How to Be Self-Aware — The Complete Guide
Everything you need to learn one of the most important skills of this century
Yesterday, I asked my network of expert coaches on LinkedIn what they thought was the top skill to learn going forward. Almost unanimously, they said
Self-Awareness. I can’t agree more about its importance. I’ve been working really hard on my self-awareness for the past 30 months and have seen incredible results in many pillars of my life, most notably in my health, wealth, and impact in the world.
In this article, I want to touch on two very important points: why is self-awareness so important and how can you get better at it. I’ll share some of my experiences, as well as other methods that are proven to work.
Today, more than ever, we need to find a real purpose in life. With the accelerated pace of change, we’re getting thrown curve balls every second. We have to take action faster with no time to think about the consequences of our actions.
Only a truly self-aware person can make quick and informed decisions that yield a positive impact in their life and that of others.
Before we get started, here’s the definition I will use to describe self-awareness:
conscious knowledge of one’s own character, feelings, motives, and desires.
Table of Contents
*Feel free to highlight those you believe in or want to work on.
Why is self-awareness so important?1. Journaling
1.1 Think Day
1.2 Self-Reflection Week
1.3 Win/Failure Journaling2. Mindfulness
2.1 Finding Your Why (Brainstorming, 5 Whys, Ikigai)
2.3 Yoga3. Feedback
3.1 Self Feedback (Self-review and Map of Life)
3.2 Outside Feedback
Why is self-awareness so important?
Being self-aware allows you to know yourself enough so that you can change your situation for a more optimal one for you. A lot of people go through the motions of life, not taking the time to think about their current situation, either thinking that all is going great or that everything is falling apart. Both are dangerous.
Earlier this year, Shaunta Grimes wrote about taking the time to reflect on the positive and negative things that happened in the past six months of your life. Her list of positives was great. And when I did the exercise myself, I was expecting my list to be just as great. I’m an optimist and see the positive side of almost everything. When I created my own list, however, I realized there were a lot more negative points than there were positive ones.
This was a good slap in the face. This exercise gave me more awareness of the fact that not everything is going great in my life. Being aware of it allowed me to take action and improve my situation.
The contrary to my situation is probably more common: people who think everything is going terribly with their lives. Self-awareness is not about “thinking”, it’s about “knowing”.
We’ll dig deeper into methods of knowing shortly, but for now, let’s just say that these people only know the “what”. They know the symptoms, not the cause. And without knowing the cause, you can’t change. You may try, but chances are you are trying to fix the wrong problem.
Being self-aware gives you the confidence that what you’re doing matters and that you have to power to accomplish what you set out to do. When you know what matters, you spend your time in productive ways. You act according to your values. And here’s the thing: most people don’t know their values.
Do you know yours?
But that’s not all. According to PositivePsychology.com, there are four main proven benefits of self-awareness:
- It makes you more proactive, boosts your acceptance, and encourages positive self-development.
- It allows you to see things from the perspective of others, practice self-control, work creatively and productively, and experience pride in yourself and your work.
- It leads to better decision-making.
- It can make you better at your jobs, making you a better communicator in the workplace, and enhance your self-confidence and job-related wellbeing.
I have seen all these benefits in action. I’ve had more success in my life in the past 30 months not because I worked harder or better — because I was already doing that — but because I deliberately raised my self-awareness.
Here’s how you learn to become more self-aware based on three concepts:
Feedback. See Appendix A at the bottom for the full tree of sub-skills.
This section contains affiliate links
Journaling is the act of writing down your thoughts. While this is typically done with pen & paper, it’s certainly acceptable to do it using a note-taking app. The tips in this article work for both methods.
I learned to journal back in January 2018. At first, I thought it would be a dumb exercise, but people kept writing about the importance of journaling, so I gave it a shot. I meant to practice for 30 minutes on my first day, but 12 pages later, I realized three hours had gone by!
I was so in the zone that I couldn’t stop.
I went to the beach to continue my journaling session. I journaled for two more hours, for a total of five hours on my first day. Who knew I had so much on my mind! It was both cleansing and eye-opening.
Today, I journal regularly, as well as practice the following three techniques not many people talk about:
the Self-Reflection Week, and
1.1 Think Day
Think Day is a day where you seek to get clarity on different aspects of your life. It’s a day where all you’re doing is taking notes in a journal using a tool like my Think Day Journal.
