The Four States of Mind

We’re busier than ever. We’re often on autopilot.

We “go through the motions” without really paying attention to the decisions we’re making or the implications. This is often where we go in the wrong direction and our view becomes narrow – we miss the bigger opportunity.

Sebastian Bailey elaborates on this in Mind Gym: Achieve More by Thinking Differently.

We can focus internally or externally.

Internal Focus

When your focus is internal, it’s much like you’re having a conversation with yourself. Consider the voice you hear in your head as you read this book. Even while you’re reading our words, another dialogue might be asking if it’s worth continuing to read this chapter or if now is the time to have a cup of coffee. … When your focus is internal, you are conscious of the fact that you are thinking; you can hear and pay attention to the running commentary in your head.

External Focus
Where are you right now? What’s happening? What noises do you hear? Who is close to you?

External focus is an awareness of the things outside your own head. And when you focus in this way, you aren’t aware of what you’re thinking. Your attention is on what is going on, not on what you think about it, how to interpret it, or whether it could have an impact on your future.

When you are really caught up in something, whether it’s the thrill of a football game or the latest twist in your favorite reality show, you are externally focused. And when you find yourself thinking, Why am I wasting time watching this ridiculous reality show? you have returned to an internal focus.

Where should your focus be?

Your mind is always occupied in one of two places: what is going on inside your head or what is going on outside your head. It is impossible to focus at the same time on both what’s internal and what’s external, just as it is to focus on neither. What is possible, though, is to switch between them, which, with a little mental discipline, you can do pretty much whenever you want.

The truth is we need to alternate between being internally focused and being externally focused.

The Four States of Mind

When you combine the types of focus (internal and external) with the ways we focus (helpful and harmful) you get four distinct states of mind: autopilot, critical, thinking, and engaged.

We want to be in the helpful states. And we want to flip between thinking and engaged.

The Four States of Mind
First things first, we need to recognize what state of mind we’re in.

Autopilot: Recognizing Habits of the Mind

Autopilot kicks in when you allow what was once exciting and challenging to become boring or mundane. You stop thinking about the situation and, instead, respond in preprogrammed ways.

This happens in several ways. What turns autopilot on (and turns the thinking mind off)?

The Familiarity Trap

We label things and experiences to help us understand how they fit with the world around us. For example, you see someone crying and automatically think, Crying equals sad; therefore, that person must be upset. Your automatic response prevents you from considering alternative explanations. The person crying could be acting, chopping onions, or laughing so hard that tears are streaming down his or her face. But when you are caught in the familiarity trap, you are unlikely to consider these alternatives. The familiarity trap explains, say, why security officials at the airport rotate roles. If a person looks at an X-ray screen for long enough, a nuclear bomb might go through without that person noticing. Some pianists learn their pieces away from a keyboard so they won’t become too familiar with it and fall into autopilot when they perform.

The Single View

Of course, we all see the world through our own eyes. My eyes are different from your eyes. But when we try to consider an issue or solve a problem, we tend to assume that the way we see the world is the right way to see it. Why wouldn’t we? And yet our view isn’t always the right one. Thinking creatively demands that you look at a familiar problem with fresh eyes— using a perspective different from your own. To actually achieve this, you need to recognize that your mind is functioning on autopilot, temporarily fixed by your worldview and your life experiences.


To demonstrate that pressure often leads us to behave in autopilot mode, psychologists John Darley and Daniel Batson asked a group of seminary students to prepare a talk on the Good Samaritan parable. With the parable at the forefront of their minds, the seminarians were then asked to walk to the location where they were expected to deliver their talk. So far, the task seems pretty straightforward. However, this is where the cunning psychologists made life difficult. They had arranged for the seminarians to come across someone lying in the road, coughing, spluttering, and calling for help. To make matters more difficult, the psychologists had told half the seminarians that they were late for their talk and the other half that they had plenty of time. How many would stop to help the injured person? And which ones? Of those who were told they had plenty of time to reach their destination, 61 percent stopped to help, but of those who were told they were late, only 10 percent stopped. According to the observations of the psychologists, some seminarians literally stepped over the actor pretending to be injured. The slight change of situation moved the rushed seminarians into autopilot, making them forget what had been on their minds just moments before.

There is nothing wrong with letting your autopilot direct mundane activities you have to do and have no desire to change, like mowing the lawn or folding laundry. But as the study just described shows, there are times when you must take control of your thinking or risk missing key opportunities (in the case of the seminarians, the opportunity to put into action the very message they were about to deliver at a lecture).

Thinking: Actively Analyzing Your Thoughts

You are in a thinking state of mind when you are assessing options, deciding on a course of action, working through a problem, estimating the likely consequences or chain of events, or simply organizing your thoughts to make more sense of them. When you’re at your best in this state, your thoughts feel clear, precise, and positive.

This is useful when: solving problems and making decisions, correcting mistakes, making sense of a situation, and reflecting on the past.

One of the most effective ways of improving yourself is to learn from your past experiences, consider what you did well, and decide what you could do better in the future if you were in a similar situation.

So what does it mean to have an engaged state of mind?

An engaged state of mind exists when your focus is external, on something in your immediate environment, and when you’re performing at your best. If you can drive, you might recall the moment when you first drove somewhere on your own without thinking, Check mirror, change gear, right blinker, but instead your attention was completely on the road ahead and the other motorists while you sang along to the radio. Or you might recall the first time you skied to the bottom of a slope and you were not quite sure how you got there, but it felt great.


When you are absorbed by what you are doing, you are engaged and totally present. By not judging yourself, you interfere less with the task at hand and allow your potential to take over.

This is what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls flow.

Turning the Autopilot Off

Look for something new.

Practice scanning your environment, consciously looking for what is new, different, and unusual. Ask yourself questions, like How has this street changed since the last time I walked down it? What are the differences between the people on the train? What do I notice today about my colleagues? These questions might seem silly, but they force you to live in, think about, and focus on the present— to become aware of your surroundings and not slip back into autopilot.

Learn that “always” isn’t absolute.

One of the reasons why all of us can get caught in autopilot is that we tend to see the world as a set of absolutes. You are apt to believe that such and such will always happen, because so far it always has. This is a mental shortcut, which saves you from having to think about it again. As a result, your thinking falls into patterns of your own making and you are, in effect, switching on the autopilot.

Accept other people’s perspectives.

Have you ever had a boss or colleague you thought was overbearing, dogmatic, aggressive, or rude? Do you think they saw themselves in that way? Surprisingly enough, they might not. If they were asked to describe themselves, they might say they were assertive, direct, honest, and candid. One of the reasons why conflicts can get so ugly is that it’s easy to fall into a state of autopilot and respond to others without thinking or without considering others’ perspectives. By staying alert to other people’s perspectives, you can move out of autopilot and into a more constructive state of awareness.

Another tip, build reflection into your routine. Check out this guide on meditation to get started. You also want to focus on process not outcome.

By focusing on the steps you need to take to get where you want to go, rather than on the eventual outcome, your mind switches from critical noise to being engaged.

The Ideal State of Mind

An ideal state of mind fluctuates between thinking and engaged— whatever a current situation demands of you. There isn’t a formula that dictates when you should be in one state and when you should be in the other, but much like dancing, you need to find a rhythm and delicately move as the situation (or music) requires.

Try listening to your thoughts without critiquing. Attempt to stay neutral. Once you’ve mastered that try to consciously notice more, make an effort to practice and be present in the moment.


Mind Gym: Achieve More by Thinking Differently is full of mind-expanding content.