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Your Brain Is On Autopilot More Than You Think—Here's How To Wake It Up

It isn't that we're making bad decisions. More often, we aren't even aware there's a decision to make.

Your Brain Is On Autopilot More Than You Think--Here's How To Wake It Up

[Photos: Flickr users arileu, NIH Image Gallery; App Photo: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer ("The Wizard of Oz", 1939)

Wednesday. Hump Day. The part of the week when we're over the hill and begin sliding toward the weekend. If hitting midweek feels even a little bit better than slogging through Monday or Tuesday does, well, you're not alone. According to the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index, the worst day of the week goes to Tuesday—but just barely. It turns out that all the weekdays are rated about equally badly compared with the weekend.

But there's one way that Wednesdays may not actually have an edge over the weekday many of us have uniquely learned to dread: Monday. While it may launch us back into the workweek, Mondays represent a fresh start. And as it turns out, there are subtle clues in our Monday behaviors hinting that our brains our better primed to make decisions then than they usually are. Here's how to tap into that power anytime you need it.

This Is Your Brain On Monday

Some clever sleuthing by University of Pennsylvania researchers showed that Google searches for the word "diet," visits to the gym, and formal commitments to pursue goals all spike on Mondays. (Similar effects were found for other calendar "landmarks" like New Year’s Day, the start of a new school semester, and one’s own birthday.) A separate team of researchers found that Google searches for information on how to quit smoking peak on Mondays as well.

The Penn researchers aren’t quite sure why these turn-the-page days have this positive effect on us. They suspect that by demarcating one epoch of our lives from another, we're free to see beyond our past failures. They also speculate that these pivot points cause us to step out of the weeds, so to speak, and think about the bigger picture. It’s as if on Mondays, we tend to stop fussing about whether we’re climbing the ladder fast enough and check to see whether that ladder is leaning against the right wall in the first place.

Stepping back from the details long enough to consider a change of course is critical to our personal and professional success. The trouble is that it's something we rarely get a chance to do. Every day, we're surrounded by innumerable possible decisions: Did you make a choice about whether to go to work today versus call in sick? Did you decide whether or not to make a donation to your favorite charity? Did you make a decision about whether to call your mom at 10 a.m.? At 9 p.m.? At all?

Probably not. Most of the time, it’s not that we actively choose not to play hooky, not donate to charity, and not to call our parents. We didn’t choose at all; instead, we were on autopilot—and failed to even realize that there was a decision we could've made.

Waking Up To Your Choices

Our behavioral tendency to go with the flow reflects a fundamental truth about the way our brains are built. Of the 10 million bits of information that each of our brains process each second, only about 50 bits are devoted to deliberate thought—in other words, 0.0005%. We're wired not to be ever-vigilant. We're built to avoid continuous decision-making.

That means that our brains are simply incapable of scanning the sea of potential choices that surround us moment to moment and thoughtfully considering every possible decision we can possibly make. Instead, our brains leave it up to our unconscious to make the vast majority of choices about our behaviors.

To decide when it’s time to switch to deliberate decision-making, our brains are constantly comparing the reality we observe with what we expect to see. It's when prediction clashes with reality—when we spot something novel or threatening—that the 50-bits part of our conscious brain is called into action.

That’s what’s so fascinating about this line of research. For some reason, Mondays (and the first of the month, New Year’s Day, etc.) rattle us enough to cause us to stop and consider whether or not we’re headed in the right direction. They propel us to consider a decision that we might otherwise have skipped over altogether. That marks an important opportunity to improve how we behave both at work and at home.

The question of whether people behave rationally or irrationally has been debated since philosophy's earliest days. But lately, the argument has shifted to focus on whether decisions made logically are better than those made using well-honed mental shortcuts.

But there may be an even more fundamental question to ask: Short of a threat or an unexpected turn of events, what causes us to declare that there’s a decision to be made in the first place? Scientists are still sorting that out, but it seems that there’s a natural tendency to pause and reflect at the start of any new time period.

We may be able to amplify this effect by more intentionally building distinct breaks into our routines. We may need to pull back from the day-to-day flow altogether, as opposed to just marking its peaks and valleys (sorry, Hump Day), in order to become more aware of the choices we can make, big and small—and then actually make them.

Bob Nease is the former chief scientist of Express Scripts, and the author of The Power of Fifty Bits: The New Science of Turning Good Intentions into Positive Results (HarperCollins) as well as over 70 peer-reviewed papers.

Related Video: 7 Steps To Disarm A Miserable Monday

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