Article Header image with abstract image of two people.

Switch your thinking: the dangers of defaults and how to avoid them…

If we’re honest with ourselves, quite often in life we’re not really consciously paying attention to how we’re operating. 

Instead, and somewhat sadly, for much of our daily lives we’re kind of running on autopilot. Our attention is naturally getting drawn from one thing, or place, to another, without us consciously making choices or mindfully directing our attention.

For example, maybe we’re reading a book or an important document, only to get to the bottom of the page, and realise that we can’t recall anything of what we’ve just read… our attention has drifted off, focussing on something else. 

Or perhaps we find ourselves arriving at home, unable to fully remember the journey, and wondering how we got there safely. Or maybe we’re sat at home and we find ourselves automatically looking at our smartphone and checking on social media without consciously thinking about doing so.

Essentially, whenever we’re not consciously paying attention to operating in a particular way our mind naturally reverts to a ‘default’ mode. 

In this default mode we’re kind of running on autopilot, doing things and reacting to situations without consciously thinking them through. Instead we just lean back on our more well-practised, habitual ways of being, whilst our attention is off elsewhere.

Now what's really interesting is that if we take a look into the modern research around this default mode, it suggests that this happens for around 50% of our day.

So whilst we might not always notice, we have a tendency to operate in this kind of autopilot, this default mode, for a significant amount of daily lives. And as a result, we sometimes find ourselves almost sleepwalking into the choices, decisions and actions that we make in life. We say “yes” when on reflection we really wished we’d said “no”, we worry about what might be, instead of really enjoying what is.

Now of course, generally speaking, there’s nothing wrong with running on autopilot when its a task that is repetitive, well-practised, or requires little thinking. At these times the mind tends to take quick mental shortcuts, allowing us to focus on other things. 

But sometimes in taking these shortcuts, we can miss out, walking by other new avenues or opportunities to explore.

We sometimes miss out on alternative ways of being that might actually help us get better results, or achieve something new.

Its kind of like the difference between how you are when you’re walking around the town or city where you live, compared to how you are you visit somewhere new and exciting as a tourist. Our familiarity with the place where we live can mean that we might miss certain things. We automatically assume that we’ve seen it all before and we walk by the interesting details, busily focussed on other things. Whereas for a tourist in the same city, their curiosity might mean that they take a moment to look up and notice those, small, unique and interesting elements. 

In a way, whenever we tell ourselves that a situation or an interaction is familiar, that we’ve been here before or that we know what’s coming next, rather than noticing and paying attention what’s new or different we become much more likely to lean back and respond in those default or automatic way. 

The same thing tends to happen when we tell ourselves that there’s only one way to view a situation. Whether that’s an interaction that we’re in, a decision we need to make, or an action we need to take.

This is because when we only see things from a single perspective, from that viewpoint that maybe comes most naturally to us, it often leads us almost consciously checking out. We rest back on our defaults and we fall back into running on automatic once again.

But if we’re honest with ourselves, there are always alternative ways to view and describe situations. We can think again and change our point of view. We can put ourselves in someone else’s shoes and see the world from another’s perspective.

In doing so, by consciously making that small shift in how we choose to view things, we have the power to change everything.

What was previously familiar, or boring or mundane can become interesting. With one small shift, we can quickly go from a position of certainty to one of curiosity. 

We can start consciously paying attention in a new way, because we’ve found a new way of viewing things. It’s almost like we’ve mentally flicked the light switch on and we’ve now got fresh eyes on the situation, allowing us to generate new understandings.

So a key way of recognising those moments when we’re likely to default, to start operating without really thinking, is when we tell ourselves that something is familiar, or when we find ourselves only have a single view on a situation. 

Then, if we can start spotting these moments, recognising early that we’re about to fall into that autopilot mode, it gives us the opportunity bring our attention back, to switch our thinking and consciously focus in on what’s in front of us right now.

Every time we do this, where we recognise that we’re about to run on autopilot and instead we consciously consider how we’d like to be and where we’d like to focus, it’s kind of like a bicep curl but for the mind.

Each time we do it it strengthens those attentional muscles, increasing the likelihood that we’ll spot it again next time and give ourselves the chance to take more skilled action if we need to.

Spotting this tendency towards operating on our defaults is important, because it’s the key to training the mind to become more flexible, more adaptable and more agile in response to different situations and new opportunities.

Because when we fall into that automatic reactive mode, where we’re not really consciously controlling how we’re being, we’re kind of trusting that what worked for us before will work for us again.

But in a world that’s rapidly changing, where our lives, our work and our relationships are evolving, that tendency to automatically react in a way that previously worked for us might no longer be enough. That old way of being may not quite fit the new context that we’re in, and instead we might need find new ways of being if we’re to continue to grow and develop.

But what’s fascinating is that it only takes a moment… to flick that switch… and to consciously choose how we want to be right now.

This blog post was written by our head of product and co-founder, Pete, on 4th May 2021.