Running on autopilot?
Here are 7 ways to slow down, simplify and play it smart
April 3, 2008
By Scott Westcott
BlackBerry is charged. Bills are in the mailbox. Kids are off to school. You’re in the car on the way to work.
And then it happens. A little voice creeps into your head and whispers, “Do my socks match?” And then again, “Is the coffee pot off?”
A national survey by the American Psychological Association, released late last year, revealed that stress levels are on the rise. But it’s not because of mismatched socks or burnt coffee. We’re worried about money and work.
It begs the question: if most minds are concentrated on our wallet and career, who’s watching the coffee pot?
“I think we all have a tendency to go on autopilot,” says Joyce Gioia, CEO of the Herman Group, a firm of business futurists and consultants. “We have to make the conscious effort to think about what we’re doing in the here and now. Doing so means less worry. And, most importantly, it helps us get things done right the first time around.”
Gioia makes her living predicting future business trends. But a sign on her office wall—“Be here now!”—helps her make sure she keeps one foot firmly planted in the present.
The Greensboro, N.C., resident posted the sign one morning when she honestly couldn’t remember whether or not she had taken a vitamin just a few moments before.
It’s probably not an unfamiliar tale. With the flurry of everyday life, plenty of us succumb to autopilot mode through parts of our day. But it can sometimes be a dangerous way to fly. Doing a second take when it comes to everyday routines can help you regain a sense of control, and it can lead to smarter decisions and safer deeds.
Here are seven ways to work safe, streamlined habits back into your life:
Though many small appliances like coffee pots and irons come with auto-shutoff features, unplugging them after you’re done is good practice. It’s even more important when you’re going to be away from home for more than a few hours. The U.S. Fire Administration estimates that many of the more than 67,000 electrical-related house fires that occur each year can be traced to the misuse of electric cords and overloaded outlets.
There’s an added green benefit to unplugging, too: green, as in the earth and your dollars. Those plugged-in appliances are an energy drain.
The U.S. Department of Energy reports that 25 percent of electricity used to power home electronics and appliances is consumed while the products are turned off or in standby mode. Flipping off a power strip to these electronics or completely unplugging them when not in use can prevent this “phantom load.”
But—ugh—it’s one more thing to remember!
Better yet, program it into your autopilot.
Tim Hurson, author of Think Better: An Innovator’s Guide to Productive Thinking (McGraw Hill, 2007) says consciously building steps into your morning routine can lead to safe habits, such as making sure appliances are off and unplugged.
Hurson believes in the power of checklists. He suggests identifying several things you would like to get in the routine of doing, such as locking doors, turning down the furnace or unplugging appliances, and then including them on a checklist. Keep the list near the door and go over it each time you leave the house. Over time, the steps will likely become part of your daily routine, Hurson says.
“That moment you are leaving the house, pause, become aware, is there something else I should be doing?” Hurson advises. “It’s that pause that allows your cerebral brain to kick in. You can train yourself to include some good alternate steps in your autopilot mode.”
Care for your credit
Robert Pagliarini’s 2-year-old daughter Alexandria helps him think twice every time he’s about to charge a purchase. How? Pagliarini keeps a picture of her smiling face next to his credit card. Whenever he goes to pull out the plastic, the sight of her prompts him to consider, “Is this really what I should be spending money on right now?”
Putting a list of life goals such as early retirement or a picture of your dream house next to your credit card can have a similar effect. Sometimes, Pagliarini concludes, the purchase isn’t necessary and saves his money.
“It gives you that split second to think about if you are buying something that is really necessary or if those dollars would be saved for something more important in the future,” says Pagliari, author of The Six Day Financial Makeover (St. Martin’s Press, 2006).
The strategy leads to what Pagliarini calls “conscious spending” and helps you avoid sinking into the deep debt that is consuming more and more Americans. The average credit card debt in the United States is now at nearly $10,000, according to cardtrack.com. Of cardholders with debt, 13 percent carried hefty balances over $25,000.
And bad credit can hurt more than your wallet. It can impact your ability to get preferred rates on insurance or to secure a loan for a home or auto. It can even cast a cloud on your opportunities with future employers.
“Bad credit is insidious,” says Pagliarini. “It can hurt you in so many ways.”
Shop and save
Curbing unnecessary purchases, even when you have the money to make them, can lead to better financial practices, too.
For example, do you really need that morning cup of Starbucks? While the caffeine jolt might give you a lift, pocketing the $3 or so and committing it to a savings plan can start adding up. Rethinking routine daily purchases can add up to big money over time.
Forsaking that $3-a-day-latte habit and investing it in a savings vehicle with an 8 percent return would result in nearly $16,000 in 10 years. In 20 years, your investment will have grown to $53,000.
