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March 22, 2016

Autopilot by Dave LaRue

Whenever I come back to Minneapolis, I stay with my son, Rob, and his family. The grandkids love time with their Papa and I love spending time with them. I look forward to it each and every time. 

Except for the bed. 

The first time it happened, I sat down for breakfast, battered and sore, and Danielle, my daughter-in-law, looked concerned and asked me how I had slept. 

"Not well, actually," I said. "I should probably do something about that mattress." I only stayed for the one night, though, and I forgot about it as soon as the stiffness passed. 

Six weeks later, I was back in Minneapolis to deliver a presentation, and back at the breakfast table looking the worse for wear. Danielle expressed her concern. I said, "I always say that the most important preparation for a presentation is a good night's rest, but I'll be fine without it." I thought about getting a new mattress, but then I forgot about it after a night in my own bed.

This went on for a year. 

Until one day, after four nights in a row on that mattress, I heard a small voice much like my own make a simple suggestion. It sounded crazy enough to work, so I went for it:

I lifted up the mattress. I looked underneath. 

I wish I could tell you that a lone, single pea was under there causing all that trouble, but the truth was almost as simple: the bedframe had worked itself apart, and the mattress wasn't supported properly. I fixed it and went to sleep. It didn't even require tools. 

Now, why didn’t I do that earlier? What took me so long?

This is where I started to understand something about habits, change, and mental energy, and it deepened my perspective:

Habits help you focus. That's why we use them. They save energy. Both the intentional habits we cultivate to be more productive and the ones we fall into by rote. Habits eliminate the need for paying attention to most of the world. That's what focus is. As a guest at Rob's house, the only part of the bed I was thinking about was the top of it, and sleeping there. My habits were centered around visiting and doing the work I was there to do. 

I stuck to my habits because they serve me well 99% of the time. Funnily enough, my discipline with my habits kept me from fully registering the problem with the mattress. I didn't deal with it like it was a problem. I dealt with it like it was an unplanned-for curiosity. It took a long time to acknowledge it as a pattern that I should investigate.

Habits are all about upfront expenditures of energy. You decide carefully ahead of time what matters and what the right course of action is, and from there on out, you just ... do it. Everything that goes right and wrong with habits comes from the passivity of mind they afford you once they are established. Habits are rules you make for how you will act, but sometimes the world won't cooperate. Sometimes your habits can't connect to the world as it is since last you checked in with it. 

So that's the lesson. Habits are powerful, but they can wander into trouble when they're left unattended. They get flipped over and stranded like a turtle, or a robot vacuum. Your habits do a lot for you, but sometimes you need to return the favor and examine them. Sometimes you have to flip the mattress over and see for yourself what the problem is before you can get back to enjoying the focus and productivity your habits afford you. 

Sometimes, you have to turn off the autopilot.