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Being Asleep at the Wheel

2020 has been a year like no other. From the election to the pandemic, we’ve been hit with surprises at every turn: some ups, and (let’s face it) a whole lot of downs. But what’s been interesting to me, as I think back on this year, is this: even though we’ve had to adapt to a new way of life more than ever this year—changing everything from where we work to how we shop—there are still many people, myself included, who feel as though they’ve spent the year being asleep at the wheel. 

Being asleep at the wheel

What exactly does it mean to be asleep at the wheel?

In my mind, it means going through the motions, without really being conscious of them. It means running on autopilot: doing the same things, day in and day out, simply because you feel like you have to.

In a way, I think of being asleep at the wheel as being in survival mode (although, let’s be clear: being asleep when you’re at an actual wheel is not a good strategy for survival). When you’re asleep at the wheel, you’re doing the bare minimum to survive. You’re not progressing, growing, or learning—at least, not as much as you could be. You’re not really living, you’re just…being alive.

Why being asleep at the wheel is a problem

Sometimes, being asleep at the wheel is really all you can do. Again, it’s survival mode. During times of stress (cough pandemic cough), it might be all you can manage for a while. And that’s okay. 

But for many people, there comes a time when it’s not okay anymore—when they look around them and think “What am I doing with my life?”

“The human spirit lives on creativity and dies in conformity and routine.”

Vilayat Inayat Khan

I’ve found that this is especially common among creatives. Creatives have big ideas and want to change the world. They love art and music and emotion and the beautiful things in life. They appreciate innovation and they want to make significant contributions to the world.

Which is why it’s so painful for them to realize they’ve been asleep at the wheel. 

And it’s not only creatives who are harmed by this “autopilot” life. Being asleep at the wheel leads to not being engaged with the world around you, giving in to your instincts (not all of which actually benefit you in the long run), and letting even the important moments in life pass you by. 

How you fall asleep at the wheel

But how exactly does that happen? After all, the world is an exciting, ever-changing place. There’s always more to do, read, watch, learn, or try…right? And none of us really wants to live a life on autopilot, where we aren’t playing an active role in our own lives.

How can you be asleep at the wheel when (a) there are so many opportunities available to each one of us, every single day, and (b) it’s not really what you want?

The fact is, being asleep at the wheel has nothing to do with what’s going on around you, and everything to do with what’s going on inside of you. The world can be in turmoil and you can be asleep at the wheel. Your family can be going through a crisis, and you can be asleep at the wheel. You could even be on your dream vacation, and still be asleep at the wheel.

It’s all about your mindset.

Our brains like to conserve energy. Their default mode is to save energy for those moments when it’s really needed (e.g. when you’re being attacked or when you need to find food). That means that unless we’re deliberate about using our brains in other ways, they’ll cause us to hang out in survival mode.   

And no matter how much you might want to get out of survival mode, if you’re not willing to put in the work, it’s not going to happen on its own. 

Are you asleep at the wheel?

Sometimes, being asleep at the wheel means not even recognizing that you are asleep at the wheel. It can be hard to focus on self-improvement, or to feel like you have the energy to shake things up, when you feel like you’re dragging yourself through the motions of life.

So how can you tell if you’re asleep at the wheel? The following are all pretty good signs:

  • You drive from one place to another and don’t really remember how you got there.
  • You have a sense of dread about your days.
  • It’s hard for you to put your phone down, or to not check it for a long period of time.
  • You have a hard time remembering things (memory is one thing our brains sacrifice in order to conserve energy).
  • You have a hard time focusing. 
  • When other people are talking, you struggle to stay engaged.
  • You spend a lot of time on “numbing” activities: binge watching TV, scrolling through social media, etc., all without intention or purpose.
  • You struggle to meet your goals, or have given up on setting goals.

If even one of these sounds like you, you might be asleep at the wheel and letting your life pass you by.

How to wake up

If being asleep at the wheel is a mindset, it means that you alone are responsible for waking yourself up—which is both a blessing (because you’re in control) and a curse (because you have to take control). 

Luckily, if you’re aware that you’re asleep at the wheel, and you’re committed to turning things around and waking up, you are more than capable of doing just that. Here are some things, both small and big, that might act as your alarm clock. 

Take a different route.

Sometimes, doing something as small as taking a different route to work, or on your daily walk, can help shake things up and break you out of your routine. Try it, and take in your new surroundings.

Try something new.

Whether it’s a new restaurant, a new movie genre, or a new hobby, trying something new can help spark your sense of adventure. 

Take care of yourself.

Survival mode can be a result of stress or burnout. Real self care (things that nourish your body and soul) can help you pull yourself out of emotionally low places. (I recommend reading this post on self-care vs. self-soothing to make sure you find activities that will actually help you.)

Define your purpose.

Many companies come up with purpose or mission statements that give everything they do a direction and meaning. Write a purpose statement for your life. What do you want to accomplish? What kind of person do you want to be? If you can do this, you will be more aware of how your day-to-day activities contribute (or not) to that purpose, and you’ll start living more deliberately. 

Take creative risks.

Taking risks can be scary (otherwise it wouldn’t be a risk), but it can also help you reinvigorate your mind and jumpstart new creative paths. 

Work on being more decisive.

Making decisions is another thing that requires energy from your brain. Most of the decisions we make on a daily basis (about 96% of them, in fact) are made automatically, because we’re trying to conserve energy. For decisions you have to consciously make, however, being decisive and picking a course of action can help save your brain from spending excess energy as it mulls over those decisions. The more proactive you can be in your decision making, the more you’ll feel like you’re in charge of your life. 

Develop healthy habits.

Your brain’s desire to conserve energy can cause you to trend toward laziness. Counteract that by working to develop healthy habits that serve you (your body, your mental health, your emotions, and your purpose). If you can make them into habits, they won’t take much mental energy in the long run, and they’ll still move you closer to your goals. It’s a win-win. 


Realizing that you’ve spent your life being asleep at the wheel can be discouraging. But it’s never too late to wake up. Figure out where you want to go, and start making the decisions, taking the actions, and forming the habits that will get you there. Grab hold of that wheel, open your eyes wide, and go where you want to go. Take control. You’ll be happier for it. 

Wake up and stop living on autopilot. Design.org can help.

Start with our free assessment, and then start receiving free coaching messages that will help you define where you want to go and then help you take steps to get there. Your life is waiting. Let’s get started.