I’m doing it again. I can feel it. Like a toothpick, my thumbnail rests in the gap between two teeth. It’s the position it takes right before I bite it. When I catch myself, like right now, I can prevent it. But it’s always a battle.
Often, I’m okay with losing it, as long as it means I’m winning the war with the article I’m writing. After all, what ends up on your screen isn’t a picture of my fingernails, but a (hopefully) helpful blog post.
It wasn’t always a conscious decision though. For over ten years, I bit my fingernails, unaware of the habit. When I started learning about self-improvement in 2012, it was the first habit I made a conscious effort to break. This both required and helped me with one of the most important human capacities: self-awareness.
Today, I’d like to help you cultivate yours, with 27 self-awareness activities, which you can practice on three distinct levels to improve your thinking, mental health and decisions – and thus, your results in the game of life.
Table of Contents
- Self Awareness Is Rare, Even Among Humans…
- …And That’s Why It’s Valuable
- What Can You Be Self-Aware Of?
- When Self-Awareness Matters Most
- Level 1 Self Awareness Activities: Thinking
- 1. Taking a walk.
- 2. Taking a walk with a friend.
- 3. Reading.
- 4. Ask why three times.
- 5. Label your thoughts and emotions.
- 6. Meditation.
- 7. Solo exercise & sports.
- 8. Lean out of your stream of consciousness.
- 9. Add a question mark at the end of thoughts and opinions.
- 10. Conscious breathing.
- 11. Pay attention to posture and body language.
- 12. Eye gazing.
- Level 2 Self Awareness Activities: Voicing
- Level 3 Self Awareness Activities: Implementing
- Which Self-Awareness Activities Should You Start With?
Self Awareness Is Rare, Even Among Humans…
Very few principles and ideas penetrate the world in its entirety. One of those ideas is the following:
Scarce resources are valuable. Whether you call it demand and supply, rare goods and mass products or art and trash, whatever element is most limited in a system is usually the defining variable. The best companies get the most applicants, the most limited cars sell for the most and the least available ion attracts the most elements to react with.
To that end, self-awareness is an extremely scarce resource. First, it’s limited almost exclusively to humans. In the 1970s, psychologist Gordon Gallup Jr. developed something called the mirror test (or MSR – mirror self-recognition test), to determine self-awareness in animals. Animals are anesthetized, marked on their body and then placed in front of a mirror. If they examine the mark after seeing their reflection, they’re considered to be self-aware.
So far, the only non-human species that have passed the test are bonobos, orangutans, dolphins, orcas, some elephants, magpies and trained pigeons. Babies develop this capacity between 12-24 months old. Interestingly, in cultures less focused on the individual, like African tribes, this can be delayed until children are six years old.
…And That’s Why It’s Valuable
Up to 45% of our everyday behavior is habitual. Much of what you do happens on autopilot. We might be one of less than ten species to possess the capability to be self-aware, but that doesn’t make us great at exercising this power. So when world-renowned psychologist Daniel Goleman says it’s the underpinning component of emotional intelligence and thus, a precursor of success, what he means is: it’s rare and thus, valuable.
A prime example of high self-awareness in action, even a hardcore hustle-advocate like Gary Vaynerchuk says self-awareness is his number one enabler of success. If he could create a drug to help people succeed, self-awareness would be the injection. Maxing out your talents through working hard requires knowing what your talents are, after all.
What Can You Be Self-Aware Of?
Before I started listing activities and exercises to become more self-aware, I first asked myself: “What can you be self-aware of in the first place?” I’m not a psychologist, but I see three levels:
- Thoughts & emotions: The type of self-awareness you get from meditation and other mental activities, often called mindfulness. This allows you to observe thoughts and feelings as they occur.
- Beliefs & attitudes: This is about knowing who you are as a person and what traits define your character. Are you an optimist? An introvert? Do you shy away from conflict? And so on.
- Behaviors & decisions: The easiest to recognize, because it’s often handed to you by the world and other people in the form of direct feedback. When someone calls you selfish or your report at work wasn’t up to par, you can evaluate the actions that led to this outcome.
