develop a strategy for changing it in a long lasting way. To learn more about how to do that, I recommend the book ‘The Power of Habit: Why we do what we do in life and in business’ by Charles Duhigg or if you want a more hands-on learning approach come to my talk on habits and behaviour change on Thursday, October 10 at 6:30pm at IHI. Sign up here! Let’s figure out what your auto-pilot behaviours are and figure out a plan to override them once and for all!

Rachel has worked as a personal trainer for the past two years and over that time has helped clients to reach weight loss, performance and other health goals. Can-Fit Pro and Precision Nutrition Certified, she has a special interest in nutrition and teaching others how to incorporate proper nutrition into their busy lives. Follow Rachel on Twitter & Facebook. Read more about what Rachel has to offer on her blog: www.completecarecoaching.com

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