Disengaging Autopilot: How to Recognize and Fix Workplace Sleepwalking

The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it’s indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it’s indifference.”—Elie Wiesel, American-Romanian writer, Holocaust survivor, and Nobel laurate

Indifference is the death of productivity.

We’ve all seen the employee disengagement figures, with more than two-thirds of all American workers partially or completely disengaged from their jobs. When you don’t care, you let your work degenerate into routine, mindfulness abandoned, so you can just survive the day. Your job becomes little more than a paycheck, so you do just enough to keep that paycheck coming in.

This is something many observers of the rank-and-file overlook: most people only work to pay their bills. They may have some initial interest in their jobs, but unless something causes them to remain engaged, many elect to stay at the same level of productivity indefinitely—especially if there’s no profit in trying harder.

To awaken such “sleepwalkers,” businesses must shake up their workers occasionally. Not with threats or penalties, but with productive change… so the workers want to stop sleepwalking and start expecting more of themselves. Organizational motivation should lead to self-motivation as seamlessly as possible, but the individual workers do share some of the responsibility.

Are you sleepwalking without knowing it? Check for these signs:

  1. A heavy reliance on routine. Routines are great but shouldn’t act as crutches to get you through your day. It’s one thing to keep a closet full of blue suits, so you can remove a decision from your life. But if your to-do list is the same every single day, if you always get coffee at 9 and 11 AM, if you deal with too many mindless, trivial tasks, then consider making changes. Exercise mindfulness as you handle your projects. If you’re always aware of what you’re doing and start caring about it, you may find simple ways to become more productive.
  2. You’re not always present. Do you find yourself not remembering meetings you’ve attended or doing certain tasks, even though you have? Conversely, if your days just blend together, it’s easy to think you remember doing something already, when really you did it yesterday. Here’s where mindfulness shines. If you keep your eyes and mind open, and imprint upon your brain the task as you do it, you’ll find it much easier to remain present and certain about the state of your tasks.
  3. You feel dull and worn out. If work is cheerless and you lack the energy to care, then you probably won’t ever do any more than the minimum required. For many of us, this is a common experience: even if we start out motivated, an office full of disinterested drones can grind you down. Sometimes, disappointment with coworkers and superiors, especially if the latter seem capricious, can drive you into apathy’s arms.

If you examine your current job or career and realize you’re a sleepwalker, do these things:

  1. Take stock of the situation. Look at what sent you off the productivity rails in the first place and see what you can do to fix it. At the very least, it may make life easier for others, and hopefully, you’ll reignite the spark of your motivation. If you can’t, consider finding a new position, perhaps in a career more suited to the current you. It’s a pain to lose seniority, but it may be worth it if you hate your job.
  2. Practice mindfulness. Routines should make life easier for you, not encourage you to turn off your mind. Keep thinking, even if it means extra coffee in the morning (just remember to hydrate). Mindfulness not only motivates, it improves memory and retention.
  3. Seek improvement.Your new mindfulness can help you see ways to improve your various tasks. Even minor improvements can help, if they’re cumulative. If you think it might help you become more productive, request extra training and take classes to improve your strengths while downplaying your weaknesses.
  4. Break down tasks. Some sleepwalking minds are just numbed by the enormity of the tasks they face. Breaking these tasks into manageable chunks can restart your productivity engine. Instead of one huge task, you now have many small, easily handled ones. Most of us know this, but sometimes you can lose track of even the most fundamental things when you’re a little too stressed.

 Pinch Me

If you’re sleepwalking through your job, all is not lost. “Pinch” yourself to wake up! If your organization doesn’t shake things up occasionally, do it for yourself. As with so many other things, your first step is to realize the problem. Then you can use the above tips to start fixing it.

© 2020 Laura Stack. Laura Stack, MBA, CSP, CPAE is an award-winning keynote speaker, bestselling author, and noted authority on employee and team productivity. She is the president of The Productivity Pro, Inc., a company dedicated to helping leaders increase workplace performance in high-stress environments. Stack has authored eight books, including FASTER TOGETHER: Accelerating Your Team’s Productivity (Berrett-Koehler 2018). She is a past president of the National Speakers Association, and a member of its exclusive Speaker Hall of Fame (with fewer than 175 members worldwide). Stack’s clients include Cisco Systems, Wal-Mart, and Bank of America, and she has been featured on the CBS Early Show and CNN, and in the New York Times. To have Laura Stack speak at an upcoming meeting or event, call 303-471-7401 or contact us online.



  1. Melissa Hunter says:

    I have been disengaged for several years, don’t like my job, no inspiration to re-engage. got a new manager last year who is clueless and should not have been promoted. There is nothing in this role that would re-engage me, I am just done with it. It was interesting when I started but now is just repetitive and no ability to change that. I have spoken with HR about this many times with no resolve.

    I have been looking for a new job for 2 years now, even my current employer won’t move me (because I am expected to mentor my new manager). After more than 20 interviews, some that went really well, it is very disheartening. Being disengaged with my current role has not helped, either. Being in my late 50’s also means I am up against age-ism and not much you can do about that. I will continue to apply for new positions and know that eventually something will connect.