Note: This post is derived from a talk I did at Amazon in Seattle. Based on some questions I received, I thought I would write further details. I also wrote about my experience in developing the talk in a different post.
When I was in college, I got inspired to learn Mandarin Chinese. I decided I would go all-in and attack learning Chinese with vigor and focus. I signed up for classes, I got audio CDs for my commute, I found language partners to practice with, and I even bought DVD sets of Chinese historical dramas, hoping I would get not only listening practice but also history lessons at the same time.
After 4 months, I gave up. I became frustrated at the slow progress and I wasn’t anywhere near useful in the language.
Over the years, I’ve had many spurts of inspiration where I would get excited, dive in, and do all the seemingly right things. Yet I was typically unable to sustain efforts and would ultimately fail.
As life has gotten busier with an increasing number of competing responsibilities, I found it even more difficult to devote time to various initiatives I was interested in.
However, over the last few years, I have been able to accomplish many of my goals, and in a manner with much reduced stress.
I’ve been utilizing a methodology which I describe as “autopilot.” Autopilot consists of setting goals or activities on a path that can be followed easily for both progress and reduced cognitive load.
Autopilot has helped me free up more time, focus towards things I care about, and make progress towards goals.
Specifically, I’ve used autopilot to learn new things (Japanese, Krav Maga, boxing), improve my health (cook more, eat better, get in better shape), and save and invest more money.
At a basic level, setting something on autopilot consist of three main components:
- Plan You Path
- Define Your Default
- Let it Ride
In this essay, I’ll break down the components of autopilot in hopes that anybody (including future me) can utilize.
Plan Your Path
If you don’t know where you’re going, it doesn’t matter which way you go
Saving and investing money has always been something I’ve wanted to do more of and more effectively. But without clarity on I how should be spending, saving, or investing, I defaulted to “going with the flow” and spending as I pleased. Savings would be inconsistent and there was no plan for investing at all.
In order to save and invest, I had to have clarity on what I wanted to and could accomplish. For my finances, this meant going through my income and expenses and understanding how much I would actually be comfortable spending and saving. With specific numbers for spending, saving, and investing, I could then allocate my monthly income as needed to various accounts. I had set up an autopilot financial plan where I wouldn’t have to think about saving and spending.
My fun spending was tied to a specific debit card and checking account that would re-fill with essentially an “allowance” on a monthly basis. This way, it was incredibly easy for me to keep track and also limit my spending. If my card got rejected, I knew it was time to cool off on the fun spending for the rest of the month.
On the investing side, since I now had the frequency and investment amounts I’d be comfortable with, the next step was to determine where I would actually invest. Based on my profile and interests (ie. hands off and autopilot), I chose primarily Vanguard lifecycle funds due to their the low cost and low involvement.
Be Deliberate with the Plan
Years of watching martial arts and action movies inspired me to learn Krav Maga a few years ago. Watching the good guys defend and take down bad guys just looked so badass. Krav Maga has defined levels, so it was easy for me to scope out where I wanted to go from where I was at. While the training center I signed up for ran classes multiple times daily, I decided I could allocate 3hrs/week training in Krav Maga. From there, I looked at the weekly training schedule and selected the classes I would attend every week (3 classes/week). No more, no less. I added the sessions to my calendar and planned my path for learning Krav Maga.
In both these cases, what’s important is that I knew what I wanted to do and then I planned a path for me to apply the right focus or structure needed. The plan itself needs to be created mindfully with an understanding of what is realistic given priorities.
Planning a path will likely take upfront work. The plan is essentially what you’ll execute on autopilot, so it needs to be constructed correctly in order to actually accomplish your goal.
Define Your Default
Be lazy. Take the path of least resistance.
Deep down, I’m still a chubby kid who loves food way too much. I tend to get hungry a lot and when I get hungry, I often get hangry (and grumpy, anxious, distracted..). This usually means I grab whatever is the easiest, fastest, and most gratifying food option. Which usually means a burrito, banh mi, Chinese BBQ pork bun, or something else equally simple and satisfying. Not really what one would consider as healthy foods.
What this behavior tells me is that I (and perhaps many people) gravitate to whatever is the easiest (or least painful) option in front of me. Thus the key for me to stay on a planned path was to define a default action so that when my inner lazy kicks in, I end up doing the desired action.
There are two ways I’ve found effective to define a default:
- Make it really easy to do OR
- Make it more painful to do the alternative
Make it really easy to do
To eat better, what I ended up doing was planning my path of selecting healthier foods I would enjoy eating and planning when I would eat them. Next, I made the foods so easy to access that it would end up being my default option. For example, I keep a stash of oatmeal, almonds, and peanut butter in my desk at work. When I get hungry around mid-morning, I reach into my desk and 90s later in the microwave I have a healthier snack that prevents me from rushing to grab an easy snack, overeating at lunch, and worst of all.. getting hangry.