Here’s how I break Think Day down:
List down the things you want to reflect on. What’s not going right? What problems are you facing? Why do you want to solve them?
Here’s a real example from March 30th, 2020:
1.1.2 Key Takeaways
What result do you want to get out of Think Day? I often have more than three but I try to limit myself to the three most important ones to increase my focus.
1.1.3 Action Plan
What are all the things you want to reflect on today? Sometimes, I have a list of five things, sometimes I have more than 20 points.
Here’s a list from a recent Think Day:
1.1.4 Priorities post-reflection
What should your priorities be going forward? I like to use an Eisenhower Matrix for this:
- Urgent and important: Things you have to do now (limit those).
- Important but not urgent: Things related to your health and self-improvement (schedule them daily).
- Urgent but not important: Things you can delegate.
- Not urgent and not important: Things you shouldn’t even do.
Don’t limit yourself to three things if you’ve got more to note.
Here’s an example I did a while back:
Go through the list of things you want to reflect on (see step 3) and start writing down everything that comes to mind on the topic. Feel free to jump between topics when you get blocked on one.
1.1.6 Adding deadlines
For each action you listed that you should be doing for after your reflection, add a deadline to it. When should it be completed? I like to create a “deadline” section at the end of my reflection to organize all my due dates on the same page/section.
Here’s an example:
1.2 Self-reflection week
The self-reflection week is an idea I borrowed from Bill Gates. I did my first one while I was living in India and needed to re-align my actions with my mission and values. In addition, I needed a break. I was working from 5 am to 7 pm every day, and most of the time 7 days a week.
So, a self-reflection week is your opportunity to get clarity, rest, and entertainment. During that first self-reflection week, my days were divided this way:
- Playing video games;
- Going to the pool; and
- Spending time with my wife.
I used the internet only for emergencies.
1.2.1 How to plan your self-reflection week
First of all, it’s completely fine not to plan anything. My plan was simply to do the above activities with no deadline or any hopes of getting any real insights.
For other self-reflection weeks, I sometimes have a broad schedule. Think Day on Monday, Reading + video games on Tuesday, Lover time on Wednesday, etc, for example.
My point is, it’s really up to you. And if you get bored — good. You’re likely over-stimulated in your everyday life anyway. Taking the time to get bored is a good opportunity to “hit reset” and get more perspective on your life.
1.2.2 What to do during a self-reflection week
As mentioned above, anything works. Bill Gates reads complicated books on a wide variety of topics. If you don’t like reading, do something else. Or learn to like reading. Why not? Get out of your comfort zone if that’s what you need.
We’ll look into how to “find your why” and how to fill out your Map of Life below. These are great starting points to raise your self-awareness and make the most out of your week. I’d recommend spending the equivalent of at least two days on journaling.
If you can get away for a week to do it, do it. Changing your environment helps you see your life from a different perspective. If not, try to do most of your activities from outside your home or regular workplace. Ideally, be somewhere where you won’t be distracted. This is a time to mostly stay in solitude.
Otherwise, feel free to entertain yourself and focus on “Important but not urgent” activities, like what you brainstormed with the Eisenhower Matrix from above.
1.3 Win/Failure Journaling
1.3.1 Win Journaling
Win journaling is about recording any daily achievement in a notebook or using software. Here’s a sample of things I’ve recorded last month:
It doesn’t matter whether the win is big or not. Here are some general ideas of what to record:
- Praise from others;
- Having accomplished something hard;
- Having done something you’ve procrastinated doing;
- Anything that’s habitual that you haven’t done in a few days but did today;
- Reaching a milestone in a project you’re working on;
- Having had an impact (however small) in someone’s life;
- A day with no conflicts; and
- Anything that made you feel good at the moment.
For each victory, note the topic. Noticed the colored tags above, like
Newsletter? These are the topics of my wins. I have a list of over 15 topics and keep adding more as I add more wins.
The number you see below the tags is how big of a win what I recorded is. I use a scale of 1–5, but feel free to choose a different scale. 1 = It’s a very minor win and 5 is a massive win — one that made me feel very good and almost made me cry with joy.
