A month or so ago our lives were coasting on autopilot. Many of us were caught in an endless loop of never-ending activities: wake, shower, eat, drive, work, drive, eat, sleep and repeat.
We moved through the days like sleepwalkers, unable to alter the monotony of our routines and patterns. Every morning we pulled back the covers, sat up in bed and performed the same list of actions over and over again.
Our bodies were present for each of these activities, but our minds constantly wandered elsewhere. This mindlessness forced us to ask questions that should have been easy to answer.
Did we turn off the curling iron or lock the door before leaving the house? Did we stop at all the stop signs or obey the speed limit on our way from point A to point B?
No matter how hard we tried we couldn’t be certain. How could we possibly remember? We stepped through the motions of everyday life while our thoughts floated millions of miles away.
When Routines Change
Then a pandemic struck and for some of us, (the fortunate few who aren’t still commuting to work or ferrying our kids to activities), life changed. For the first time, in a very long time, our regular day-to-day activities abruptly halted.
After a week we stopped waking to the incessant buzz of our alarm clocks at 6 o’clock in the morning. We no longer need to wake extra early to pack lunches, prepare our kids for school or hit the road to avoid a wretched commute.
We aren’t squeezing grocery shopping, children’s sporting events, workouts at the gym and happy hours in between the end of the work day and the rush to sleep either.
In this quiet space we get a rare chance to contemplate a break from the hustle and bustle of every day life. It’s like pressing the pause button on life while simultaneously disengaging autopilot.
Press The Pause Button
Some people are struggling during this pandemic make no mistake about it, but many others are slowly embracing a new way of life. People all around the globe are using this newfound time to enjoy the company of their families and watch their children learn and grow.
A new mother is blessed with the ability to spend more time with her daughter. While a successful business owner is teaching his kindergartener to read.
Others are pursuing their passions; taking the time to garden, landscape, write, bake and paint.
The days move quickly when we allow ourselves to mindlessly skip from one activity to another, but as busyness is replaced by mindfulness the clock moves slower. As we begin to contemplate the passage of time we ask ourselves, “How should we spend these hours?”
With no where to go and nothing to buy the drive to succeed at work seems much less important. Money may have been a driving force prior to this pandemic, but suddenly time seems unbelievably important.
What Do You Remember?
In normal, non-pandemic life, we repeat the same patterns day after day. Most of us wake at the same time, drive the same way to work, eat the same foods and visit the same places. We disengage while completing these tasks; going through the motions of life without actually thinking about what we’re doing or why we’re doing it.
If you don’t believe me, tell me, what have you done over the past thirty days? What do you recall about the events since the pandemic first started? Are the details vivid in your mind?
Now, tell me what you can remember in the month before that? How easy is it to recall what happened before this pandemic? Some of us were so busy going through the motions of life that we can’t quite recall what we did.
The Vivid Memories Of Our Youth
My husband and I often talk about the vivid memories of our youth. It’s so easy to recall that time I climbed onto my red bike and rode down the street on a windy day.
I can picture the outline of my shadow on the road ahead and the glittery streamers of my handlebars. I can hear the joy in my voice as I shouted for my best friend to come outside and the hooting sound she made as she raced out the door, hopped on her bike and peddled beside me.
The same thing happens when I think about my college years. The places, people and events are incredibly vivid.
As an eighteen year old everything was new and exciting. Compare that to other times in my life, including my early thirties, where I can barely recall anything other than going to work and coming home.
Living Life on Autopilot
That’s the problem with living life on autopilot. When our minds become overrun with monotonous routines we disconnect from our actions and ourselves.
We fulfill the act of consuming calories but don’t think about how we fuel our bodies. We entertain ourselves without learning or growing.
When we live this way the days, weeks, months and years can all blend together.
The Great Pause
There are plenty of people suffering during this pandemic, but there are many others who have the time and opportunity to reevaluate their paths in life.
Some of them are seeking ways to switch careers, search for permanent remote work or even quit their jobs to become stay-at-home parents or volunteer for greater causes. Many are vowing to save more and buy less from this point forward.
Rather than hunkering down and sticking with their current jobs, many people are enjoying the benefits of making more time for their family, reconnecting with others, pursuing their passions and saying goodbye to their daily commutes.
With the rat race temporarily paused we begin to question the balance between work and the rest of our lives. Is now the time to quit a high paying job, leave a job that makes you unhappy or follow your dreams by living a simpler life?
My First Brush with the Pause Button
It’s human nature to reflect on the purpose and meaning in our lives in the midst of a crisis. A global pandemic has pushed the pause button for many of us in 2020, but this is not the first time the pause button has been pushed in my life.
The first time it happened I was sitting in a recliner in my living room recovering from an extremely painful surgery that saved my life. I didn’t know the meaning of the word stop before that moment.
My days consisted of work, work and more work. Yet, there I sat, alone and in pain in my living room with no one to talk to but my cat.
In the silence I vowed for a different life. One where I would spend more time on the people and things that mattered. After all I had been through that was the least I could do for myself.
Returning to Old Routines
I returned to work five months after that surgery. My old ego driven self had been replaced by a broken, tired, resentful version who needed more from life.
In the beginning I promised myself I wouldn’t work too hard, but little by little as my health improved, I returned to my former ways. This time with more headaches and pain. I ramped up my assignments and returned to sitting in front of a computer for hours on end.
Over time I forget the lessons I learned and autopilot reengaged.