These influence each other in order. What goes on in your head determines your character, which impacts how you make decisions. In turn, the last one dictates your results in life, be it for health, wealth, fame, love or happiness.
When Self-Awareness Matters Most
Therefore, the earlier in the process you’re self-aware, the better, because by recognizing your thoughts and emotions, you can adjust your beliefs and attitudes, which will lead to better behaviors and decisions and thus to better results. Whatever reflective insight you come up with at the very end will only marginally impact your outcome.
The chain looks something like this:
To match the levels, I’ve grouped all the self awareness activities I found helpful over the past years into three categories:
- Thinking: Activities you can mostly do by yourself and in your own head.
- Voicing: Exercises to evaluate your attitudes and beliefs, which you can also do alone, mostly through writing.
- Implementing: Strategies and activities you have to try in the real world, to see results.
Thinking, voicing and implementing. TVI for short. You can remember this acronym with the following sentence:
The Value’s Inside. T-V-I. Simple, isn’t it?
Keep this in mind as we dig into the exercises. Let’s go!
Level 1 Self Awareness Activities: Thinking
Practiced regularly and repeatedly, these activities will help you identify your thoughts and emotions in real time, so you can adjust your mental reactions accordingly.
They’re powerful if you perform them habitually, but also strenuous, so start small. A 10-minute session goes a long way.
1. Taking a walk.
It’s easy to get lost in your stream of consciousness on your way to work, but without a geographical destination, a walk is a wonderful period to notice what your senses take in, how that makes you feel and what that says about you. Listening to music optional, but I find it’s most powerful without.
2. Taking a walk with a friend.
Steve Jobs used to conduct meetings while walking across the vast Apple campus. Along with each step you take, words flow more freely too. It’s easier to open up, show vulnerability and reflect, not react to, uncomfortable questions your friend might ask you.
Reading a good book is like having a conversation with someone who speaks a foreign language – except that it’s you who does all the interpreting. There’s you and the author-you. When those two talk, the result is self-reflection. A very simple way to make this a habit is to read a book with daily one-page entries about a certain topic, like Ryan Holiday’s Daily Stoic.
A good addendum is to listen to an audiobook on a long drive or commute, pause it often, and think about what you just heard (see activity 17, Drucker’s Questions).
4. Ask why three times.
Sakichi Toyoda, Japanese inventor and founder of Toyota, used an approach he called the 5 Whys to uncover errors in the company’s manufacturing process. I’ve seen it tweaked to just three whys. Kids love this game, in which you follow each answer with the question “Why?” again.
- Why do I hate my job? Because I feel tired all day.
- Why do I feel tired at the office all day? Because the air is really bad.
- Why is the air really bad? Because we never open a window.
You’ve just discovered you need lots of fresh air to focus. What a valuable insight!
5. Label your thoughts and emotions.
Calling negative emotions by their name reduces their impact. Saying “I’m angry,” when you’re angry, makes you less angry. In contrast, lumping excitement, joy and satisfaction together under “I’m happy” can cause a physical stress reaction, because you’re not happy with your ability to accurately articulate yourself. Labeling your emotions with a wide array of adjectives helps notice them faster and also boosts your emotional resilience.
Similarly, labeling your thoughts as “useful” or “not useful,” an exercise I picked up from James Altucher, facilitates rational decision-making.
The supreme discipline of self-awareness exercises. Don’t overcomplicate developing your inner observer. Sit straight, close your eyes and try different breathing patterns until you find one you like. Repeat the cycle for a few minutes.
7. Solo exercise & sports.
There’s something mantra-like about running on a circular track, hitting a tennis ball against a wall over and over again, and swimming lap after lap after lap. Similar to walking, solo exercise lets subconsciously formed observations about yourself and how you interact with the world bubble to the surface. In my experience, it “clicks” less often, because I have to focus more on the activity, but is still a great way to develop self-awareness.
