From autopilot to ‘on purpose’: Why it’s time to ditch the word ‘should’

Something about the term “cruise control” sounds luxurious, like how the beginning of a hard-earned holiday feels. Compare that with “autopilot” – a word that evokes the vision of a cold, personality-less cockpit supervised by an overworked operator. Nothing about “autopilot” is sexy. It’s stark and mechanical, existing as a passive fallback function for when we don’t have the reserves to engage.

Nothing about “autopilot” is sexy. It’s stark and mechanical, existing as a passive fallback function for when we don’t have the reserves to engage.Credit:iStock

In March 2020, we were all forced to slam on the brakes and the momentum of our lives stopped as we knew it. We were stunned into a brief paralysis and then settled into mind-numbing routine on autopilot. But almost three years later, we’re approaching a new terrain, one that doesn’t easily accommodate autopilot. It doesn’t feel quite right to resume the lives we had back then when we were younger and fancy-free. But it also doesn’t feel right to continue to choose Zoom meetings over in-person coffee dates.

How do we get back in the driver’s seat of our lives and claim a life of purpose and meaning?

Disengaging autopilot requires that we decide to “wake up” from it and harness your power of choice, which lives in that space between the stuff of life and how you react to it. One of the best ways to seize the potential of that space is to recognise the force of the word “should”.

You then realise the word’s cost to your energy and how you’ve been unknowingly asleep at the wheel. Why? Anytime you think, hear, or utter the word “should”, that’s your cue that your attention is focused more on avoiding things you don’t want, rather than on what you do want. Living life by avoiding negative consequences feels crummy because all that is in your purview is stuff you don’t want. With a simple perspective shift, you can learn to disengage autopilot mode – living and navigating by default – and live on purpose instead.

First, decide to use your feelings as your guide. When you catch yourself saying or thinking the word “should,” you’re also catching how it feels. Which is always some form of heavy.

How to turn your ‘shoulds’ into ‘wants’

I should go work out. When we say this phrase to ourselves, it feels burdensome and obligatory. The mere existence of “should” means we’re more focused on how we feel about our physical attractiveness and fitness. With “should” we’re driven by pushing away what we don’t want (feeling bad about yourself). We must reach for what we do want instead.

So, the work is to catch “should” in your experience and immediately pivot: Oh, wait! I want to feel healthy and strong. I want to feel energised!

In releasing yourself from “should”, you’ve freed up creative bandwidth for insights that were not available while you faced the other direction.

With greater access to possibilities, new ideas can emerge. Actually, it’s a beautiful day. I’m going to go for a hike instead. Oh, and I’ll call my neighbour and see if she wants to join. It’d be great to catch up!

When you’re stuck in autopilot mode, the gym may seem to be the only option for not feeling physically fit.

Think about how you’d disengage autopilot mode if you pivoted all your “shoulds” to “wants”.

By aligning your action to what you really want to feel, you begin living with intention and awareness. Your moments become flooded with joy and possibility, and cruise control stays on standby as a lovely luxury option.

Amy Eliza Wong is the author of Living On Purpose: Five Deliberate Choices to Realize Fulfillment and Joy.

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