Habit-Building Self-Awareness Exercises to Keep Yourself Accountable
“To thine own self be true”—Here’s how to find out how well you’re taking this advice.
We tend to think of self-awareness as hard, long-term facts about ourselves, but it’s also a cognitive state—a short-term mode of consciousness you can practice.
Being in this conscious mindset helps you stay accountable to your deepest values and most important goals. When you’re in it, you can catch yourself when you act in a way that’s not in line with your values, virtues, and aspirations. Sometimes you’ll realize it in time to change; sometimes you’ll learn from your mistake after. But you benefit by continually asking the question of whether your behavior is aligned with who you really want to be.
It’s often said that meditation is like doing mental push-ups: the process of bringing your thoughts back to the present trains your brain for better focus. What if you could do the same with self-awareness and train yourself to better notice opportunities for you to grow?
It turns out, there are such exercises. I’ve been collecting the ones that help me gain awareness of myself and stay more accountable to my goals of personal growth.
In the rest of this article, I’ll share the exercises that best help me cultivate a mindset of accountable self-awareness. Most of them take fewer than 10 minutes but can be extended to go deeper. I’ve divided them into two main categories: exercises based on external consequences and exercises for assessing your thoughts in real time.
Evaluating Your Responses to Outside Triggers
Exercises that focus on outside triggers—environmental responses — are the hardest to practice. That’s because they require questioning your biased, stubborn, emotional gut. But they also get a lot easier to do every time you see them through.
Since these exercises are postmortems, they should be your teacher of last resort. After all, the only time to show you’ve learned from them is next time. Still, the payoff can be tremendous, particularly in the way it can improve your relationships with other people.
1. Reconsider the Last Criticism You Received
When was the last time someone criticized your behavior? Think back to that moment and, regardless of how you judged that criticism at the time, ask if they were right.
We hate admitting mistakes more than making them, so we’re rarely willing to even consider that we’re wrong. But with a little distance and time, it’s often easier to see and accept that you could have done better.
Doing so creates humility and, more importantly, opens you a little more to considering you’re wrong in the future.
For example, when I receive criticism of my writing, I don’t always agree immediately, but if an exchange builds, I sometimes answer later and ask follow-up questions to better understand what the commenter meant.
2. Ask One Person For Advice
Message the last person you talked to and ask: “Hey, remember when we discussed X? How can I do a better job at it?”
The “X” itself isn’t terribly important. Whatever it is, there’s a high chance you will learn something about yourself from the advice that follows. It’s a piece of data you can reflect on, and whether the insight is profound or not, it’ll help you see past your biases.
3. Apologize for a Past Mistake
You can’t own up to a mistake without admitting that you made it. Once again, the passage of time makes doing so easier. The effect on the person I apologize to never ceases to amaze me; often the apology is received as an unexpected kindness.
The result for me, however, is less fear of apologizing and thus less desire to sweep blunders under the rug when they do occur. Every apology reduces the time it takes for me to see my own mistakes.
For example, I recently blamed my family for something that was actually my fault. Apologizing didn’t just clear the air and nurture these relationships, but in the following conversation, each member gave me valuable advice for how I could solve the real underlying problem.
4. Say No to One Opportunity
“When you say no, you are only saying no to one option. When you say yes, you are saying no to every other option.”
We all have thousands of opportunities to do certain things and forego others every day. Saying no, whether by turning down an offer or canceling a prior commitment, forces you to analyze your gut feeling. Sometimes you have to override it. Often you don’t. Realizing either is a win.
For example, Clear used to write two articles per week for the first three years after launching his blog. But then he got a book deal, so he had to say no to this important work in favor of something even bigger.
Saying no takes practice. Pick one thing from your to-do list or inbox, and say no to it.
Awareness of the Deeper Themes
You could call these exercises “character snapshots.” Some of them take longer but need to be done less often. Used to track long-term patterns, they can usually be done just a few times a year (or even less).
These exercises help you become aware of more intangible traits, beliefs, attitudes, and patterns. Remember that these are malleable—you can change them. Your identity is not rigid. But change can take time and effort. You need to adjust your actions accordingly over months and years.
5. Create a Personal Manifesto
You can literally talk this out and record it on your phone in five minutes. You can pick three values out of a long list and write an annual review or integrity report about them. Or wrap it all into a single question.
Once you’ve created your manifesto, set a monthly calendar reminder to reflect on it and evaluate how you’re doing.
For example, I chose love, honesty, and creativity as my main values for 2019 from this list. I now keep them in a note file that I remind myself to review regularly.
6. Mind Map Yourself
Manifestos are about who you want to be, but mind maps are about getting what you want based on what you have. They’re common career and business planning tools but work for personal goals as well. Here are some I’ve tried:
- Time-folding: Put your name in a center circle and then list your dreams in all areas of life as a series of expanding bubbles. This strategy is from Benjamin Hardy.
- Eulerian Destiny: Draw four concentric circles with questions about your youth, last decade, natural talents, and interests. Find something that fits into the intersection of these circles based on your answers. This strategy is from Tai Lopez.
- The Freedom Diagram: Draw three concentric circles representing talent, fun, and demand. Use the intersection to figure out a skill you can and want to invest time in to make a good living. This strategy is from me.
For example, in doing the Eulerian Destiny exercise in 2014, I learned that I would likely do well in something that involves computers in one way or another, can be done as a solo activity, and requires speaking English. Today I’m a writer, which lies at the intersection of all three!
