Who’s Flying Your Plane?

February 24, 2022

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summerYou are largely a product of the decisions you make in life. For instance, your choice of places to live, where to go to school, if you marry and have children, and what you do with your money heavily define your life experience.


But what if we told you that you don’t consciously make up to 43% of your everyday decisions? You don’t think about them at all, and can’t even remember them sometimes. They’re just habits you perform automatically, or on autopilot.

Up to 43% is a lot of you that’s being controlled by your autopilot. Which begs the question, just who is flying your plane?

This statistic was calculated in a study designed by Wendy Wood, PhD, professor of psychology and business at the University of Southern California. Dr. Wood is an expert in the science of habits, and what she’s discovered in her research might just help you train your autopilot for healthier decision-making when it comes to your weight management efforts.

According to Dr. Wood, your immediate environment plays a large role in training your autopilot settings. The way your surroundings are configured can make a huge difference in things like your quality of sleep, stress levels, physical fitness, and your weight.

The environmental factor that impacts many of your autopilot decisions is something called “friction”. Friction represents the level of difficulty or inconvenience that exists when trying to complete a task. Very simply, when friction is low, it’s much simpler to complete a task than when friction is high. Naturally, your autopilot lives in the space of the path of least resistance where friction levels are low.

A great example of low friction is the autoplay feature on YouTube, Netflix, Hulu, or any video streaming service. Rather than waiting for you to make a decision about whether or not you want to watch the next video in the lineup, these platforms make it super easy to keep your eyeballs fixed to the screen. They’ll autoplay the next video so you don’t have to think about it. Friction is very low, you keep watching, and before you know it your alarm clock is going off after a night of zero sleep.

With society’s increasing dependence on technology and advancements in automation, we are progressively experiencing less friction in our daily lives. We’ve also been dealing with this in the physical world for decades. With the invention of the elevator and escalator, taking the stairs became a high-friction experience, especially as the stairs in many office and apartment buildings are not easily accessible.

While you might feel pleasure in the moment of a low-friction task, the cumulative effect of low-friction experiences does not bode well for our weight and general health.

This is where the strategic use of friction can be of high value to you.

Just as our environment at large is becoming increasingly frictionless, you can break unhealthy habits to develop better ones by introducing friction into your immediate environment. You can achieve this in relatively simple ways. Some of these tactics are tried and true, such as parking your car purposely further away from a store entrance to get your extra steps in. In your kitchen, rearrange your pantry so the high-fat and sugary snacks are on the top shelves and healthier snacks are on lower shelves within reach.

These friction tactics may sound trivial, but when you incorporate them into your day and purposely repeat them, your autopilot will learn the new behaviors and make them habits. After a while, you won’t even think about it anymore, just as your autopilot intended.

The bottom line is our environment is making it easier for our autopilot to find the frictionless paths. However, the answer to the question of who is flying your plane is ultimately you. You are the programmer. You are in the control tower. You have the power to decide your flight paths. So set the course for a healthy environment, and your autopilot will follow accordingly – without you thinking about it at all!

If you’d like to hear more from Dr. Wendy Wood about her habits research, listen to this episode of The Hidden Brain podcast.

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