A woman sits alone at a wooden desk in a modern office with large glass windows, reflecting buildings and trees outside.

Los Angeles, 1966. Photo by Bruce Davidson/Magnum



How to stop living on auto-pilot

Are you going through the motions? Use these therapy techniques to set meaningful goals and build a ‘life worth living’

Los Angeles, 1966. Photo by Bruce Davidson/Magnum





Kiki Fehling

is a licensed psychologist, author, content creator (@dbtkiki), and Linehan Board Certified expert therapist in dialectical behaviour therapy. She co-wrote Self-Directed DBT Skills: A 3-Month DBT Workbook (2023) and specialises in emotional sensitivity, borderline personality disorder, self-harm, trauma, and LGBTQ+ mental health. They live in western Massachusetts, US.

Edited by Matt Huston





Need to know

If you’ve been feeling stuck, empty or unfulfilled, you’re not alone. In my work as a psychologist, clients express these struggles frequently. You may feel like you’re just going through the motions, wondering if you’re missing something deeper. You might judge yourself for not being happy even though you have many of the things that you’re ‘supposed’ to have. Maybe you’ve tried various self-help or self-improvement techniques, and they haven’t worked the way you hoped they would. There are many reasons someone can feel dissatisfied with their life.

While some amount of dissatisfaction may be a part of the human condition, it seems that today’s world commonly produces a particular sense of disconnection or listlessness. Our fast-paced and image-focused cultures don’t always support exploring or pursuing one’s true desires. Unfortunately, living on autopilot causes problems. If you’re not mindfully spending your time doing things that matter to you, your mental health can suffer.

This Guide provides a framework for building a more fulfilling life. It’s based on several principles of dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT), an evidence-based treatment for a variety of mental health conditions that are characterised by intense emotions. While DBT was created to help people struggling with borderline personality disorder, the treatment and its unique set of coping skills can help many people improve their emotion regulation, stress management, interpersonal effectiveness and general wellbeing.

What is a Life Worth Living, and how do you get there?

The ultimate goal of DBT is building a ‘Life Worth Living’. This Life is not determined by one’s therapist (nor one’s spouse, parents, roommate or anyone else). Every person gets to decide for themselves what kind of life would give them joy and fulfilment. In early sessions of DBT, I work together with my clients to help them visualise what this means for them. We spend as much time as we need to specify their Life Worth Living goals, identify behavioural steps they need to take to reach those goals, and outline plans for how therapy can help them.

The importance of this behavioural focus cannot be overstated. In the moments when you feel hopeless, or just tired, a concrete image of the life you want can be motivating. And it’s most motivating when you believe you can reach that life because you’ve already started working towards it and can recall concrete evidence of positive movement toward your goals.

The reality is, behaviour change is hard, and many people have not been taught effective goal-setting. For example, someone might know that they’re unhappy and have intentions to change, but they focus on something too broad (‘I want to be happy’) or on what they don’t want (‘I don’t want to be depressed’). An ill-defined focus can lead to trying many things without following through on any one thing. Also, humans often fall prey to the planning fallacy, a tendency to underestimate the amount of time and effort a task will take. Many people set unrealistic goals and then give up or blame themselves for ‘failing’ when they struggle to reach them. It’s easy to unknowingly stymie your progress by not getting specific, realistic or behavioural enough with your life goals.

Think of it this way: if you want to drive from Perth to Sydney, or from New York City to San Francisco, it’ll be helpful to have a map. It’s a long distance, and there aren’t going to be signs directing you there for much of the way. A map could help you choose the shortest route or interesting sights to see as you go. Even if you want to wander without a plan, a map could help you track your progress and avoid stressful experiences (such as running out of gas because you missed the chance to load up).

Life Worth Living goals act as a map for your personal journey toward greater fulfilment. When your desired life feels like it’s as far away as the other side of a continent, prioritising specific goals and breaking them down into small, concrete steps can help you feel less overwhelmed and more empowered. You can more mindfully appreciate your progress and increase your pleasant emotions.

It’s worth noting that the DBT approach is just one of many options for addressing life dissatisfaction. The behavioural focus is not for everyone. But, research shows that DBT-informed treatments can increase life satisfaction and alleviate many mental health struggles, including self-harming behaviours, substance misuse, PTSD, anger and eating disorders. In my personal experience, DBT’s principles and coping skills are particularly useful for overcoming an overall sense of ‘stuckness’. In the rest of this Guide, I will provide some steps for building a Life Worth Living that I use with clients. These are ideas to which you can return whenever you feel stuck or unfulfilled.