8. Lean out of your stream of consciousness.
In his bestselling book, The Untethered Soul, Michael Singer shares the idea of leaning away from negative thoughts and feelings. I like to imagine my inner flow of thoughts as a river or stream of data. Most of my day I’m right in the middle of it, drifting wherever it pushes me. But if you take a minute to mentally “step out” of your stream of consciousness, you’ll see you have the option of letting any thought or emotion just pass by. You don’t have to react to it.
9. Add a question mark at the end of thoughts and opinions.
Another exercise from James Altucher. He uses it to test his opinions and judgements, but you can extend this to facts and any thought, really. Replace full stops and exclamation marks with question marks and observe your own reaction.
“Tom is a jerk.” becomes “Tom is a jerk?” “I’m bad at math.” becomes “I’m bad at math?” And so on.
10. Conscious breathing.
Stressed or not, most of us feed our metabolisms with a staccato of shallow, short breaths for a large portion of our day. It takes a conscious act to counteract that. Try breathing through your nose, into your stomach, exhaling slightly longer than you inhale, while sitting up straight. You’ll notice your entire body relax and your mind clear up.
11. Pay attention to posture and body language.
While science has disproven supposed effects in your body chemistry from changing your posture, a placebo effect is likely to occur in social settings. If you’ve tried advice like smiling more to be happier or walking upright to feel more confident and it’s working for you, by all means, use it.
Besides paying attention to your own body language to notice how you deal with stress by touching your neck, hand, or forehead, for example, watching other people move, sit, work, talk and walk makes it easier to recognize the same physical cues in yourself.
You can do this on the go or on purpose, people watching in a café is a worthwhile activity.
12. Eye gazing.
This is an idea I found in The 4-Hour Workweek way back in 2013. Try to look directly into people’s eyes and don’t be the first one to look away. Focusing on just one eye helps. You can practice it in conversations, but for starters, do it while passing people in the street. Each interaction is another short match of “who dares to look the longest.” Don’t forget to smile, you don’t want to give people a serial killer look.
Eye gazing helps you stay in the moment and builds your confidence at the same time.
I used to believe meditation is the only way to obtain this level of self-awareness. It’s not. I’ve never gone past 20 minutes in a single session (a rare occurrence) and I still managed to turn my inner auto-pilot off. Give it time.
Level 2 Self Awareness Activities: Voicing
While spending more time doing level 1 activities will help you reach a state of constant awareness faster, voicing exercises provide you with a momentary snapshot of your current attitudes and beliefs about yourself.
Your character changes gradually, so it makes sense to evaluate it on a quarterly or semi-annual basis, not weekly. Keep some notes of your results and schedule a follow-up well in advance to get tangible results and make sure you follow through.
13. Create a personal manifesto.
This first exercise might be the most powerful. Creating a document that captures your values, attitudes and aspirations in life brings clarity both to you and the world. Whether this takes the form of an integrity report, like James clear does, a spoken word manifesto, like Gary Vaynerchuk released for 2017…
…or a simple piece of paper with your rules of life on it, having such a code of conduct in a tangible, reviewable, documented format helps you stay true to who you are and change when you need to.
14. Keep a journal.
Journaling is one of the tiniest habits you can cultivate for daily self-reflection. Confucius said you cannot open a book without learning something. Who’s to say it can’t be a book you’re writing into? You also cannot write a sentence without learning something. Hence, I recommend a 1-sentence journal.
Pick a question that makes you think, write it at the top of a piece of paper and add your daily 1-sentence answer each morning or night. You can find more sample questions here.
Alternatively, there is a vast variety of pre-formatted journals you can buy to avoid structuring your journaling process. Some are more geared towards productivity, others towards reflection, but all built self-awareness. A few ones I’m familiar with:
15. Take quizzes and personality tests.
These are never the end-all, be-all most of them claim to be, but if you view your results as tendencies, rather than definite end points on a spectrum, you’ll navigate life more smoothly.
16. Record your ABCs.
This is an exercise Martin Seligman describes in Learned Optimism. By reflecting on an adverse event, you’ll identify how the world shapes your beliefs and what you feel about those. This helps accept negative emotions as normal.
- A represents the Activating Event, which triggers your inner dialogue.
- B indicates the Belief you form after the event.
