I was watching a humorous video of a race car driver, apparently competing in a cross-country race. The car was equipped with an inside camera to permit watching the driver and where he was going. The driver lost control, left the race course and ended up in a lake. As the car slowly sank beneath the waves, you see and hear him reach down and set the parking brake. Obviously it made no sense to set the parking break on a sinking car, but that was what he had always done when his car came to a stop, so practice had made that response permanent, regardless of the circumstances.

This reality is not always humorous. When I attended the police academy, we studied what had come to be known as the “Newhall Incident” wherein four police officers were killed by two criminals. Four trained officers in two cars pulled over a car containing two suspects, knowing it was a high risk stop. The suspects exited and opened fire, all four police officers returned fire, yet the suspects were able to rush the position of the officers and kill them. How was that possible?

For context, this was back when police carried revolvers, so after firing six rounds the officer had to dump out the shells and reload the weapon. Most officers carried “speed loaders” which were a little device holding six bullets in a circle so the gun could be reloaded with one click instead of one bullet at a time. In a full-on gun battle the reloading time is crucial; that’s why most officers now carry semi-automatics, so they can just slap in a new clip.Bullet_casing

In the Newhall Incident, when the pockets of the slain police officers were checked, one or more of them were found to contain spent shell casings. In other words, in the heat of a gun battle, when the time spent reloading could mean the difference between life or death, time had been spent pocketing the spent shells before reloading.  Why would they have done that?

As it turned out, this particular police agency liked to keep its shooting range free of clutter and debris. When the officers were trained to shoot, and every time thereafter when they would return to the range to train or get their annual qualifications, the practice was to dump the rounds into their hands and put them in their pockets so they didn’t end up on the ground, messing up the shooting range. This practice had become so permanent and instinctual, that even in battle the officers could not deviate from this pattern.

You probably won’t be involved in a gun battle any time soon, but the example shows just how firmly ingrained your practices can become. The question for you is, how much of your life is being lived on auto-pilot, following practices that have become permanent, even when they are counterproductive or even self-destructive?

People that come to my office often can’t answer what should be the most basic of questions about their lives. Someone will tell me that they just got fired from a job that they have hated for the ten years they worked there, and they want to sue to get that job back! When I ask why they would work at a miserable job for ten years, I get that deer in the headlights look. When I ask why they didn’t try to find another job during those ten years, they either can’t answer or mumble something about family commitments. The real answer is that they were on auto-pilot the entire time and never had the initiative to switch it back to manual and direct their own lives.

Spend a few days aggressively questioning everything you do in order to uncover all the “auto-pilots” you have adopted in your life. Why am I working at this job, why am I forcing myself to live with this commute, why do I always have lunch with these people, why am I really not doing anything to make myself more employable or to start my own business?  If there are no good answers, change the practices.