Doing Things Without Thinking VS. Automating Processes

11 July 2011, by A. Cedilla

When you think about it, there is a significant difference between doing things automatically and doing things without thinking.

Things I have done without thinking:

  • Poured a teaspoon of sugar into the container of powdered milk instead of the cup of coffee I had waiting.
  • Emptied a powdered drink mix into the trashcan instead of the pitcher of water I had waiting. (I’m sensing a theme here: Be more awake in the morning.)
  • Turned the lights off while there were still people in the living room. (Be more aware at night.)

Things I do automatically:

  • Double-check doors and windows before turning in, as well as check to see all appliances not in use are turned off and unplugged.
  • Set the alarm for the next morning — and place it in the book-case across the room so I would have to get up and walk over to shut it off, instead of rolling over to slap it and then going back to sleep.
  • Write down the next day’s heaviest priorities before turning in for bed, jotting down any incidental things I happen to remember like “Get new supply of binder clips before Thursday, call M to confirm next week’s attendance for the general meeting. Buy aspirin.”

The difference in automatic action lies in the pre-thinking and awareness. Before using anything to automate a process, you have to have an issue with it. You want it to work better. You want it to go smoother, easier, faster, whatever. You want to save time and effort, so you PUT in time and effort looking for the best way to do it.

Let’s say you write a lot. You write a lot and you don’t need frills and fancy fonts — in fact, you find them terribly distracting. You’ve been using Textpad since college and it has always served you well, but….one day you hit the wall and decide you have to change programs.

You want something that’ll save you from opening lots of instances, help you cross reference and integrate your many, many notes, and help you somehow sync your laptop, your net-book and your smart-phone, so you browse Lifehacker to see what they recommend, and look up what’s there. Resoph, Notepad Plus, Notepad 2, Notetab

You read the comments, look the programs up on Cnet, and decide to test the ones that sound the most promising. You settle on Resoph, and after some adjustment time, you can’t believe you stayed with Textpad so long. After even more time, Resoph is your go-to. A little research, some testing, some adjustment, and life flows a little easier than it did previously.

See? You thought ahead, gave things a test-drive, and now you don’t have to stress out about notes. It’s automatic.


There is a scene in The Last Samurai where Tom Cruises’ character, Capt. Nathaniel Algren, as a war-hostage, was getting his ass handed to him while training with wooden swords. Nobutada, a young warrior and his captor’s eldest son, interrupts the session to advise him. The following exchange was taken from Imdb:

Nobutada: [after Algren is defeated in fencing practice] Please forgive; too many mind.
Algren: [puzzled] “Too many mind?”
Nobutada: Hai, mind the sword, mind the people watch, mind enemy – -too many mind. [Seriously] No mind.
Algren: [pretending to get it] No mind. [returns to training only to be defeated yet again, much to the laughter of Nobutada and his cousin].

Of course, the lesson segues into a mental thrust-thrust-parry visualization on Algren’s part, and the scene finally ends with a draw.

We fall back a lot on “discipline is just willpower, conquer your thoughts and you will succeed,” kind of thinking. Conquering thoughts is like herding cats, or cockroaches. Better to do the pre-thinking, test it in the field, adjust and then settle, than have to think every time you need to make a choice. We make hundreds of decisions each day, if we have to think about things like which hand to use to reach for something, or to button shirts from the top down or from the bottom up, we’d go nuts.

Tony Schwartz explains this in more depth in “The Only Way to Get Important Things Done.” He builds his automatic processes from the inside out. He has a set of principles regarding self-care, focus and priorities, and anything he does is chosen in mind of supporting those processes.

Schwartz says that 5 rituals helps him out the most:

  • Getting 8 hours of sleep a day.
  • Working out as soon as soon as he gets up
  • Focusing on Today’s Number One Priority, then taking a break after 90 minutes.
  • Writing down every idea or action item as soon as he thinks of it — capture it, clear it out, and not relying on faulty memory to keep it.
  • Checking his attitude about anything that sets his spidey-senses tingling.

This is his version of automatic thinking. Everything else in his day is built around these 5 things. Putting them first enables him to handle the rest of his time with energy and attention.

Paying attention to what matters pays off. Before you jump into changing things up, THINK of the best fit: What do you want to change about this situation? DECIDE, TAKE ACTION, OBSERVE what you’re doing and CHECK the results. If you think it’s good, stay with it.

The thing with automation is that you have to work from the center. The best, most lasting changes work from the inside out, and no amount of technology, no app, no machine, will make up for not being clear and concise about what you want to happen. The following questions can help jiggle your brain and jump-start things:

  • Why am I doing this? This question helps discern the useful tasks from the time-wasters and the time-sucks.
  • To what purpose will this action help me in life? What percent does this proposed change fall in? Remember the 80-20 rule.
  • How will I sabotage this? We’re all human, and there are days we’ll slip up. Automating things helps dial those incidences down.
  • What do I have to drop, rule out, be aware of? You can’t change what you’re not aware of.
  • What are the little rewards and rests I can structure in to keep me going? The rewards are to keep you aware of your milestones, the rests, because you need to ease off every now and then to steer away boredom and burnout.

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