Have you ever been driving your car and suddenly realized you’ve been driving for miles, maybe even reached your destination, but didn’t remember doing the driving? This is the common phenomenon of unconscious driving. Some call it automatic pilot. It may also be called unconscious competence – engaging in an activity without realizing how you are doing it or that you’re doing it.
The ability to drive a car without realizing you’re actually driving it can be used as a metaphor for life. Many of us go about our lives half-awake, half-conscious, or with our eyes half open not even realizing we’re doing it. We pay attention to the bare minimum, and ignore the things that create discomfort, conflict, pain, or boredom. We rely on our automatic pilot to get us through our day-to-day activities, falling further asleep at the wheel of life.
We sit in front of the television in a daze for hours at a time. We don’t really listen to our friends and family when they are sharing stories about their day. We read the words in a book, but don’t fully pay attention to what the author is saying. We fill our lives with activities that create stress and anxiety, and we ignore the pain in our backs that indicate that our well being is at risk.
We grow accustomed to ignoring the warning signs that say “Hazard Ahead” or “Slow Down.” We do our best to “get through” life’s circumstances, but don’t put energy into making things better. We numb ourselves to the world around us and to our internal world of thoughts, feelings, and sensations until the discomfort becomes so extreme that we can’t ignore it any longer.
Unconscious competence serves an important purpose that we may have grown accustomed to using far too often. It would be exhausting and stressful if we had to pay attention to every detail, stimulus, or input that we encountered every moment of the day. That’s why our brains and bodies are capable of processing information at an unconscious level – thankfully. Unconscious competence allows us to put our attention selectively on matters that require greater focus. This has many benefits, but the ability to rely on unconscious competence can negatively impact how we live our lives.
Over reliance on unconscious competence teaches us to not pay attention to the warning signs that change is needed. This is one of the reasons that it is difficult for most people to find life balance. We get in the habit of being out of balance, of enduring the discomfort that we’ve created in our lives, and not being motivated enough to make necessary changes until we cannot ignore the warning signs any longer – physical pain, obesity, divorce, financial problems, over-working, substance abuse, and so on.
Finding fulfillment and satisfaction in how we spend our time and making conscious choices that create a happier life is what finding life balance is all about. This is when we no longer rely on unconscious competence, but instead live a life of complete awareness, intention and fulfillment.
What conscious choices are you making today to create a healthier, happier life?