I’m currently using Notion to record them but I started with pen & paper a year ago. So if that suits you better, you can use that. If you do it on paper, I suggest you get a notebook just for that so it’s easy to refer back to it.
Use win journaling to realize the good things that are happening in your life. You’ll be happier and will want to achieve more. Better yet, you’ll realize that it’s not the big wins that matter most but the smaller ones compounded over time.
And when you feel bad, you can refer back to it to cheer you up. Because of it, you are reminded that you can achieve things.
1.3.2 Failure Journaling
Failure journaling is the opposite of win journaling — you record your experiments that didn’t work. If failure affects you, it’s time to picture yourself like Thomas Edison:
“I have not failed, I’ve just found 10,000 ways that don’t work.” — Thomas A. Edison
In a way, that’s the essence of what Carol Dweck called the Growth Mindset in her book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. When you view life as a series of experiments, every “failure” is progress. It’s a step towards a better understanding of your self. The higher your understanding, the higher self-awareness.
This graph summarizes the process:
- What the failure is. Don’t attach any emotion, simply state the facts.
- What caused the failure. Again, state the facts. What action(s) caused the failure? Feel free to note a hypothesis on what other actions would have been better in hindsight.
- What would “success” have looked like. What is the result you were aiming for? What would have been the benefits of having succeeded?
- What is the lesson in this failure. This is the most important part. Detail everything you can about what you learned from this failed experience. The idea is to make it almost impossible to get that failed result a second time.
I don’t fail journal as frequently as I win journal. I prefer to fail journal on big lessons, like a failed business, a failed project, a failed relationship, a failed trip, etc.
This section contains affiliate links
Here’s a definition of Mindfulness I like:
a mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations, used as a therapeutic technique.
There are many ways to make this happen. People tend to associate it with meditation and yoga. And we’ll touch on these two points, but I also want to focus on something I find deeply important to be able to truly be aware of your present: finding your why.
Without knowing why you do what you do, you can’t be self-aware, no matter what mindfulness techniques you practice.
2.1 Finding your why
It sounds so simple. At its most basic, it’s about answering this single question:
Why do you do what you do?
If you were to stop reading now and answering the question right this moment, could you answer with a single sentence?
Most people can’t.
It took me months to find an answer I was happy with. There’s no shame in not knowing and taking your time to find the answer. Life is short, yes, but I’d rather spend most of my life knowing why I’m living it as opposed to living it blindly. If it takes you years to figure it out, that’s fine, as long as you figure it out eventually.
I have two strangely different books to recommend that try to accomplish the same thing:
What Sinek calls the “why”, Hill calls the “burning desire”. While the burning desire can be used for a smaller project, I’d argue it’s best used on figuring out your life purpose.
Not to repeat the content from these two incredible books, I’m listing here different ideas that I’ve used in the past and had a great impact on my self-awareness. I’m breaking it down into three concepts:
5 Whys, and
Before you can find out your why, you need to be aware of multiple aspects of your self. I like to make my brainstorming sessions easy, using simple lists. Here are some ideas to get you started.
- Skills — things you do well;
- Hobbies — things that occupy your time;
- Passions — things you do for fun without external incentives;
- Talents — things you learn fast;
- Loved ones — people you care about;
- Moments of happiness — key moments of your life or recurring events;
- Moments of sadness — key moments of your life or recurring events;
- Personality traits — things that define you as a person; and
- Values (if you know them) — things you strongly believe in.
This is a fantastic exercise that will help you figure out (1) who you are and (2) why you do what you do.
2.1.2 Five Whys
Here’s an example that’s easy to relate to and understand:
In life, people often ask you “why” once. You give your best answer. Most of the time, that answer isn’t the root of the problem. You’re not intentionally doing that, you just need to do a little more detective work! :)
When it comes to finding your why, you can’t allow yourself to stop at a single “why”.
- Why do you do what you do? Because I like helping people.
- Why do you like helping people? Because it makes me happy.
- Why does helping people make you happy? Their satisfaction brings me satisfaction.
- Why does their satisfaction bring you satisfaction? … dunno? A chemical reaction in my body?
That wasn’t entirely fruitful, was it? This is to illustrate that we’re not used to going down to the root of things.