7. Take a Personality Test
The science behind any individual personality test is often quite debatable. Nonetheless, personality tests and quizzes can help you identify traits or patterns that can be useful to know. That said, don’t get lost in the results; instead, use the insights you glean as starting points to discover more about yourself.
- Myers-Briggs/Jung Typology: The famous four-letter typecast.
- Enneagram: A more spiritual nine-type framework.
- The Four Tendencies: Your reactions to inner and outer expectations.
- Emotional Intelligence: How good are you at practicing empathy?
- Attachment Style: Are you avoidant, anxious, or secure in relationships?
- The Multipotentialite Test: Find out if you’re a generalist or a specialist.
- Introversion/Extroversion: Does being in groups give you energy or take it?
- Personal SWOT Analysis: What are your strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats?
- Strengthsfinder 2.0: Find out how to thrive at work. This test requires payment.
- Learning Style: A rough assessment of your preferred way to learn.
For example, using these tests I’ve learned I have INFJ preferences with a secure attachment style, and my tendency is to be an “Upholder.” These results might mean that I like people’s expectations of me to be clear, that it’s important that my work have meaning and contribute to a greater good, and that it may be easier for me to share my feelings with others than it is for other attachment types. Remembering these insights helps me tremendously when assessing opportunities or understanding interpersonal dynamics.
8. Contemplating Death
Making a deliberate effort to meditate on our own mortality instead of engaging in our usual practice of pushing it away is a self-help technique as old as man. It sounds counterintuitive, but multiple studies show confronting our future death can help us live better in the now. The Stoics famously wrote about the contemplation of eventual death as a path for acceptance, perspective, and gratitude.
Here are several ways to do it in a few minutes:
- In The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey has an exercise called “the funeral test.” Try it out by journaling what you imagine people would say at your own burial.
- You can also write your own obituary or practice your eulogy.
- Ryan Holiday created several physical reminders inscribed with Stoic ideas, such as “memento mori,” which means “remember you will die.”
I have one of Ryan’s coins. I carry it in my pocket, and each time I feel it, even if I’m just grabbing my keys, I’m reminded of the inscription. This usually creates a sense of urgency if I’m wasting time in that moment or a sense of gratitude for whatever I’m experiencing at the time.
Observing in the Moment
The exercises on this level, which deal with real-time self-observation, are the easiest to practice — all you have to do is write one sentence, take one breath, change one thought — but the hardest to make habitual.
You’ll have to repeat them thousands of times to cultivate self-awareness as your default cognitive state. But by making small changes instantly, you’ll see results indefinitely. Micro-tweaks now compound into macro-wins later.
That is all because in a short but decisive moment, you were not just self-aware, but self-accountable. As Aristotle said: “Knowledge is the beginning of all wisdom.”
9. Keep a Daily Journal
Journaling supports self-awareness on all levels, but it doesn’t have to be a time-consuming practice. Here are several prompt-based approaches that are particularly quick to do daily:
- The One-Sentence Journal: You put a thought-provoking question atop a sheet of paper and answer it in a single sentence each morning or night.
- The Five-Minute Journal: This tool combines simple prompts to inspire, help you be grateful, prioritize, and improve in just five minutes. Alex Ikonn made this.
- The Self Journal: Meant to help you accomplish big goals in 90 days through lots of reflection. Made by Cathryn Lavery and Allen Brouwer.
- The Bullet Journal: A productivity method that’s really meant to design an intentional life. Ryder Carroll invented this.
- The Daily Stoic Journal: A companion to Ryan Holiday’s bestselling book, based on weekly themes for morning and/or evening reflections.
For example, I’m in my second year of The Daily Stoic Journal. Each morning, I read the appropriate page in the book, reflect on it, and then answer a single question with two to three sentences. Throughout the day, I remember the theme.
10. Question, Then Label Your Thoughts
Imagine your thoughts and emotions as if they were a river, and you will be able to mentally step back from them. Let them pass by. You’re now free to grab any one, label it, question it, and then judge it. As Michael Singer says, “lean out of your stream of consciousness.”
Naming negative emotions weakens them, while identifying positive ones makes them stronger. James Altucher adds question marks to opinions and dubs thoughts “useful” or “not useful.” Sakichi Toyoda, founder of the Toyota empire, regularly asked “why?” five times in a row to get to the root of a problem.
For example, I sometimes get bad news on my phone in the morning. When I realize I’m obsessing over a problem just a few minutes after waking up, I ask if doing so is useful. That type of obsession almost never is; getting conscious of it lets me put those thoughts aside so I can prepare for the day in peace.
11. Meditate Using Anything
Don’t be fooled. You can meditate anywhere, anytime, using any baseline.
You can close your eyes and meditate for one minute on the subway. Just feel your breath. You can take deep breaths on purpose. You can pay attention to your body language and try to smile more, walk straighter, or sit upright. You can tell yourself that you love yourself, over and over again as you lie in bed.
As long as you focus your attention on one thing and bring it back to that thing from every distraction, for as little as a minute to as long as you want, you’re meditating.
For example, Kamal Ravikant used a simple “I love myself” meditation to get over a huge setback as an entrepreneur and rebuild his career from scratch.
Meditation builds the skill of refocusing your rational mind, giving you space to make better decisions. The more quickly and naturally you can do this (by practicing!), the better chance you have of responding in a way that you’ll be happy with later.
It may be true that it takes self-knowledge to lead an enlightened life. But it also takes responsibility to live a good one. By practicing habits that keep you close to your values, you can help ensure you grow in the direction of the person you want to become.