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Avoiding Autopilot, What Change Requires, & The Importance of Capturing Everything

Resource: The Psychology of Getting Unstuck: How to Overcome the “OK Plateau” of Performance & Personal Growth


3 stages of skill acquisition: 1) Cognitive — lots of conscious effort and thinking as new elements are being processed for the first time. 2) Associative — noticeable improvements, less conscious thinking, more relaxed, fewer errors, making new connections. 3) Autonomous — the learner has mastered things enough to go on auto-pilot and perform the task without a lot of conscious thinking.

The reason we stop growing in a new area of skill development is because we go reach an “OK Plateau” where we’re good enough to get by with our current level of skill and we go on auto-pilot.

The key to getting off auto pilot is deliberate practice. This involves deliberately keeping ourselves in the cognitive phase by studying our failures and focusing more on the things we’re not good at. In practice, we keep stepping out of our comfort zones and reaching for new heights.

Deliberate practice matters much more than hours of practice.

Being on auto-pilot isn’t a bad thing. It’s what allows our brains to operate efficiently. If you’re always in the cognitive phase about everything, you’ll be too overwhelmed to enjoy life or get anything done. Auto pilot only becomes an enemy when allow this to be our primary modus operandi in an area where we desire to improve.


William James on the Power of Momentum:

“Any sequence of mental action which has been frequently repeated tends to perpetuate itself,” William James wrote in his influential meditation on habit, ”so that we find ourselves automatically prompted to think, feel, or do what we have been before accustomed to think, feel, or do, under like circumstances.”

Joshua Foer on the three stages of skill acquisition:

“In the 1960s, psychologists identified three stages that we pass through in the acquisition of new skills. We start in the “cognitive phase,” during which we’re intellectualizing the task, discovering new strategies to perform better, and making lots of mistakes. We’re consciously focusing on what we’re doing. Then we enter the “associative stage,” when we’re making fewer errors, and gradually getting better. Finally, we arrive at the “autonomous stage,” when we turn on autopilot and move the skill to the back of our proverbial mental filing cabinet and stop paying it conscious attention.”

Maria Popova on the “OK Plateau”:

“And so we get to the so-called “OK Plateau” — the point at which our autopilot of expertise confines us to a sort of comfort zone, where we perform the task in question in efficient enough a way that we cease caring for improvement. We reach this OK Plateau in pursuing just about every goal, from learning to drive to mastering a foreign language to dieting, where after an initial stage of rapid improvement, we find ourselves in that place at once comforting in its good-enoughness and demotivating in its sudden dip in positive reinforcement via palpable betterment.”

Joshua Foer on getting off auto-pilot and practicing outside of your comfort zone:

“Something experts in all fields tend to do when they’re practicing is to operate outside of their comfort zone and study themselves failing. The best figure skaters in the world spend more of their practice time practicing jumps that they don’t land than lesser figure skaters do. The same is true of musicians. When most musicians sit down to practice, they play the parts of pieces that they’re good at. Of course they do: it’s fun to succeed. But expert musicians tend to focus on the parts that are hard, the parts they haven’t yet mastered. The way to get better at a skill is to force yourself to practice just beyond your limits.”

Foer on How auto-pilot works:

“During the autonomous stage, you lose conscious control over what you’re doing. Most of the time that’s a good thing. Your mind has one less thing to worry about. In fact, the autonomous stage turns out to be one of those handy features that evolution worked out for our benefit. The less you have to focus on the repetitive tasks of everyday life, the more you can concentrate on the stuff that really matters, the stuff that you haven’t seen before. And so, once we’re just good enough at [something], we move it to the back of our mind’s filing cabinet and stop paying it any attention. You can actually see this shift take place in fMRI scans of people learning new skills. As a task becomes automated, the parts of the brain involved in conscious reasoning become less active and other parts of the brain take over. [This is] the “OK Plateau,” the point at which you decide you’re OK with how good you are at something, turn on autopilot, and stop improving.”

Foer on deliberate practice and forcing yourself to stay in the cognitve stage:

“What separates experts from the rest of us is that they tend to engage in a very directed, highly focused routine, which Ericsson has labeled “deliberate practice.” Having studied the best of the best in many different fields, he has found that top achievers tend to follow the same general pattern of development. They develop strategies for consciously keeping out of the autonomous stage while they practice by doing three things: focusing on their technique, staying goal-oriented, and getting constant immediate feedback on their performance. In other words, they force themselves to stay in the “cognitive stage.”

Foer On on the importance of focusing more on deliberateness of practice over hours spent in practice:

“Deliberate practice, by its nature, must be hard. When you want to get good at something, how you spend your time practicing is far more important than the amount of time you spend. … Regular practice simply isn’t enough. To improve, we must watch ourselves fail, and learn from our mistakes.”

Resource: Change is a Word… by Seth Godin


You can’t have change without stress.

You can have progress or you can have a stress-free life, but you can’t have both. If you want progress, you have to be willing to deal with things that are uncomfortable.

Stress can be externally imposed in the forms of challenging circumstances that come with the territory you’re pursuing. Stress can be internally and deliberately induced through deliberate practice (ie. consciously introducing discomfort for the sake of improving weaknesses).


“Change is a word for a journey with stress. You get the journey and you get the stress. At the end, you’re a different person. But both elements are part of the deal. There are plenty of journeys that are stress-free. They take you where you expect, with little in the way of surprise or disappointment. You can call that a commute or even a familiar TV show in reruns. And there’s plenty of stress that’s journey-free. What a waste. We can grow beyond that, achieve more than that and contribute along the way. But to do so, we might need to welcome the stress and the journey too.”

Resource: Getting Things Done by David Allen


You’ll feel better whenever you capture anything that you’ve been holding in your head. You’ll feel and perform best when you capture everything that commands, demands, or already has your attention.

Some traditional time management systems encourage you to not give any attention to the small stuff, but size doesn’t matter when it comes to the capturing process. In fact, when you fail to capture things in your system they are guaranteed to take more or less attention than they deserve. Why hold something in your head just because it’s small? Your reasoning should be in the opposite direction. The creative function of your brain, as opposed to the container function, is so important that you shouldn’t take the risk of letting small things clog up your thinking.


On the value of capturing everything:

“In my experience, anything that is held only in your head will take up either more or less attention than it deserves. The reason to collect everything is not that everything is equally important; it’s that it’s not. Incompletions, uncaptured, take on a dull sameness in the sense of the pressure they create and the attention they tie up. ”

Capturing everything is essential for knowing where you stand:

“When will you know how much you have left in your head to capture? Only when there’s nothing left. If some part of you is even vaguely aware that you don’t have it all, you can’t really know what percentage you have collected. How will you know when there’s nothing left? When nothing else shows up as a reminder in your mind. ”

Capturing the things that have your attention is what helps you get in the zone:

“When the only thing on your mind is the only thing on your mind, you’ll be “present,” in your “zone,” with no distinction between work and play. ”

Use your mind, don’t overwork your mind:

“I suggest that you use your mind to think about things, rather than think of them. You want to be adding value as you think about projects and situations, not creating stress by simply reminding yourself they exist and you need to do something about them. To fully realize that more productive place, you will need to capture it all. It takes focus and a change of habit to train yourself to recognize and download even the smallest agreements with yourself as they’re created in your mind.”

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