Fragile autopilot

Here is the second post of the series “short posts about big topics”.

VH-SPQ Cessna 172S Skyhawk SP Redcliffe Aero Club (7220834766).jpg
By Robert Frola – Flickr, GFDL, Link

I took a while to pick the topic, as Continuity is in the middle of a fan of related concepts, and it would be meta-nice to… continue on that line. Sort of connected to it, but on a different plane, is my perception on how easily I can perform common tasks according to how busy I am with one or more major ongoing tasks. I noticed that, depending on how stressful those major tasks are, I seem to lose the ability to concatenate the most common actions, stuff that I otherwise do without thinking – and losing this automation transforms a normal day in a costly, relentless manual flight mode. This is what I call “fragile autopilot”, as automation stops functioning exactly when I would give hands and feet to at least not worry about closing windows and the front door when leaving the house, and remembering what I need to take with me or buy. In this state of mind I can only follow very familiar procedures, like taking the Known Route to go shopping (to the point of using a specific sidewalk and cross the road in a specific spot, otherwise I risk getting hit by traffic), in a shop where everything is where I expect it to be. Knitting also helps a lot, as I mostly follow detailed patterns, and I have at least one work-in-progress that allows autopilot knitting (knit to end of row, based on stitches of previous row) for at least an hour. Of course (at least it’s obvious to me) the first thing that flies out of the plane is social interaction, unless it’s joining a recurring event with people I know, or joining an online group like I do every day. I’m aware that it comes through as unfriendly, and I dearly pay for it when I realise I act like I don’t care about people or take really long to answer, but I’m too busy doing all the small actions and counteractions that the plane needs to stay airborne to worry about anything else.

I think everybody has gone through one or more moments like these, where it seems hard to focus on anything and one is literally drowning in worries and anxiety. It’s when it happens often, and/or in connection with tasks that are considered mildly challenging by the majority, that I think I need some dedicated strategies and not only symptom-reducing fixes.

Until next post, take care 🙂

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The copilot syndrome

I recently thought about my habit of being ready to take over responsibility from others. The classical situation is when I’m with one or more people in a car and I am in the passenger seat. I call it the “copilot syndrome”.

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In this situation I feel I have to be alert and ready to help: I check the road signs, the directions, the weather ahead, I ask the driver if they’re tired or thirsty. The funny thing is that I would not be able to take the wheel: I stopped driving in 2010 and am too scared to try again, especially without preparation. So I am in the funny position to feel a lot of responsibility but be unable to actually do much. At the same time I can’t relax and for example simply look outside of the window, or sleep. I have the fear that I would not notice something important and that it would be my fault, that I should have paid attention; as if there were a responsibility chain and I am always the next in line, and all others (except the first in line) come after me, and even worse: none of them would step up if I don’t act.

Source: lupineandruby‘s pinterest

The other, maybe more important, funny thing I finally noticed is that it’s rarely necessary that I pay so much attention, or that I feel this copilot burden at all. It doesn’t mean not caring about how the car trip is going, or be passive if doubts or problems arise – it’s more about feeling a more reasonable amount of responsibility and not waste energy and attention being fully alert while the situation is well under control.

I can understand how my readiness to step up has often been seen as great resource and a cool fallback for the group of people I was part of, because others were reassured that I would take care of glitches before/instead of anyone else. But it’s a disaster for me, when this means that I have to constantly feel in charge: this indeed happened on a couple jobs, that I luckily managed to leave before they drained all my energies.

I have a few hunches on how I learned to feel this obligation to pick up responsibilities. The important thing now is that I have a plan to get rid of this habit. My current strategy is to pick situations where actually nothing serious can happen if I don’t pick up the lead, and see what indeed happens. The experiment is ongoing and it’s early to tell if this approach would work in more critical situations; but I can already say that I feel more relaxed, and even reassured that I’m making progress.

After the concert

Last week I played as a guest percussionist in a symphonic wind orchestra, and my concert experience was overall good. On the positive side, I managed to play almost all my notes and I didn’t have issues with tubular bells, which I practiced only at the day of the concert. Here is a first-person view of the percussion section, right before the sound check:

It was a somewhat difficult concert, because I knew some pieces too little, and I had to pay a lot of attention just to follow what others were playing. Only the first piece was clear to me enough that I could really enjoy it. I think that the required level of attention is what makes the concert feel energizing, easy or exhausting. If I have to keep my attention on high alert for the whole ten minutes of the piece (or worse the whole concert), and moreover I make mistakes, my energy levels plummet down. I think it’s a quite common experience among musicians, and that my limited amount of rehearsals played a big role. However, for my next concerts I want to be more aware of how ready I am, aim at reasonable goals and not at perfection, and manage my energy so that I have enough left for the day of the concert (sometimes I put 130% in the last rehearsal and go to the concert with almost no energy). The thing is also that I need to communicate my current energy/skills availability in a positive way, not in a way that make me appear lazy. Most of the times when I say that a piece is too hard or that I can’t do something, I end up being pushed even more. I’m working on it, and will update you about my progress, maybe my experience will help others too 🙂