Resetting Your Internal Autopilot

“It is almost impossible for anyone, even the most ineffective among us, to continue to choose misery after becoming aware that it is a choice.”

William Glasser, therapist and author

In “Life’s Healing Choices,” author John Baker shares the following story. Imagine that you’re in a boat and the autopilot is set for east, but you decide you want to change directions and go west. You take hold of the wheel and using all your might, you force the boat west. As long as you hold the wheel steady, the boat keeps on going west. But pretty soon, you get tired of fighting the boat’s inclination and let go of the wheel. And once again, you’re heading east — because that’s the direction the boat is programmed to go.

As Baker notes, “That’s how it is when you try to fight against your own internal autopilot. By your own willpower, you try to force new behavior. You try and you try, but pretty soon you get tired … and you let go … You revert back to the way you’ve always acted.”

Of course, that’s a very frustrating way to live, but it characterizes the way many people live. They feel burdened, challenged, defeated, and ineffective. That’s why I created my keynote and seminar on “The Payoff Principle: How To Motivate Yourself To Win Every Time In Every Situation.” 

You see … if you don’t know HOW to reset your autopilot … if you don’t know HOW to program yourself for the results you want … you will revert to any one of a hundred non-productive behaviors. Gossip, sarcasm, jealousy, tardiness, laziness, negativity, procrastination, or whatever you’ve been programmed to do. Of course, you may be wondering WHERE all your non-productive behaviors came from and WHY they continue to be in your life, getting in the way of your goals, your health, your career, your relationships, and everything else. I’ll answer that question in today’s “Tuesday Tip,” and then next week I’ll give you a step-by-step process for eliminating those nonproductive behaviors.


1. Your biology

You inherited some of your parents’ strengths and weaknesses. You inherited some of their physical defects as well as some of their mental and emotional shortcomings. It’s one of the reasons you have a “tendency” to fall into certain problems.

However, your tendencies do not give you an excuse to act inappropriately. For instance, you may have a controlling tendency, but that doesn’t give you the right to order people around. You may have a laziness tendency, but that doesn’t mean that it’s okay for you to do less than your fair share at work. And you may have a genetic tendency toward drug addiction, but that doesn’t let you off the hook when you choose to use drugs and end up addicted.

Your biology can push you towards certain non-productive behaviors, but don’t ever forget … YOU are still responsible for your own behavior.

In addition to your biology giving you certain tendencies, you were also shaped by …

2. Your environment

When you were young, you observed your parents, your peers, and your teachers. You listened to what they said and you observed what they did … and all of that contributed to who you are today. For example, if your mother treated other people with rudeness when she was upset, you may be rude to others when you don’t get your way. In fact much of how you behave today can be traced to what you observed in others yesterday.

Of course, your environment continues to shape you throughout your present life. If one of your bosses … who is well-liked and highly competent … works seventy hours a week, you may unconsciously conclude that you have to work seventy hours a week to keep your job or to get ahead.

As I often tell people in my seminars, choose your friends and acquaintances carefully. After all, they’re a part of your environment and they will rub off on you. That’s why it’s no accident that the poorest performing salespeople in a company tend to hang together. That’s why the most negative people in an organization tend to find each other, share lunches, and gripe in unison. And it’s no accident that couples who have troubled relationships tend to socialize with other couples who have troubled relationships.

Finally, your non-productive behaviors come from…

3. Your choices

The choices you make are the MOST significant source of your character, because they are the one thing you can always do something about. You can’t change your biology. Your parents are your parents, whether you like it or not. You can’t go back and change the environment in which you grew up. That’s passed. That’s why we call it the “past.” But you can change the choices you make.

As Baker says, “You develop your hang-ups because you repeat negative choices. And if you choose to do something long enough, it becomes a habit. Once it becomes a habit, you’re stuck.”

When you make a choice to “cut a few corners at work” … the first time … you never even think about the possibility of ending up as a person who does just enough to get by. When you make the choice to tell a “little white lie” to cover your behind, you never even think about the possibility of becoming an untrustworthy person overall.

Bottom line, your choices may have been influenced by your biology or your circumstances, but ultimately YOU are responsible for the choices you make.

The problem is most people find it very difficult to shake off their non-productive behaviors. Even though they know that certain behaviors don’t work, they keep on doing them.

WHY IS THAT? Again there are three reasons.

1. Longevity

Simply put, it’s human nature to keep on doing what you’ve always done. You just “naturally” cling to what’s familiar, even when the familiar things do not work. It’s like an old pair of shoes. There may be holes in the soles and they allow your feet to get wet, but you hang on to them because you’re used to them and you feel comfortable in them.

2. Confusion

Many people confuse their non-productive behaviors with their identities. Maybe you do too. You may say, “That’s just the way I am … or … It’s just like me to be a workaholic or a worrier.” After a while, your words and thoughts become self-fulfilling prophecies. If you say “I’m always nervous when I give a speech,” guess what’s going to happen the next time you give a speech? You’re going to be nervous.

Don’t confuse who you are with a few problems you have.

3. Payoff

We have a hard time letting go of the non-productive areas in our lives because each one of them has a very real payoff. Your yelling may pay off in getting someone’s attention. Your excuse-making may pay off in letting you off the hook instead of taking responsibility for making the changes you need to make. If you keep on repeating a negative behavior, you can be sure there’s a payoff. The payoff may be self-destructive, but it brings you some sort of perceived benefit.

As you look at yourself, your life, your work, and your relationships, I’m sure you can see several things you would like to change. But some of the things you want to change aren’t changing because your autopilot is heading you in the wrong direction. That’s the bad news.

The good news is you CAN change your autopilot. You can reprogram yourself. As noted in “Beautiful Darkness,” author Kami Garcia says, “We don’t get to choose what is true. We only get to choose what we do about it.” I’ll show you how to do that in the next issue of the “Tuesday Tip.”

Action:  List two non-productive behaviors you have.  How have you allowed them to continue?  Perhaps by excusing them with a reference to your biology or environment.  What better choices do you need to make?