Monday, April 18, 2022

Is Your Nursing Career on Autopilot?

Nurses, do you ever feel that your nursing career is on autopilot? Are you coasting, resting on your laurels, or otherwise sitting in the back seat of your career? This can work for a while, but it can eventually lead to boredom, ennui, and even burnout and an abandoned career. If you're on autopilot right now, would you like to get back in the pilot's seat?

Are you on autopilot in your career?

Autopilot and You

When your nursing career is on autopilot, you may be staying at a job you don't really like because you don't have the gumption or fortitude to think clearly about what you want. In this scenario, you're stuck, but you may actually be kind of comfortable in your stuckness.

In autopilot mode, you're coasting, going through the motions, and otherwise doing what you need to do to get through the day (or night), but there's no longer any passion; in this case, nursing has definitely become just a job and an economic means to a financial end -- you put food on the table by being a nurse, and that's that.

There are times in our lives when autopilot is helpful and prudent. Perhaps your mother just died and you're grieving deeply; the last thing you want to think about is the development of your nursing career. Or maybe you recently had a baby and you just want to do your three shifts a week and get home to that little bundle of joy, reveling in the joys of motherhood or fatherhood. This is normal, and autopilot works in these situations.

In the case of new motherhood, once the baby has grown a little -- or even begun preschool -- your mind may begin to wander back to your career. In terms of grief, the pain may never go away, but once the initial shock has worn off and the acute grief evolves into embers rather than a blazing hot fire of sadness, you may begin to look at your life and career with new eyes. And if you think about it, a major loss or change can at times be a powerful impetus to want more out of life.

Autopilot can be self-protective, and it can also hold you back when it's really time to step up. You may be able to easily discern the nature of your career autopilot, or you may need a therapist, coach, counselor, or mentor to help you unpack that particular aspect of your mind and heart.

Turning Off Your Autopilot

If you've realized that you are indeed on autopilot and you want to take over the controls, you actually need to sit in the pilot's seat and turn the autopilot off yourself. How can you do this? Here are five suggestions for inspired action:
  1. Use journaling and writing to dig into the reasons why you turned on the career autopilot in the first place. Once you've identified those reasons, you can then explore how being on autopilot has served you and what you now want from your career.

  2.  You can reach out to a career coach, esteemed mentor or colleague, therapist, or counselor to help you unpack any resistance you feel to taking a step forward in your nursing career. Your motivations need to be understood, as well as what goals you may now have for yourself as a professional. Sometimes there are emotional blocks that need to be cleared; other times you just feel stuck and you need someone to hold your hand and guide you through the questions that will reveal the answers you need to move forward.

  3. Personality tests and other tools can help to reveal your motivations, goals, strengths, and weaknesses, as well as what may bring you the most personal and professional happiness and satisfaction. Your original reasons for becoming a nurse may no longer apply, even though you haven't yet verbalized what your new motivations are. We all change, and there are many tools that can help us assess our current state of mind, as well as what may fit best with our personality and current life stage.

  4. Talk with trusted family members and friends about where you find yourself. Hearing the heartfelt reflections of people who love you may be very revealing of things you just can't see on your own. This is qualitatively different than talking with a colleague or mentor (see #2).

  5. Taking time away for a retreat or time of reflection may help you pry loose what's going on deep inside you. A yoga or mediation retreat could be a good venue for this; you may also simply want to go camping on your own for a long weekend, or maybe take a long ride and clear your head on the open road. Basically, taking some space for yourself away from your day to day life may help bring some clarity to the path forward.
There are many more ways to instigate self-reflection and turn off your autopilot as you climb back into the pilot's seat of your career. These five strategies above are a good start, and I'd love to hear your reflections on other strategies that have worked for you in this regard.

Autopilot Disengaged

When you disengage the autopilot in your nursing career and professional life, you are honoring the part of you that wants change, novelty, forward movement, and growth. As mentioned above, autopilot can be self-protective at very pivotal moments, and then the time arrives for inspired action and disengagement from a period of professional cruise control.

Assess where you are in your career and whether some aspects of autopilot are operational. If this is the case, honestly ask yourself if being on autopilot is helpful or hurtful right now. If it's helpful, that's great; if it feels hurtful or limiting, decide what it will take to turn that switch off. Once you take that step, you're on your way to making a conscious choice to elevate your career and jet towards your next destination.

Keith Carlson, RN, BSN, NC-BC, is a Board Certified Nurse Coach offering holistic career development for nurses and healthcare professionals. All things Nurse Keith can be found at

Keith is the host of The Nurse Keith Show, his solo podcast focused on career advice and inspiration for nurses. From 2012 until its sunset in 2017, Keith co-hosted RNFMRadio, a groundbreaking nursing podcast.

A widely published nurse writer, Keith is the author of Savvy Networking For Nurses: Getting Connected and Staying Connected in the 21st Century and Aspire to be Inspired: Creating a Nursing Career That Matters. He has contributed chapters to a number of books related to the  nursing profession. written for,, MultiBriefs News Service, LPNtoBSNOnline, StaffGarden, AusMed, American Sentinel University,, Diabetes Lifestyle, the ANA blog,, American Nurse Today, Working Nurse Magazine, and other online and print publications.

Mr. Carlson brings a plethora of experience as a nurse thought leader, keynote speaker, online nurse personality, social media influencer, podcaster, holistic career coach, writer, and well-known nurse entrepreneur. 

Living in beautiful Santa Fe, New Mexico, Keith shares a magical life with his partner, Shada McKenzie, a gifted, empathic, and highly skilled traditional astrologer and reader of the tarot. They regularly cavort with their remarkably adorable animal companions, George, Buck, and Lorca. You can find George the Cat on Instagram by using the hashtag #georgethecatsantafe. You can find Buck and Lorca wherever tasty treats and fun walks can be found. 

No comments: