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Automaticity: A Thinking Trap?

Just as a car can be driven more smoothly and efficiently when the driver doesn’t have to think about each action, so can our lives run more smoothly when some tasks are done automatically. For example, if you’ve ever ridden in a car with someone learning to drive, you know it’s not a very smooth […

Phil McKinney
Phil McKinney
3 min read
A child learning match by building automaticity
Automaticity has its pros and cons.

Just as a car can be driven more smoothly and efficiently when the driver doesn't have to think about each action, so can our lives run more smoothly when some tasks are done automatically.

For example, if you've ever ridden in a car with someone learning to drive, you know it's not a very smooth ride. The person is constantly thinking about what they're doing – turning the wheel, pressing on the accelerator, applying the brake.

Once they learn how to drive, they can do it all automatically. The ride is smoother because they don't have to think about each step. It's the same with many other things in life. We can learn how to do them automatically so that we don't have to think about them.


Automaticity is the ability to do something without conscious effort or thought. It's making something happen automatically, without thinking about it or planning it in advance.

Automaticity can be helpful in many situations. It can help you do things more quickly and efficiently without having to stop and think about what you're doing. It can also help you focus on other things because you don't have to worry about the task you're doing automatically.

Automaticity is not always a good thing. For example, if you've developed bad habits, such as smoking or overeating, it's hard to break them if they become automatic.

Automaticity and Education

Automaticity is an integral part of education. To learn something, we must develop the ability to do it automatically. That is why drills and practice are so important in education.

Without automaticity, we would have to think about every step in a task, making learning very difficult. For example, when first learning math, you have to think about each step in solving a problem. But with practice, you develop automaticity and can do it without thinking.

The same is true for many academic tasks. We must learn the individual steps involved in reading and writing before we can focus on understanding the material. Otherwise, we would constantly be tripping over our own feet.

Automaticity and Innovation

Automaticity can be a significant obstacle to innovation. This is because our brains are wired to conserve energy by using automatic responses.

This is especially true with habits – once we've developed a habit, our brains are more likely to use that response automatically, even if it's not the best option. It's challenging to change or improve upon something that we do automatically.

Pausing Your Automaticity

The key to innovation is to pause the automatic response and think about what we're doing. This can be difficult, but it's necessary in order to see with fresh eyes and come up with new ideas.

To stop your automatic thinking trap, you need to set off a trigger that will make you pause and think about what you're doing. For example, use a timer and, when it goes off, ask yourself what you're doing and why you're doing it. Or, you could put a note on your computer that says “Stop and think for a moment about what you're doing.”

Another way to pause automaticity is to increase your awareness of what you're doing. This can be done by paying attention to your surroundings and noticing when you're engaging in automatic behavior. For example, if you're driving to work, pay attention to the route you're taking and the things you're doing automatically, such as turning on the radio or adjusting the mirrors.

Increasing your awareness of your automatic behavior can help you improve it. For example, if you're aware that you're not paying attention to the road, you can turn off the radio or put away your phone.

It's important to remember that automaticity becomes ingrained in how we think, see, and do things. Overcoming it requires effort and practice. But the rewards – both in terms of personal growth and innovation – are well worth the investment.

Breaking Away From The Thinking Trap

The key to overcoming automaticity is to be like Michelangelo, seeing the statue in the stone. We must chip away at the automaticity, seeing the possibilities and potential for change. Just as Michelangelo released the statue's beauty by chipping away at the stone, we can release our potential and creativity by chipping away at our automaticity. With practice and effort, we can overcome the obstacles that automaticity presents and create new habits and responses that will help us thrive in an ever-changing world.

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Phil McKinney is an innovator, podcaster, author, and speaker. He is the retired CTO of HP. Phil's book, Beyond The Obvious, shares his expertise and lessons learned on innovation and creativity.


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