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ADHD Autopilot

Zoning out, spacing out, going on autopilot.

Spaced out on autopilotCall it whatever you want – it’s the reason the milk ends up on the coat rack and your coat ends up in the refrigerator. It’s the reason you have approximately zero idea what was just said that you nodded along in agreement to.

It goes something like this. You start by performing a routine action. An action that’s so routine, in fact, that your brain says, “hey don’t worry, I’ve got this,” and whatever you’re doing sort of fades into the background of your thoughts, and next thing you know – oh, damnit, why are you microwaving your keys?

People with ADHD seem to enter into this state somewhat more easily than most. Here are a few reasons ADHDers are so susceptible to going on autopilot, with sometimes disastrous and sometimes hilarious consequences:

  • Inattention: Those of us with ADHD do occasionally struggle with that whole paying attention thing. And going on autopilot is essentially about not paying attention to something you really should be more actively engaged with.
  • Low boredom tolerance: As I talked about last week, people with ADHD tend to have a hard time staying alert and focused in unstimulating and routine situations. No surprise, then, that ADHD autopilot loves to strike during the most mundane tasks.
  • Executive functioning impairments: Planning out sequences of actions, following your plan, maintaining an appropriate level of alertness, and recognizing when you’re making errors all involve the parts of your brain responsible for what psychologists call executive functions – basically, planning out and regulating how you’re using your cognitive resources. But ADHD comes with impaired executive functioning. Which means we ADHDers are pretty good at not planning out sequences of actions, not following the plan, not maintaining an appropriate level of alertness, and not recognizing when we’re making mistakes.

Well, is there anything we can do about this? You know, it might be nice to just disable that whole “autopilot” feature altogether…

To some extent, we probably just have to resign ourselves to our fate of occasionally starting off the day by putting orange juice in our cereal. Having said that, one tip that can help a little is that because low boredom tolerance is part of what makes people with ADHD go on autopilot so easily, anything that reduces boredom can also help prevent ADHD autopilot.

So look for ways to add some excitement to your domestic chores. OK, that might be overstating it, but just listening to a podcast while you cook, for example, can stave off an infinite number of combinations of misplaced food items. Listening to music while you drive can also be helpful – ironically, the last place you want to go on “autopilot” is behind the wheel of a car.

Of course, these aren’t all-encompassing solutions. Listening to music while you do routine tasks can really make a difference, but it probably won’t lead you to permanently surrender your title of “space cadet.” Then again, half of ADHD management is taking steps to reduce symptoms, and the other half is really just understanding our symptoms so we can accept them when they do rear their absentminded head.

Do you go on ADHD autopilot easily? Share your experiences below!

ADHD Autopilot

Neil Petersen

Neil Petersen writes regularly on psychology, ADHD and education. In addition to ADHD Millennial, he writes about psychology at Psych Central's AllPsych blog and about ADHD at He can be found on Twitter at @ADaptHD_blog

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APA Reference
Petersen, N. (2017). ADHD Autopilot. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 27, 2020, from


Last updated: 21 Feb 2017
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