What to do

Reflect on your likes, passions, and values

The first step in building your Life Worth Living is getting in touch with what makes you feel good. That includes sources of pleasure, joy, connection, awe, peace, contentment and so on. Consider the below questions to help you explore, perhaps using a journal to write down your answers. Don’t evaluate your desires as realistic or unrealistic. Don’t spend time thinking What would my family/friends/coworkers think about this? Logistical considerations and decision-making will come in later steps. Now is your chance to be honest and get wild. Don’t hold back!

First, take a few deep breaths. Then, take 5-10 minutes to reflect on your life experiences so far. What have been your favourite activities, people and places? When was the last time you felt joyful, peaceful, safe or just alive? What offers you small moments of reprieve during stressful days? What do you like about these things, why are they important to you, and what do they have in common? Identify what you already have in your life that you wouldn’t want to lose – it can be big, like a job or a relationship, or small, like your daily cup of tea.

Next, take 5-10 minutes to fantasise about possible life experiences that you wish you could have. These may or may not be related to your answers to the questions in the previous paragraph. Are there certain kinds of communities you yearn to be a part of? Any kinds of projects you have imagined creating? Any accomplishments you have dreamed of? Think about the relationships you want to cultivate, the skills you want to learn, the daily life you want to live, or the kind of person you want to be.

Finally, it can be very helpful at this stage to identify your personal values. What is most important to you in life? What drives you? You can find several example lists of values online. Simply read through those lists, or reflect on your own, and note which values most resonate with you. Notice if any of those values connect to the life experiences you’ve been thinking about.

If you struggle to answer any of the above questions, that’s OK. There are many kinds of life experiences that might have disconnected you from your desires. For example, you may have grown up in a household where your emotions or inner experiences were not respected or taken seriously. Or, you may have needed to hide or ignore certain personal interests based on racism, sexism, ableism, homophobia or other cultural pressures.

Whatever your experience has been, you might find it useful to try this exercise for reconnecting with your authentic desires: set aside a few moments daily to answer the question What made me feel good today? Note what evoked warmth, relief, happiness, pride, love, excitement or any pleasant emotion. Repeatedly trying to label your passions, preferences or pleasures can help you understand what is important to you. Knowing your likes and dislikes, as well as your values, is necessary for determining larger life goals. So it’s all right to take your time on this step.

‘Draw a picture’ of your Life Worth Living

In this step, you turn your passions and values into a list of Life Worth Living goals. A written list will help you with future steps and allow you to track and appreciate your progress moving forward. This list answers the question What does my Life Worth Living look like? You may want to live in a specific place. You may want to be married or be single. You may want children or pets. You may want to fill your time with a specific job or hobbies. There are limitless possibilities for what can make life worth living. (This resource includes a long list of examples.) It’s possible that you’ve already met some of your goals. If so, great! Still put them on the list.

To help you formulate your goals, try to make any passions or values you’ve identified more tangible. For instance, what would it look like to be living life according to your most important personal values? If knowledge is an important value for you, a Life Worth Living goal might be: ‘I will routinely be learning something new.’ A value of friendship might lead to a goal like: ‘I will have a group of friends I see regularly.’ Ideally, your Life Worth Living goals will be specific enough that you could envision them in concrete terms, or even draw them. For example, a goal related to liking animals might be: ‘I will adopt a small, senior dog.’ Of course, if you don’t care whether you own a dog, foster ferrets or run a shelter for rescued circus animals, then it’s OK to keep your goal broad. Don’t get stuck in the weeds at this step, as you’ll have a chance to get more specific later.

As you start writing down some goals, here’s something to consider, if you haven’t already: double-check that these goals are truly important to you. Sometimes, people choose goals based on what others want for them (or what they think others want for them). It’s normal to consider other people when making life decisions, particularly family members or others who depend on you. Certain goals could even be driven by important personal values such as Community or Family. But choosing your life goals based on others’ expectations for you can cause a lot of suffering if it leads to living a life that you rarely enjoy. Try to choose Life Worth Living goals that come from your authentic desires and personal values. If you struggle to know what comes from you and what comes from someone else, don’t worry, that’s common. Try the same daily exercise for reconnecting with your desires that I described in the first step. Your goals will ideally be driven by what satisfies, inspires or delights you most from day to day.