- C denotes the Consequences, namely how your belief makes you feel.
17. Drucker’s questions.
Peter Drucker is considered the founder of modern management, having ushered in the age of the knowledge worker, not least by having coined this term. In Managing Oneself, he raises several self-awareness questions, starting on a general level.
- Who am I?
- What are my strengths?
- How do I work?
- Where do I belong?
- What is my contribution?
Then, the prompts go into more detail.
- Am I a reader or a listener?
- How do I learn?
- Do I work well with people, or am I a loner?
- In what relationship do I work well with people?
- Do I produce results as a decision maker or an adviser?
- What are my values?
- Which kind of person do I want to see when I look in the mirror in the morning?
- What should I contribute?
- Where and how can I have results that make a difference?
I have listened to the audiobook in the car multiple times, pausing it after the questions to think of answers.
18. Find your Eulerian Destiny.
- What did you grow up around?
- How have you spent the last ten years? What did you do?
- What do strangers compliment you on or have in the past?
- Which topic can you talk about effortlessly on a Saturday night?
Where your answers overlap is where you’ll find core skills and themes of your life. Here’s what mine from back then looks like (click to enlarge).
I’ve created a template you can print and use as well (click to enlarge).
19. The Freedom Diagram.
Based on the above, I’ve come up with something more practical for career design. TFD stands for The Freedom Diagram and is also an acronym to remember its three components: talent, fun and demand. Where they all overlap, your biggest chances of succeeding in business lie.
I’ve explained it in more detail here.
20. Write a regret letter.
An idea I have yet to try: Imagine you’re 90 years old and looking back on your life. You then write a letter to your younger self, apologizing for all the opportunities you’ve missed and sharing your biggest regrets. What would they be? The good thing about writing this letter now is you have time to fix all of those mistakes by taking the chances you describe.
I’ll post mine on here once I’ve written it.
21. Give your own eulogy.
In The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey talks about the funeral test. In it, you answer questions like:
- How do I want people to speak of me at my funeral?
- What should they remember me for?
- Which kind of person will people think I was when I’m gone?
To take this to the next level, you can put it on paper by writing the speech you’d give as your own eulogy. Imagine standing up there, saying your last goodbye to yourself. This helps you find potential sources of regret and adjust your actions accordingly.
On a side note, your writing might not be writing. You can conduct these in a wide variety of formats, such as voice memos, videotaping yourself, or sketching a mind map. This comes down to how you communicate best, which requires, you guessed it, self-awareness.
Recording these is one thing. Constantly communicating them to the people in your life is another. Knowing who you are is good. Letting the world know is when it becomes useful.
Level 3 Self Awareness Activities: Implementing
Joel Salatin is quoted as saying: Mother nature should be the teacher of last resort, for she is a cruel teacher. In this sense, level 3 activities are often tied to a specific event and act as a post-mortem. A bad decision or behavior can only be improved the next time it’s time to decide or behave.
What’s important here is to not get discouraged by failure. Waste no time on mulling over spilled milk. Trust the process until you see results. The good thing about these is they only take minutes, sometimes seconds.
22. Conduct a feedback analysis on a regular basis.
Another exercise from Peter Drucker. Quoting from Managing Oneself:
Whenever you make a key decision or take a key action, write down what you expect will happen. Nine or 12 months later, compare the actual results with your expectations. I have been practicing this method for 15 to 20 years now, and every time I do it, I am surprised.
Most jobs come with dozens of feedback mechanisms built-in, whether that’s a quarterly performance review, a software-generated weekly numbers report, or a group presentation session. Use those as much as you can and if none of them are custom-tailored to you, ask to create one. Conducting your own feedback analysis on top is a straightforward activity to further strengthen your self-awareness.
23. Write down your most important tasks (MITs) each night.
What would the feedback analysis look like on a daily basis? This is what it breaks down to. An idea from Leo Babauta‘s The Power of Less, this plain to-do list approach suggests you write down the three most important tasks for your day the night before, to not lose time and have a result you can compare your performance to at the end of the day.