Make it more painful to do the alternative
For studying Japanese, I knew it would be difficult for me to keep up consistent studying, especially with a busy work schedule and little need for Japanese in everyday life. In order for me to study and attend lessons, I had to not only plan it so that it would work in my schedule, but a I also had to make it more painful if I didn’t study or attend lessons. So I decided to set my Japanese lessons to be first thing in the morning at 6am on weekdays. And since at 6am there’s a real, live (and always punctual) person waiting for me on Skype, the embarrassment of missing my lesson from sleeping in makes me get up and take the lesson.
I found that staying on path, no matter the good intentions, to be generally a challenge. It became necessary to design my default actions and decisions to automatically stay on my path.
Another small tactic I used to define my default was to define simple ground rules towards certain activities. For example, I decided that if I caught myself thinking about or in doubt of going to workout or to yoga, the automatic answer would be yes. Yes became a default answer for when I debated whether I should or should not go workout.
Once I had planned my path and defined my default actions, the next principle enabled me to ride it out to real progress and results.
Let It Ride
We live in a world of “intensives,” “bootcamps,” and “accelerated experiential immersives” – all promising to help us do, learn, and achieve more in less time. The thinking, as it goes, is to go hard and focused for a short period of time and reap faster rewards than if done “slower” or at a “regular” pace. We’re all short on a time and high on inspiration, so sounds perfect right?
We live in a world of “intensives,” “bootcamps,” and “accelerated experiential immersives” – all promising to help us do, learn, and achieve more in less time.
I found that whenever I undertook an all encompassing activity intensively, I actually suffered more. I found that I not only had limited lasting change, but I also found myself sacrificing other important priorities. This frustration ultimately led to abandonment and no real progress.
I summarize the third autopilot principle as Let it Ride, and it can be broken down into a couple of sub-components.
Erase expectations of massive breakthroughs
One of the most common questions I get in regards to my Japanese is “How’s it going? Can you speak Japanese yet?”
For some reason, I always feel an obligation and desire to proclaim that I’ve been making wonderful progress, that I’m reading, writing, and speaking better every day. Except my answer is always the same, “I still can’t understand a conversation. And I still get lost and confused when I’m in Tokyo.”
Rather than constantly checking in on my progress towards lofty goals, I eventually learned to erase the expectations of huge breakthroughs and to just go with my autopilot plan. What I noticed instead was the small, unexpected victories.
The first time I told a flight attendant in Japanese “チキンセットをおください” (I’ll have the chicken meal, please) I was ecstatic. The first time I got a (tiny) dividend check from my investments I was thrilled.
The small victories are immensely satisfying. They motivate, and they compound, little by little. The only way I was able to really enjoy the small victories was to let it ride, enjoy my autopilot path and notice the little things, rather than fret over the big goal.
20-mile march it
Jim Collin’s excellent book “Great By Choice” has a concept of the 20-mile march which I love. Collins illustrates the concept with the store of two cross country walkers. The successful hero marched a consistent 20-miles per day, despite harrowing mountain conditions or glorious springtime plains. The other walker, who was erratic in his efforts – marching harder when the conditions were favorable and less when conditions were unfavorable, faced a much more difficult and less successful experience.
The 20-mile march entails consistency over long periods of time, with two important criteria: following through (delivering) in difficult times and holding back in good times.
The 20-mile march entails consistency over long periods of time, with two important criteria: following through when times are tough and holding back when times are good.
In the context of setting things on autopilot and letting it ride, the 20-mile march ensures that the required minimum activity and effort is placed on the initiative and at the same time, not too much activity and effort is placed on the initiative. Too much, and we get distracted, other priorities suffer, and we become susceptible to burnout.
With the right path planned and effective defaults set, by letting it ride, one really settles into autopilot mode. The key with letting it ride is to erase the extreme expectations, delight in the small victories, and continue on with a 20-mile march.
Tying it Together
One of the oddities of life is that as we get older and the less time we have available, the faster that time appears to pass.
With this in mind, setting things on autopilot has enabled me to purposefully allocate my decreasing amount of available time, while at the same time ensuring that I maintain appropriate time and effort allocation as time passes by so quickly.
There is certainly upfront work in setting up autopilot, and there’s no way around it.
But that’s also the beauty of autopilot. Once I had planned my path and got things going, I had much less stress as I didn’t have to think as much on a daily basis towards my desired tasks.
The highs, lows, anxiety, and pressure all faded away as I just continued on a steady plan that my default self would follow along with. The small unexpected wins motivated and delighted, and with time whizzing by in our daily lives, it was surprising to look back and see how much progress I made without even knowing it.
Our world is full of distractions and responsibilities. On top of that we each have our own ambitions and desires. By setting things on autopilot, I hope that with a little upfront work, we can all think less and accomplish more.
Comments, thoughts, questions? Let me know. I only recently sat down and tried to break down my process of “autopilot,” and welcome any feedback.