Everyone is constantly growing and changing – your values and passions are likely to change, too. You do not need this goal list to be perfectly comprehensive or precise. It is not set in stone. Just do your best to identify at least one of your biggest Life Worth Living goals, whatever you think they are currently.

Choose one to four goals to focus on right now

If you came up with only one Life Worth Living goal, then you’re good to go. Take that goal and move on to the next step. If you have multiple goals, however, you might need to narrow them down. It’s common to have dozens of values and goals, but time is limited. Focusing on only a few can help you stay motivated.

Choosing your priority goals can be tricky. There isn’t an objectively ‘right’ or ‘best’ choice for where to start. Consider the following:

  • Do any of your Life Worth Living goals seem important to focus on right now? Are you currently miserable in some way that a certain goal would address? Does the idea of reaching a certain goal make you feel super excited? Pay attention to which goals feel urgent, or like they would make the biggest improvement in your emotional wellbeing if you achieved them.
  • Do any of your ‘urgently important’ goals require reaching other goals first? If so, prioritise appropriately. For instance, you might need to be earning a certain amount of money before buying a house.
  • Would any of your goals be pleasurable to work towards? Or are there any goals that you believe you could achieve quickly? I have found it’s easier to maintain motivation for building a Life Worth Living when working towards at least one goal that feels easier or more enjoyable to make progress towards.
  • Put your list into an online ‘random picker’ (like this one), and use the pick as a gut check. Do you notice relief, excitement or interest? Do you notice dread or disappointment? Consider those emotional reactions when making decisions about where to focus first.

Take a look at your list. See what is urgent, exciting or easy. Mindfully consider, or flip a coin, and select two to four goals – or only one or two goals if one feels particularly complicated or daunting. Don’t try to choose the ‘perfect’ goals to start with. There’s no such thing. This is just a starting point.

Make each goal specific, realistic and linked to what matters

Now it’s time to make your goals specific, if they aren’t already. You’re aiming for goals that are:

  • concrete, behavioural and measurable: you should be able to answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to the question ‘Have I reached this goal?’
  • realistically achievable in the short term: focus on goals you can achieve in a few days, weeks or months – not years. You may have to break down a larger goal into smaller goals. For example, if you have the goal of running a marathon, but you are new to running, you might first focus on a shorter-term goal to run a distance that will be more manageable, such as a 5K. Get feedback from trusted people in your life about whether a goal is realistic. Don’t forget the planning fallacy!
  • connected to your values or larger desires: know your ‘why’. Why this goal? Why does it matter? What personal value or passion is this goal inspired by? It should be clear to you how the goal you’re working towards could provide fulfilment or would be an embodiment of your values.

To give you another example, the rough goal that ‘I will always be learning something new’ could become, at this stage ‘I will study crochet on YouTube and make a dishcloth,’ or ‘I will complete a Spanish class at the community centre.’ Similarly, if you already have a group of friends but don’t see them often, the goal ‘I will have a group of friends I see regularly’ could become ‘I will call or see a friend at least three times per month for the next two months.’ Choose what is interesting and possible within your current life situation.

Take action steps towards your chosen goals

Once you have your current goals, you’ll want to break them down into action steps. Identify what you need to do to reach a goal, focusing again on being specific and realistic. Action steps are like items on a to-do list. They should be totally in your control and not dependent on other people (ie, ‘submit the job application’, as opposed to ‘get a job interview’). Each step should feel manageable. If you’re struggling to complete any given action step, make it smaller until it feels easy enough to do.

Let’s look again at the example goal of running a 5K. Action steps could include: sign up for a 5K run; buy running shoes; identify running paths; craft a training schedule; and so on. If any step feels overwhelming, break it down more. ‘Buy running shoes’ could become: search online for ‘best running shoes for first 5K’; make a list of articles/websites to read; read one article; read a second article, etc. There is no shame in making action steps as small as they need to be for you to not feel overwhelmed. In fact, that’s what makes this technique effective! Do what works.

