The World of Work Project


Automaticity is the process by which our brains and bodies help us do things almost automatically and subconsciously, so that we have spare mental capacity for higher level tasks.

Summary by The World of Work Project


Automaticity is the ability to do things without really focusing on them. When humans have developed habits or become unconsciously competent at certain things, they generally are able to do them without any conscious effort. The body is so comfortable with the task at hand that it does it without thinking about it, leaving the brain free to focus on higher activities.

Where humans perform tasks automatically we may not even be aware that we are doing them, we may not intentionally start doing them and we may not be able to control whether or not we do them. While actions or behaviors that we undertake automatically have these things in common, they come about in different ways. A few examples or insights into automaticity follow.

Muscle memory helps automate fine motor skills, like playing a guitar.

Muscle memory

Muscle memory is one form of automaticity. Through repeated use of the body in a certain way, process that at first required significant conscious effort and focus become second nature. Examples of muscle memory exist in many sports, as well as in relation to playing musical instruments, using fine tools, or typing.


Language is a hugely complex thing. When we don’t know a language well it takes a lot of concentration to communicate. As we learn though, the process becomes more and more automatic. Once people are fluent in a language they take it for granted and can fully engage in the content that is being communicated without paying any conscious effort to understanding the words, structuring or grammar used.

Highway hypnosis

Highway hypnosis is the name given to the act of slightly switching off when driving on a boring road. Most people have experienced this. It’s possible to drive safely for hours, accelerating and braking as required and obeying all the rules and yet to remember hardly any of the journey. This hypnosis occurs because the act of driving in safe and boring environments is something the body can automate, leaving the mind free to think about and focus on other tasks.

Many people drive fairly automatically on highways.

Unconscious competence

Unconscious Competence is a phrase that you may have seen in various learning theories, and here we use it to refer to tasks that we actually do better at when we don’t think about them. There are some things that the body just knows how to do that we get worse at if we concentrate on them. Examples of these from sport include free-throws in basketball and putting in golf. The more athletes think about and concentrate on these activities, the worse they do at them.


Many people think that intuition is a bit of a strange and special skill, but in reality a lot of intuition is simply an automatic processing of a situation without conscious thought. When using “intuition”, individuals may be interpreting minor changes in the voice, tone or even facial muscles of others, or they may be making calculated and reasonable decisions at high speed without being conscious of doing so.

The World of Work Project View

Automaticity is a helpful fact of life. The fact that we can build new habits and automate new processes is very helpful to us as individuals. Taking the time to understand the habits you have, and the ones you wish to have, may be a useful way to start a program of personal behavior change.

Sources and further reading

Where possible we always recommend that people read up on the original sources of information and ideas.

This post is based on general reading and there are no specific references for it. If you are aware of any source materials for this content, please let us know.


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