How could you have done it differently? I’ll let you try it out.
When I finally reached my end of my 5th why, I realized that I was doing things because I didn’t want my life to be lost in history. I didn’t want my gift of life to be meaningless. I only have one life, so I might as well make it count! And there are two ways to do that: selflessness and evil. Evil actions don’t feel as good as selfless ones, so I’m doing good things for the sake of having an impact in this world.
Read 5 Whys: The Ultimate Root Cause Analysis Tool for a more in-depth look at how to do it. They focus on business, but their tips can apply to anyone trying to find their why.
Ikigai literally changed my life. This is an especially good tool for those, like me, who have many interests and can’t focus on one thing. It helps you channel your energy not only what you like to do, but what the world needs. It looks like this:
Here are the steps I use to fill it out:
- Brainstorm in this order:
What you LOVE>
What you are GOOD AT>
What you can be PAID FOR, and
What the world NEEDS. I find that order easier to fill out.
- Brainstorm in this order:
- Try to make sense of where everything intersects — that’s your Ikigai, your reason for living.
My recommendation is to let your imagination run wild. Don’t picture the present. Picture the near future. Where do you want to be in less than 5 years? This isn’t an easy exercise. It took me weeks to get to the bottom of it the first time around.
Of all the methods of raising self-awareness I’m presenting in this article, Ikigai is the one that gave me the biggest breakthrough.
If you want more information about Ikigai, check out this article by Thomas Oppong: Ikigai: The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life Might Just Help You Live a More Fulfilling Life. Or this book by Héctor García and Francesc Miralles: Ikigai: The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life.
I learned to meditate the same month I learned to Journal. I knew meditation would be one of the hardest skills I could ever learn. I had tried a few times before but always failed. However, I changed my perspective in January 2018 — I approached it as a skill I could learn. Previously, I thought you either could do it or could not.
I was wrong.
You’ve likely had people tell you that they meditate and it’s been great for them. They make it sound so easy. If you’re like me and can’t calm your thoughts and your body is not flexible, meditation is torture at first.
In 8 Timeless Skills to Learn Now in Under 8 Hours to Change your Life Forever, I scratched the surface on how you can learn to meditate. It took me 24 days to become better at meditating. Here’s what I did:
20 minutes of Headspace a day for 24 days.
This isn’t the only way, it’s just the one I used and have observed working for other people in the 20 months after I wrote that article.
To increase your self-awareness with meditation, here are 8 things to consider:
For maximum benefits, especially if you’re new to meditation, schedule a time where you’ll be meditating every day and won’t be distracted. This will make it much easier to stay accountable and stick with the practice.
How long should your meditation session be? I started with two back-to-back sessions of 10 minutes. Experiment to see what works best for you. It’s okay to split your sessions during different moments of your day. For me, 20 minutes in a row was perfect because I couldn’t really calm my body and mind in only 10 minutes. Today, I can do sessions of 5 minutes and benefit from them.
2.2.3 Focusing on the present
We have a tendency to ruminate on the past or plan for the future. Meditation is the time to focus on the present. How are you feeling, at the moment — in your body and in your mind?
2.2.4 Paying attention
Pay attention to those feelings in your body and mind. Don’t judge, just be aware. I ache on my foot? Good, what else? I’m feeling anxious. Okay, what else?
2.2.5 Accepting your thoughts
When you figure out how you feel, simply accept it. You can’t be feeling perfect all the time, and that’s okay. Acceptance is a powerful way to raise your self-awareness. If it helps, tell yourself that you accept what you’re feeling, either verbally or in thoughts.
2.2.6 Staying still
That’s a tough one for me. The idea is to take the moment to simply focus on the current state of your body and mind. If you move around, that state doesn’t stay still, making it hard to get a good picture of what those feelings really are.
2.2.7 Letting time pass
When’s the last time you allowed time to pass without actively taking care of a problem? Meditation is a rare chance to not be distracted by something that’s begging for your attention.
2.2.8 Bringing attention back
During meditation, your mind will wander. Again, don’t judge yourself. Get back to your breathing. Get back to your sensations in your body. Get back to being aware of sounds and smells around you. When I started, my mind would wander probably 20 times during a 10-minute session. It’s okay. I had to learn to bring my attention back, and that’s why guided meditation is great for beginners.