Then, start completing your action steps. Every person’s needs are different when it comes to organising their lives and executing plans. Most people, however, will benefit from setting aside time in their schedules to take Life Worth Living action steps. Put steps in your calendar, or set deadlines if it’s helpful for you. Ask a loved one to be an accountability partner who checks in with you about your progress, or to be a so-called ‘body double’ – someone who works next to you to encourage you to stay focused.

Finally, make sure you reward yourself for value-based actions or for reaching goals. Perhaps you give yourself ‘treats’ when completing particularly difficult action steps. Most often, you will simply want to purposefully note your efforts and progress. This kind of mindful attention is particularly helpful when action steps are not inherently rewarding. For example, mentally noting training runs as part of reaching your goal of running a 5K – saying to yourself something like: This run got me closer to my Life Worth Living goal, or That was really hard but important to me – would be encouraging when the running is physically uncomfortable.

Also, in some cases, just taking action steps can increase your pleasure or fulfilment in life. For example, if you’ve set a goal of volunteering at your local park every week over the summer, every time you volunteer ‘counts’ as actually living your Life Worth Living! You can increase your sense of pride, connection and joy by purposefully bringing this fact to your attention, especially for parts of your life that already feel in alignment with your Life Worth Living goals.

By focusing on and intentionally appreciating your progress, you can increase your fulfilment and maintain your motivation when reaching goals is difficult. Eventually, certain action steps may become habits, and you’ll achieve Life Worth Living goals that you’ve identified. You can return to earlier steps at any point, selecting new goals to reach or new habits to form. In time, seamlessly practising and moving between these steps can become second nature.

Again, people’s lives and goals can naturally shift over time, and you’re likely to discover new passions. But pursuing a Life Worth Living is always going to involve engaging in activities that appeal to you, acting in accordance with your personal values, and finding new ways to grow or to appreciate your life.

Key points – How to stop living on auto-pilot

  1. Each person gets to decide what a fulfilling life looks like for them. A type of therapy called dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT) provides tools for determining what a Life Worth Living means for you, and setting goals to get you there.
  2. Life Worth Living goals can guide your journey toward greater fulfilment. Prioritising certain goals and breaking them down into concrete steps can help you feel less overwhelmed and more empowered.
  3. Reflect on your likes, passions and values. Taking some time to recognise what creates positive feelings for you – and what you’d like to experience in the future – will help inform your goals.
  4. ‘Draw a picture’ of your Life Worth Living. Consider what it would look like for you to live in accordance with your passions and values, and write down a rough list of goals that would help you live that way.
  5. Choose one to four goals to focus on right now. If you’ve come up with many goals, narrow them down by asking which ones feel the most urgent, exciting or easy to pursue.
  6. Make each goal specific, realistic and linked to what matters. Ensure it’s achievable in the short term (if not, break it into smaller goals), and that you know why you’re pursuing it.
  7. Take action steps towards your chosen goals. For each goal, identify steps to get there that are both manageable and in your control. Make these as small as needed, and acknowledge your progress as you take them.

Learn more

Anticipate obstacles and cope ahead

Sometimes, reaching goals will take a very long time in ways that are not your fault. Other people, oppressive systems or psychological obstacles might get in your way. Painful life events might happen. You may struggle in ways you did not expect. All of this is normal. As I’ve said, behaviour change can be very difficult. Self-criticism will only impede you. It will be important to practise self-compassion as you continually problem-solve obstacles.

My advice for thinking about potential setbacks is to use cope ahead, a DBT skill that helps you plan for the sorts of difficult situations that you can anticipate. To cope ahead, you identify any psychological or logistical challenges that you expect to run into as you work toward a goal. Think carefully about when and how an obstacle might show up. Develop a plan for how you will handle that exact moment. Then, imagine and visualise yourself following through perfectly with your coping plan.

Let’s say you set the goal ‘I will complete a Spanish class at the community centre’ – but you also struggle with social anxiety. Social anxiety could interfere with this goal in various ways. You want to prepare for the difficulties that you can predict. For example, you’d likely feel anxious when you’re getting ready to leave for class. You could cope ahead for those exact moments. In planning for this scenario, you would describe in detail what you expect to experience – which might include, for instance, a racing heart and tense muscles, and a strong urge to skip class. Next, you would identify coping strategies you can use in those moments, such as self-soothing or stress-reducing skills to help with physical symptoms, and a pre-planned response to overcome the urge to skip class (opposite action would be a useful DBT skill here). Finally, you imagine yourself practising these responses and making it to class on time. The more you cope ahead like this, the more likely it is that you’ll actually use your skills and overcome the obstacle.

