The Brain on Autopilot: How It Impacts Productivity

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Hyperfocus" by Chris Bailey. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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How does the brain function on autopilot? Are there any advantages to being in autopilot mode?

Productivity expert Chris Bailey explains that our brains operate on autopilot by default. Instead of choosing what to focus on in advance, we react to the external triggers that pique our interest.

Keep reading to learn about the pros and cons of the brain’s autopilot mode.

The Brain on Autopilot

Due to advancements in industry and technology, our world has evolved rapidly over the last several decades. Unfortunately, our brains have not. The fundamental functioning of your brain hasn’t changed since ancient times. Your brain is biologically optimized for a world that no longer exists. 

So at best, your brain is not biologically equipped to handle the demands of the modern world as well as it could. At worst, the neurobiological phenomena that kept us alive as cavemen hinder our ability to succeed today by actively preventing us from focusing.

The brain on autopilot is one of the biological tendencies that Bailey argues make our brains ill-prepared for the demands of the modern world. Bailey explains that, by default, our brains expend our attention in autopilot mode. Bailey notes that, when we are in this mode, we’re especially prone to reacting to anything new, potentially dangerous, or gratifying. (Shortform note: Ben Parr, the author of Captivology: The Science of Capturing People’s Attention, also suggests that you may automatically react to things based on your personal associations with them.) 

One reason autopilot mode kept us alive in ancient times is that it kept us alert to changes in our environment. In primitive times, the quicker we noticed new changes in our environment, the quicker we noticed their potential effect: bad, good, or neutral. The quicker we noticed danger, the quicker we could react to and avoid it. And the quicker we noticed gratifying things, the faster we could take advantage of them—for example, we could eat the delicious berries before the birds plucked them off. 

(Shortform note: Another reason that the brain on autopilot kept us alive in ancient times may be because, as Switch notes, it allows us to conserve energy. When you make familiar choices on autopilot, you don’t expend any energy on decision-making. So in ancient times, autopilot mode may have let us conserve our hard-won energy for the tasks that truly needed them. Bailey does imply that our brains are prone to distraction because we’re wired to conserve energy—but he never explicitly connects our brains’ desire for energy to our tendency to default to autopilot mode.)

The Pros of the Autopilot Mode

Autopilot mode remains useful in the modern day. As Bailey notes, nearly 40% of our actions rely on habits. Habits are an example of the brain on autopilot: We react automatically to specific triggers. 

(Shortform note: Bailey doesn’t explicitly mention that autopilot mode is also what makes bad habits so difficult to break—we perform them automatically without stopping to think about whether they’re good for us.) 

Similarly, autopilot mode lets us perform simpler cognitive tasks with ease. Thanks to autopilot mode, clearing the table is a five-minute endeavor instead of an exercise in intense decision-making about which dish to clear first. (Shortform note: In Deep Work, author Cal Newport calls non-demanding cognitive tasks “shallow work.” However, unlike Bailey, he adds that shallow work tasks don’t create much value and anyone can do them.)   

The Cons of the Autopilot Mode

However, autopilot mode has one major drawback: It makes us prone to distraction.

As mentioned, in autopilot, you automatically react to anything new, potentially dangerous, or gratifying. This inclination makes us susceptible to distraction because usually, the thing we’re trying to focus on is not as new, gratifying, or potentially dangerous as other things in the room. (Shortform note: Bailey recommends several strategies to make the thing you need to focus on the most stimulating thing in the room, but all of his strategies revolve around limiting potential distractions. Alternatively, make what you need to focus on newer, more gratifying, or more potentially dangerous. For example, if you’re working on a book, treat yourself to a chocolate every time you finish a chapter. This can convince your brain that writing the book is more gratifying than it really is because it gets you chocolate.) 

Furthermore, many modern-day companies have specifically designed their products to take advantage of our innate tendency to focus on new, gratifying, and potentially dangerous things. So it’s not just that you’re biologically inclined to get distracted—it’s also that the potential distractions you encounter every day are specifically designed to be as tempting as humanly possible. (Shortform note: Digital Minimalism delves further into this, explaining how companies design digital tools to be addictive—such as by providing inconsistent positive reinforcement, causing you to continue the behavior more than if you experienced reinforcement consistently.)

Even if you do manage to resist these companies’ products, your own thoughts might distract you from your original objective. As Bailey notes, one feature of being human is that our minds wander 47% of the time. So if they happen to alight on a thought that fits any of the distraction criteria (new, potentially dangerous, or gratifying), you’ll automatically start to focus on that instead. (Shortform note: The statistic that our minds wander 47% of the time is based on self-reported data. But self-reported data on mind-wandering is not ideal given that humans tend to be bad at noticing where their mind goes. One study on mind-wandering controversially tried to get around this issue by studying masters of Vipassana mindfulness meditation, which supposedly improves your ability to notice your thoughts.) 

Can You Make Hyperfocus a Habit? 

In Deep Work, Newport argues that you can use your brain’s tendency to default to autopilot mode to your advantage: When you turn deep work—focused, uninterrupted, intense work on a task—into a habit, your brain requires less willpower to ignore distractions and do deep work because you’ve trained it to do deep work on autopilot mode.  

Bailey also discusses the importance of regularly performing focused work on a task. But while he does say that regularly performing focused work on a task makes it easier to start the work and ignore distractions, he never argues that you can turn it into a habit you automatically default to.
The Brain on Autopilot: How It Impacts Productivity

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Here's what you'll find in our full Hyperfocus summary:

  • Why it's just as important to learn how to manage your attention, along with your time
  • Why you still feel tired no matter how many breaks you take
  • Strategies for managing your attention for better productivity and creativity

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, science, and philosophy. A switch to audio books has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a creative nonfiction book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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