Also look for hidden expenses. Study credit card statements, looking for monthly fees that you’re automatically paying and may have forgotten about. Review cable and cell phone packages and cancel club memberships or magazine subscriptions you
no longer want.
Ask for help
When Bruce Johnson was growing up, his father had a motto for home repair: “Don’t hire someone to help until you mess it up yourself.”
Johnson, a do-it-yourself expert, and author of 50 Simple Ways to Save Your House (Ballantine Books, 1995), no longer lives by that creed. With every home project he takes on, he thinks long and hard before deciding what he’ll tackle—and what he’ll leave to a pro.
He asks himself three questions:
• Do I have the time?
• Will the job require specialized skills and tools?
• Is there a safety risk?
“I’ve learned over the years there are typically two areas to call in the pros—plumbing and electric,” Johnson says. “If you make a mistake in those areas, the results can spell instant disaster.”
Johnson says even if you are doing some of the renovation work yourself, the best time to call a pro is early in the process. That way you can get a clear assessment of how much work needs to be done, how much it will cost, and the best timing to get the work done efficiently.
“People sometimes jump into a project without thinking,” Johnson says. “But safety needs to be the top priority. You’re no good to your family if you’re in the hospital.”
Go with the flow
Nowhere do Americans shift more readily into autopilot than when they slide behind the wheel. Safety experts estimate that nearly 90 percent of crashes can be blamed at least partly on human error.
Leon James, a professor of psychology at Hawaii University who has extensively studied driving behaviors, says many drivers are either distracted or in a constant agitated state, which leads to aggressive reactions. He suggests drivers make the effort to observe and track how they respond to situations and other drivers with an eye toward curbing negative reactions or aggressiveness.
“On the road, courteous driving protects you and other drivers,” James says. “If you are courteous, you’re going to be watchful. At a crucial moment, you’re going to slow down instead of rushing ahead.
“When you have a courteous attitude, you start seeing a difference in your decision points and making wiser choices.”
Go with the slow
Running behind the clock? Don’t sweat it, and don’t automatically speed up. Take the voice scolding “tardy” in your head, and revise it to “fashionably late.”
The reality is, speeding won’t get you that much ahead. The time savings of driving 10 miles at 70 miles an hour compared to the same distance at 55 miles an hour is a mere 55 seconds, according to the National Traffic Safety Institute.
Plus, speeding is a sign of stress. Del Lisk, a highway safety expert who teaches fleet drivers to be safer drivers, says speeding is often a frantic response to running late.
“I don’t think most people speed in an actual desire to make up time,” Lisk says. “It’s more of a reaction to being frustrated or stressed.”
Lisk suggests that the time to think about slowing down is before getting into the car. Better planning before you turn the key will give you the time you need to get to your destination in a stress-free manner.
And if you are running late? Stop. Simply call the person you are supposed to be meeting and let them know you’re behind schedule. That phone call can relieve the pressure and anxiety that often leads to putting the pedal to the metal.
Streamline pay time
Sometimes autopilot can be a good thing—when it allows you time to pay attention to other important matters.
Setting up automatic bill payment for utilities or insurance can save time. Likewise, automatic deposits set up for savings and investments can have an added advantage—building a nest egg without much attention.
From an insurance standpoint, placing your home and auto insurance with the same company offers convenience and discounts. ERIE policyholders with both types of policies can save as much as 15 percent on each premium. And those policyholders with a qualifying permanent, term or universal life insurance policy*, can save an additional 5 percent on home and auto premiums.
“Before you make any changes to your policy, talk to your agent,” says Terry McConnell, manager of ERIE’s Personal Lines Underwriting. “He or she can help you make the best decision, ensure that you have the proper coverage and possibly find you additional savings.”
For Joyce Gioia, the business futurist who committed to the idea “be here now,” life is still crazy busy. But her simple focus on paying more attention to what’s happening in the here and now has begun to pay off. Gioia finds she’s more aware at work, on the road, and when interacting with others.
“If I’m not present in the moment and thinking about what I’m doing, I am doing myself a disservice and those around me a disservice,” Gioia says. “It requires effort, but the rewards are great. You find you enjoy life more and start making better decisions. I feel more complete and together.”
Scott Westcott is an award-winning journalist and speechwriter based in Erie, Pa. He is also a former ERIE editor.
Cover art by Tom White
Tom White is an illustrator and designer based in New York City. His clients range from small firms, new businesses to major international corporations.
What makes you stop and think twice? Share a story of how slowing down has made your life better. Send it by snail mail or e-mail email@example.com. If we print it in the next issue, we’ll send you a copy of Tim Hurson’s book Think Better: An Innovator’s Guide to Productive Thinking.