In the midst of a crisis it feels like everything should change, but as time passes we fall back to our old ways. Time acts like a giant eraser scratching away at the people and things we once vowed to covet.
Retaining the Lessons
COVID-19 pressed the pause button for some of us. As school, outings, parties and happy hours are placed on hold we get the chance to stop living life on autopilot.
We get to evaluate the positive aspects of life and ask ourselves what will change after this pandemic ends? What do we want to change?
Right now we are full of passion and excitement. We have temporarily woken from our mindless stupor, but this newfound feeling is difficult to hold on to and if we aren’t careful it will fade.
How do we retain the desire to pursue our passions, spend time with our loved ones and simply enjoy life after the government pushes the play button again?
How long can we remember these lessons or more importantly how quickly will we forget them?
Stop Living Your Life On Autopilot
It’s not easy to stop yourself from reverting to old patterns after a crisis ends. I should know. I’ve stumbled into old routines after a slew of major life events. Sometimes it happened just after the event and other times many months later.
Each time I promised myself I wouldn’t revert to old habits, but I couldn’t prevent the momentum. In the quiet after a crisis we reflect on our values, but after awhile we allow the busyness of life to begin again.
So how can we prevent ourselves from re-engaging autopilot when things get back to normal? How do we stay present, mindful and focused on our values?
1 – Write Down the Things You Love
First, and most importantly, capture your thoughts right now. Go find a piece of paper, pull up a new document on your computer or draft an email to yourself.
Write down everything you love about your life. Do you love spending time with your children, connecting with friends over Zoom and Google Meet or cooking dinner with your partner?
Has it been nice to remove the clutter from your house, plant a garden or resume a long lost hobby? What do you want to continue to make time for after this pandemic is over?
What are you grateful for at this very moment: your relationships, your health or your stability?
Think about the positive reflections you’ve had during this time and write them down. After you type out all of your thoughts print them out and tape them to your mirror, dashboard or computer.
Don’t just write them down and stash them away for another day. Put your notes in a visible place and read them often.
You need to mindfully revisit this list before the routines of every day life push your values and ideals out of the way.
2 – Write Down What You Do Each Day
At the end of each day write down everything you can remember. What do you recall about the events that occurred? Can you easily cite all of the moments?
We often remember the most important moments; reading your child a story before bedtime, acing a presentation at work or experiencing a creative breakthrough.
Keep track of the moments that matter and those that don’t. Rate each one as positive, negative or neutral. Work to create a list where the positives outweigh the negatives.
Start this now, but continue it once normal life resumes. As the days turn into weeks revisit your notes. Don’t let the busyness of ‘normal’ life weigh you down or distract you from what’s meaningful and important.
Continue to squeeze in a new joy each day.
3 – Change One Thing
When we follow the same routines day in and day out we end up taking our hands off the wheel and subconsciously turning on autopilot. The easiest way to re-engage is to change one small thing each day.
Eat a different food for breakfast, drive a different way to work, brush your teeth beside your partner, read a book rather than watching television before going to bed.
Try to prevent yourself from returning to your mindless pre-pandemic state. Make small changes that keep you present in this very moment.
Think about what you want to alter and focus on it for a few minutes. This tiny act of mindfulness will awaken you to other positive changes you can make.
4 – Give Yourself a Treat
Every so often spend your money on a special treat. Buy yourself chocolate covered strawberries, sit out on the back deck and savor each bite. Pay for a massage, (when things are safe again), and spend an extra few minutes sitting around the spa in a luxurious bathrobe.
Take your partner to a new restaurant you’ve never tried before and order food you don’t normally eat. Awaken your senses.
Don’t just sit down and shovel food into your mouth. Really think about the food you are eating. What does it look like? What does it taste like?
Use these experiences to bring you into the moment.
5 – Reach Out to Others
When I think back on my life the most vivid memories all involve friends and family members. I remember:
- Laughing hilariously the first time I met my husband.
- Sitting on rusty old lawn chairs and searching for falling stars with my best friend.
- Driving to a far away concert my sophomore year of high school with a car full of teenagers.
- Eating bushels of crabs with my neighbors on a warm summer afternoon.
Now more than ever I crave those relationships. Each moment seems so much more important and valuable when we can share it and relive it with others.
Find ways to create memories with others. They will bring you out of the mindless loop of patterns and chores. Connect with others so you can retell your stories together.
Press the Pause Button Again
It’s easy to return to old habits. I know. I’ve been shaken to the core with major health scares and still returned to my old ways.
In the midst of a crisis I told myself I would focus on the important aspects of life and leave the noise behind, but months later, like it or not, I was back to my previous routines.
If this pandemic has permitted you to reflect on the good in your life I hope you can find a way to permanently imprint those images in your mind.
Try as hard as you can to press the pause button when normal life resumes. Think about how your mindset changed during this time, how vivid the events were and how you wish to take the good from this horrible experience so you never forget it.
Vow to live life a little differently and try hard not to let the passage of time erase your goals.
Disengage From Autopilot
After my surgery I dreamed of a more meaningful life, but as I healed I lost track of my objectives.
Eventually a new crisis brought me back to my senses, but we shouldn’t need chaos to remind us to treasure the good moments.
After this crisis I hope we can reflect on our values, decrease our mindless activities and learn to stop living life on autopilot. When things return to a normal we must continue to focus on the people and activities we value most.
In order to do that we must take a deep breath and remember this moment.