24. Honesty Hour.
The people who know you the best rarely tell you the blunt truth, because they’re scared to drag you down. So once you’re ready for their honest feedback, it’s still on you to make them feel safe enough to give it to you. Whether this is a cosy night in on the couch with your three best friends, having wine and sharing perceptions, or a group counseling session where you all sit in a circle, you have to get people to be absolutely honest.
In my Mastermind group, we did an Honesty Hour session by taking turns of one person remaining silent for five minutes, while the others “think out loud” about them, which was super helpful.
25. Say no (for now).
“No, I’m not going to do that.” Even thinking it is hard. The reason saying no helps with self-awareness is it forces you to analyze your gut feeling. We’ve all overridden our intuition before and it’s twisted our stomach. Who do you actually want to spend time with? Which projects are you excited about? How much down time do you really need?
Learning to say no gives you both the time and mental trigger to answer those kinds of questions.
This includes yourself, by the way. It both takes and builds willpower. A trick that helps is to defer the decision. “I have to check my calendar” and “I’ll have that hot fudge brownie on Friday, if I still want it” buy you precious time here.
26. Practice the pause-and-plan response.
The second you think “this is a problem,” your body goes into fight-or-flight mode. But there’s a third option: the freeze response, which resembles the “play dead” move from the animal world. The quantum zeno effect, a concept in physics, says when you permanently observe a system, you’ll freeze it in its current state.
This sudden moment of inaction puts your decision-making process on hold long enough to segue into what Kelly McGonigal calls the pause-and-plan response in The Willpower Instinct. Your attention shifts towards your inside and you get to ask “What can I do here with my skills and attitudes?”
I used to hate saying “I’m sorry.” It doesn’t feel good to confess you screwed up. At first. In hindsight, we always think it was the right choice. We hate admitting mistakes more than making them, yet, owning them is a big part of acknowledging them, which is where self-awareness comes from. It prevents hypocrisy and allows you to reflect and do better next time.
You can start with level 3 activities instantly, if you apply them to a situation in hindsight. For example, if yesterday’s MITs were too complex to take care of in 30 minutes each, you need to break today’s down into smaller tasks.
That said, they work best when performed both before and after a decision and its corresponding action. Only then can you judge how well your prediction fared and try to act better in the moment next time.
But in the midst of all these lessons…
Which Self-Awareness Activities Should You Start With?
Imagine a soccer player who completely lacks self-awareness. He takes a penalty kick and misses. The coach tells him he screwed up and takes him off the field. Without reflection, the only thing this guy would do is to get mad at his coach. That’s not only not helpful, it’s also light years away from analyzing his own stream of consciousness.
Therefore, if you’re just starting to learn about self-awareness and how to develop it, it makes sense to start with level 3 activities, those concerned with doing and implementing. This may sound counterintuitive, because improvements on this level have the least impact on your results, but consider the following example.
In I Will Teach You To Be Rich, Ramit Sethi takes the approach of behavior first, then attitude. Setting up an automated payment to your investment account with 10% of your salary is an easy, one-time action that doesn’t require a lot of willpower. Thinking about why you haven’t been prioritizing saving and investing and what led to the attitudes that caused this behavior is a lot harder.
Changing your behavior in a tiny, even laughable way as a direct consequence of this post is the only outcome that will really make it meaningful.
Pick one of the six level 3 activities and schedule time to do it. Today.
Not tomorrow. Not next week. Today. Maybe you even have a pending request you can say no to. Or an opportunity to apologize. From my experience, Honesty Hour is the most powerful, but it also takes a while to organize.
Gary alludes to it as the only self-awareness activity he can think of, which brings up an important closing point: all of these exercises are subject to your trial and error. This is what’s worked for me. I hope it will help you find self-awareness too.
If you occasionally remember this post, come back to it, and try another exercise, it will have played its part well. Just remember:
The Value’s Inside.
So far, no one has come up with a definitive recipe to develop self-awareness. Religion hasn’t. Science hasn’t. Business hasn’t. Gary hasn’t.
Maybe that’s why the man bites his nails so much. But at least he knows.