They say the first step is admitting you have a problem, and that’s true in every aspect of life. Self-awareness and introspection have the ring of of a self-help guru’s empty promises, but they are the starting point that leads to every improvement.
Self-Improvement Is Impossible Without Self-Awareness
Self-awareness (sometimes also referred to as self-knowledge or introspection) is about understanding your own needs, desires, failings, habits and everything else that makes you tick. The more you know about yourself, the better you are at adapting life changes that suit your needs.
Self-awareness is a big part of both therapy and philosophy. It's also the basis of the quantified self movement, which assumes that if you collect data about yourself you can make improvements based on that data. The New York Times breaks down the roots like so:
Socrates's phrase was "know thyself." Though it may come as a surprise to some philosophers, self-knowledge requires more than intellectual self-examination. It demands knowing something about your feelings. In my experience philosophers are, in general, not the most emotionally attuned individuals. Many are prone to treat the ebb and flow of feelings as though our passions were nothing but impediments to reason. Freud, more than the sage of Athens, grasped the moral importance of emotional self-transparency. Like the Greek tragedians but in language that did not require an ear for poetry, he reminded us of how difficult it is to own kinship with a whole range of emotions.
Essentially, the more you pay attention to your emotions and how you work, the better you'll understand why you do the things you do. The more you know about your own habits, the easier it is to improve on those habits. In most cases, this takes a little experimentation. Here's The New York Times again, talking about a self-awareness method called double-loop learning:
LESS common but vastly more effective is the cognitive approach that Professor Argyris called double-loop learning. In this mode we... question every aspect of our approach, including our methodology, biases and deeply held assumptions. This more psychologically nuanced self-examination requires that we honestly challenge our beliefs and summon the courage to act on that information, which may lead to fresh ways of thinking about our lives and our goals.
You can read every productivity tip out there, you can adapt the routines of geniuses, and you can eat up every piece of self-help that comes across the computer screen, but it's completely pointless if you don't know yourself well enough to put the correct advice into practice. For example, in university, I spent my time staying up and working on papers until late in the night. My room was a mess, I didn't have a proper desk, and I spent more sleepless night than I can count. I felt terrible everyday and the papers I wrote were horrible. I thought I was a night person because it had that sense of "cool creative type" about it, but it obviously wasn't working for me.
Now, I can try all I want to work until 3am with a messy desk, but it will never make me more productive. At some point I realised I do best with a tidy workspace and early morning writing. It took me years to figure this out. I thought I was a night person because I never took the time to think about my own personality and try something different. Once I did, I never went back.
Self-Awareness Isn't A Magic Bullet, But It Is Step One
It's easy to fall for the idea that if you know yourself well enough you'll be able to fix all your problems, but that's not how it works; it's step one. Our minds are feeble and ripe with biases that colour our decisions.
In his book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, researcher Daniel Kahneman points out that even after years of studying biases and basic human decision making, he still has all the faults he had before:
Except for some effects that I attribute mostly to age, my intuitive thinking is just as prone to overconfidence, extreme predictions, and the planning fallacy as it was before I made a study of these issues. I have improved only in my ability to recognise situations in which errors are likely....And I have made much more progress in recognising the errors of others than my own.
Plus, as Kahneman tells us in a TED Talk, the way we remember events isn't always accurate, so even if you spend a lot of time a lot of time assessing your past, you'll still walk away with a skewed vision.
Likewise, a review article from the journal Current Directions in Psychological Science, points out that we have so many blind spots that self-awareness is often impossible. Essentially, we're driven to maintain a particular self-image to the point where we don't notice our own failings.
To bring back my example, this was my problem with working at night. I saw myself as a night person and never even thought about trying to work in the mornings. I've had plenty of similar revelations over the years. It took a divorce for me to realise I wasn't as good at communication as I thought I was and countlessexperiments to try and figure out who I am. I still make plenty of mistakes and have no idea what I'm doing most of the time, but at least I know what time of day I work best.
Improve Your Self-Awareness With A Few Exercises
Knowing yourself completely is difficult, and it's impossible to solve for every single cognitive bias you have. But just because we suck at it doesn't mean we shouldn't try. You can't solve every problem in your life, but you can make some headway on minor changes. Here are a few ways of doing just that:
- Learn to look at yourself objectively: It's nearly impossible to actually look at yourself objectively, but it's always worth a shot. As we've talked about before, the main idea here is to study and criticise your decisions. Even better, find some trustworthy friends to talk with and listen to their criticisms.
- Write your own manifesto: The main purpose of self-awareness is self-improvement, so it makes sense that you need to have goals. If you're struggling with that part, a manifesto is a great way to push yourself into figuring out what you want.
- Keep a journal: As Kahneman noted above, our memory colours the past pretty deeply. If you want a more accurate gauge of yourself, a journal is a great way to get it. A journal makes you more aware of what you're doing and where problems might be coming from because you can document anything. If you spend time documenting the little things, like food intake, water intake, or sleep, you might notice a larger trend that you can correct for. If you're looking for a deeper understanding of your decision making skills, Harvard Business Review suggests writing down what you think will happen with a decision, then wait nine or ten months and review what you wrote.
- Perform a self-review: The self-review is one of those annoying little things we all do at work, but you can make them beneficial if you think of them more as a thought experiment. Instead of spending your time thinking about what you should improve about yourself, think about what you boss thinks you should do and what co-workers might say. This way, you can see yourself from someone else's perspective and gain a little extra insight into yourself.
It's important to remember that self-awareness is introspection, but it's not navel gazing. Self-absorption and overthinking doesn't get you anywhere, but being aware of your needs and acting on them can help you improve. You might not realise how often what you're doing doesn't correlate to what you want.