There are many types of yoga, and to be honest, I don’t even know 10 percent of them. I have, however, practiced different yoga techniques and poses that helped me raise my body awareness. That, combined with other articles and outside research, allowed me to identify a few important ways yoga can raise your self-awareness.
But before we jump in, I just want to say that you don’t have to do incredible poses like the yoga master I trained under in India to get the benefits of Yoga:
Aim much lower. Don’t think about being able to do the above, think about the following things:
2.3.1 Performing body scans
With every pose, don’t focus on pain, instead perform a body scan. Start from head to toe and notice which muscles are more active and which ones are not.
2.3.2 Observe body feelings
After your body scan, acknowledge which parts are aching or tenser. This isn’t about judgment. If it hurts, divert your attention back to your breathing before coming back to this exercise.
2.3.3 Focusing on single body-parts
With the multiple parts you’ve identified above, focus on a single one. Identify exactly where the pressure is and try to figure out what’s causing it. Adjust if it’s something you can do. If it’s a new pose, you could be doing it wrong or your muscle is not yet elastic enough.
2.3.4 Dividing feelings
During yoga sessions, you might feel different emotions. At times you’ll ache. At times you’ll feel energized. You may feel extreme emotions like joy or anger. Different poses may trigger more than one emotion. Acknowledge them all.
2.3.5 Lettings thoughts go
Once you’ve acknowledged your emotions, let them go. Focus back on your body and breathing. Just like with meditation, acceptance is a powerful way to become more self-aware. Judgment has no place in self-awareness.
Here’s my favourite definition of “feedback”:
a return of information about a result.
Feedback comes in a variety of ways. In fact, feedback is omnipresent in your life. For every action you do, you get feedback in the form of a result. In school, you get a grade for doing tests. When you ask a question to someone, their answer is a form of feedback. When someone gives you a compliment or criticism, that’s feedback too!
While feedback is typically viewed as something you get from the outside, I’d argue getting feedback from yourself is just as valuable. In this article, I’ll cover both.
3.1 Self Feedback
This is a very important thing to do, yet almost no one does it. A self-review is about asking yourself three simple questions:
- What went right?
- What went wrong?
- How can I improve?
For a maximum increase in self-awareness, I recommend you do it at these intervals: daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly, and yearly.
For weekly reflection, I like to add the following:
- What goals or milestones have I accomplished, missed, and abandoned? And why?
- What got done towards my monthly goals?
- What should I push back to next week?
- What were my emotions throughout the week?
For monthly reflection, I like to add the following:
- What goals have I accomplished, missed, and abandoned? And why?
- What got done towards my quarterly goals?
- What didn’t get done that should have?
- What’s creating the biggest bottleneck?
- What are the top 5 priorities for next month?
For quarterly reflection, I like to add the following:
- What goals have I accomplished, missed, and abandoned? And why?
- What got done towards my yearly goals?
- What didn’t get done that should have?
- What’s creating the biggest bottleneck?
- What are the top 5 priorities for the next quarter?
For yearly reflection, I like to add the following (highlight your top 3 for each):
- What are the results I was expecting vs the results I had this year? (this can be big)
- What are my biggest successes?
- What are my biggest failed experiments?
- What would I have done differently in hindsight? (without judgment)
- What moments brought me the most joy?
- What moments were most impactful for someone else’s joy?
- Who and what am I most grateful for?
- Who did I spend the most time with?
- What are you looking for the most for next year?
Read Here’s Exactly How You Can Do Better in 2020 Than You Did in 2019 for more information on what to reflect on at the end of the year.
Except for the yearly review, this exercise doesn’t have to take much time.
I do my daily reviews in less than 5 minutes most of the time. My weekly reviews rarely take more than 10 minutes. Monthly and quarterly reviews usually take me about 15 minutes. The yearly review is different and takes me close to a full day.
3.1.2 Map of Life
Here’s what the Map of Life looks like:
It’s a version I adapted from the famous Wheel of Life:
The Map of Life is an exercise I do monthly, though there’s no golden rule. In fact, doing it quarterly is probably more realistic since you’ve got more time to change things around.