If/when an obstacle does arise and you use your coping plan, reflect on how your plan helped and what you missed. It’s OK if your plan didn’t work the way you wanted or expected. Just practise cope ahead again, improving your plan bit by bit as you go along. I’ve included resources in the Links & Books section below to help with various common challenges. If you continue to struggle with reaching goals, a therapist (particularly one trained in DBT or cognitive behavioural therapy) would likely be able to help you problem-solve as you pursue what matters to you.

Accept and enjoy the present

All of the above steps provide instructions for changing your life in order to feel more satisfaction. Yet one of the most powerful ways to build a Life Worth Living is to appreciate your life as it is in this current moment. This paradoxical advice encompasses one of the foundational principles of DBT: the dialectical balancing of change and acceptance. Dialectics recognise that two seemingly opposite things can be true at the same time. Accordingly, while DBT teaches skills for changing behaviours and reducing painful emotions, it also teaches mindfulness skills for enjoying the present moment and distress-tolerance skills for accepting and coping with things you cannot change.

It is entirely possible to work towards changing your life at the same time that you work towards accepting your life as it is. It is useful to be goal-directed, but it is also useful to let go of any belief that you can be happy only if you reach certain goals. No matter how many goals you reach, it will be harder to feel fulfilled if you never stop to experience the present moment and acknowledge the love, pleasure or peace that is already here. So, while you walk through all of the above steps, building your Life Worth Living, don’t forget to be here now.

If you want to improve your mindfulness, meditation is one of the most effective ways. There are many books, podcasts and apps available to help you get started as a beginner. (See below for some ideas.) But, if you’ve previously tried to meditate and stopped because you found it boring, anxiety-provoking or just too difficult, don’t give up hope! Meditation is only one type of mindfulness practice. In DBT, we describe mindfulness as intentionally being present in the current moment, exactly as it is, without judging it. This definition allows us to make anything a mindfulness practice – meditation, yoga and tai chi, sure, but also going on a walk, eating, reading, talking to a friend or journaling. DBT teaches several core mindfulness skills that can help you improve your ability to be present and to accept reality as it is. While mindfulness and acceptance skills can be challenging to practise, they can provide immense relief from emotional suffering.

Links & books

If you’re interested in learning more DBT skills that can help you improve mindfulness, emotion regulation, distress tolerance or interpersonal effectiveness, you can find many options on my website. The DBT-RU channel on YouTube features dozens of short, animated videos on many of the DBT skills. My book Self-Directed DBT Skills: A 3-Month DBT Workbook (2023) provides teachings and exercises for all of the primary DBT skills.

If you want to learn more about DBT as a comprehensive therapy, you can read my blog post about adherent DBT on Psychology Today. The Behavioral Tech Institute website provides accurate information about DBT and has a directory of intensively trained therapists. The Linehan Board of Certification hosts a directory of expert DBT therapists as well.

In my experience, people often benefit from connecting to something ‘greater’ than themselves and incorporating values like community, nature or spirituality into their lives. You might want to check out writing by Marisa Franco on friendship; Hillary McBride on connecting with our bodies to live fuller lives; Tricia Hersey on rest as spiritual practice and social activism; or Jenny Odell on technology, nature, and balancing productivity with contemplation.

If you’re interested in exploring acceptance and mindfulness, my favourite app is Waking Up, which offers guided meditations and various lectures on meaning-making, resilience and more. Tara Brach’s website also offers many free meditations, readings and tips for beginners. Insight Timer is a free app with meditations and a community.

If you need more guidance on setting and reaching value-based goals, James Clear has a useful book, Atomic Habits (2018), and a free newsletter. Getting Things Done by David Allen is a helpful time-management system for many people. And Heather Morgan offers ideas for value-based living and unmasking for autistic people.

Some of the obstacles you face on your Life Worth Living journey could be emotional difficulties that you have experienced previously, and that many other people have as well. If you’re struggling with emotional obstacles as you pursue your goals, Psyche has other relevant Guides for lack of motivation, intense negative emotions, worrying and overthinking, depression, shame, and more.