The idea of the Map of Life is to figure out where you stand in 8 pillars of your life you care about. I use the basic ones in the screenshots above, but you can swap for pillars that are more important to you.
To fill it out, go through each category and rate your satisfaction on a scale of 0–10, 0 meaning
totally dissatisfied and 10 meaning
complete satisfaction. From my experience helping people filling this out, both 0 and 10 are extremely rare (I’ve never seen it).
Another tip I can give you is to do it with someone who knows you well. We have a tendency to either be too hard on ourselves or overestimate our satisfaction. If you have a life coach, ask them to do the exercise with you.
When you’re done with your current situation, fill out the situation you’d want to be in and give it a deadline (I typically write down the last day of the month). Here are some pointers to set realistic expectations:
- Don’t expect to go up by a sum of more than 1 or 2 points in a given month.
- Feel free to borrow from other categories. For example, reduce your
Fun and recreationby 1 point to increase your
Family and friends.
- For each point you give yourself, note the action steps you’ll take to make it happen (see What/How to improve).
- For each “Current Situation”, be as clear as possible as to why you noted the score you noted.
For more information on the Map of Life, please read: Apply This Method Every Month to Raise Your Focus and Motivation.
3.2 Outside feedback
Outside feedback comes from anything within your environment. In this article, we’ll focus on feedback you can get from your peers, either orally or in writing.
To raise your self-awareness, you have to get better at actively seeking feedback from others. Giving positive or negative feedback doesn’t come naturally for most people, so you have to ask them. While positive feedback is nice, it’s the negative feedback you should strive to get. That’s where the real improvement is.
If you’re wondering when to ask feedback, the answer is simple: whenever you can. With any action you do that is seen by someone else, you can ask that person how they perceived the result of your actions.
Even though it’s hard to get direct feedback from someone, the environment is constantly giving you feedback. Be attentive to it and record it somewhere you can refer back to. A lot of times, we can’t immediately act on the feedback we get. If we don’t record it, we forget it.
Not recording feedback is the equivalent of saying that you don’t care about it.
It’s hard to listen to critical feedback about things you’ve done. A lot of people take that as an attack and go in “defensive mode”. Don’t. A good way to not react negatively is to do what we just talked about: record it. You’ll have time to judge/analyze it at a later time.
A lot of times, when you had time to reflect on something, you realize it wasn’t as negative as it seemed at first. Or rather, it wasn’t meant to be an attack on your self.
Only judge or analyze received feedback after you’ve recorded it and are receptive to thinking objectively about it. If it takes days, that’s fine. It’s better to judge it at that moment rather than when you’re too emotional since that can cloud your judgment.
In this step, what you want to do is re-word and understand what the other person was saying. Not everyone is good at communicating constructive feedback, so it’s your job to get the real meaning. Ask more questions as needed.
Now that you understand the true meaning of the feedback, what are you going to do about it? Not all feedback is created equal. The more feedback you collect on a topic, the closer you get to the real “global” perspective. If everyone tells you that you’re sluggish, well, you’re likely sluggish. If one person tells you, maybe that person just has incredibly high expectations.
Also, if my brother doesn’t like pizza and tells me my pizza sucks, it doesn’t have the same impact as Gordon Ramsay telling me the same. The credibility of the person on the topic is very important.
3.2.6 Taking action
It’s okay to do nothing about the feedback you get. Ultimately, it’s always your call. But do act on the feedback you deem trustworthy.
And if you can’t take immediate action, give yourself a deadline as to when you can accomplish it. Add it to your calendar.
It’s not by accident that experts agree on the importance of self-awareness, especially in this decade. We’ve been educated to study to get a job. Our purpose, given by the education system, has always been very clear: find a job.
I find that (1) very boring and (2) not adequate for the 21st century.
As mentioned in the intro, we have to take action faster than ever with no time to think about the consequences of our actions. Only a truly self-aware person can make quick and informed decisions that yield a positive impact in their life and that of others.
So, take action on the exercises in this article. They have drastically changed my life and they can do the same for you. You can become the person you want to be. The only thing preventing you is your failed idea of your self. You are more than you think you are, you just need to be aware of it.
You can do this!
For more inspiration, check out dannyforest.com.
Appendix A. Full List of Sub-Skills
*Created using an Alpha version of Ember.ly.