When asked by Larry King what skill people should most focus on to be successful, serial entrepreneur Gary Vaynerchuk replied without hesitation — “Self-awareness.”
Yet, when Larry dug in for ways people can better develop or teach this skill, Gary again replied quickly — “I don’t know. But I know it’s important.”
At first, I was taken aback. If Gary thought honing this skill was such a crucial ingredient for success, how come he couldn’t provide any practical tips for improvement?
After taking a moment to think about Gary’s response, however, his answer made perfect sense: Gary didn’t have any advice to share because it wasn’t a skill he had to personally work hard to improve.
In an attempt to better answer Larry’s question — as someone who isn’t naturally as self-aware as Gary — I’ve sought out expert advice from people who have devoted their careers to helping others strengthen this skill.
This act alone, of reaching out to psychologists, entrepreneurs, and coaches to learn more about their best practices has been worth its weight in silver. What turned it to gold, however, was putting their advice into practice.
Out of all the recommendations I’ve been given — when it comes to both better understanding ourselves and how other people truly see us — the 6 exercises below have proven to be the most insightful.
1. Keep a “Love / Hate” list
Big questions like “Who am I?” or “What do I want to do with my life?” can feel overwhelming and paralyze people from beginning to better explore themselves.
To combat this, serial entrepreneur and owner of a massively successful Youtube channel on all things leadership, Conor Neill, recommends kicking off your self-awareness journey with an easy win by keeping a daily “Love / Hate” list.
At the end of your day, grab a piece of paper and draw a line straight down the middle. At the top of the column on the left, write the word “Love,” and at the top of the other column, write the word “Hate.” Then write down anything or anyone who added value to your day and anything or anyone who didn’t.
For this exercise, no detail is too small. According to Conor, however, you’re best served by paying more attention to the activities and people who steal your energy and working to remove them from your environment than focusing on adding more things you enjoy into your day.
After all, if you’re flying a hot air balloon you’re better off dropping the weight that is holding you down than adding more heat.
When it comes to raising our self-awareness, the name of the game is pattern recognition.
If done consistently, this exercise can help tremendously to bring these patterns to light while providing you with an easy exercise to begin to strengthen your self-awareness muscle.
2. Draw a timeline of your life
Give Nick’s exercise a shot for yourself. Sit down with a piece of paper and start from the day you were born and identify any of the major events that have had an impact (big or small/positive or negative) on your life up until now.
Write out your professional accomplishments like graduating from high school or college, starting a new job, moving to a new city, or when you either reached a big goal or fell short. Also include your meaningful personal events (both good and bad) like your first romantic relationship, the time you experienced a loss, or went through a stressful time.
Though skeptical at first regarding the effectiveness of this exercise, Nick’s clients consistently report back to him how much insight they received from taking the time to do it.
This 20-minute exercise will allow you to gain new perspectives regarding specific events in your life while being able to see certain periods of your life “in context” — which according to Nick is a monster trait of those who are truly self-aware.
3. Start a focused daily journaling practice
According to Liz Huber, the founder of The Confident Coach Club, journaling is one of the most powerful tools to gain self-insight, learn from your past, and reprogram your brain for a brighter future.
Although journaling in whatever form is helpful to increase self-awareness, Liz recommends finding structured or guided journaling to be the most effective. Below are a handful of questions Liz suggests spending some time to reflect on.
- What are the 3 things that are most important in my life right now? Why are these things important to me? Am I spending my time and energy in line with these priorities?
- What am I excited about today? (According to Liz, if you leave this question blank for a few days or weeks in a row, you urgently need to change something in your life).
- “How do I feel?” or “What is really going on?” and “Why am I feeling this way?” These questions can be very helpful in triggering insightful journaling sessions to gain clarity when you feel off and don’t know why.
When answering these questions — write fast and write often. According to Liz, you’ll never become more self-aware if you aren’t brutally honest with yourself, and getting your thoughts quickly down onto paper will help you to better trust your gut.
4. Be proactive in asking for specific feedback
To become more self-aware, reserving time for self-reflection is a must. However, it’s only part of the equation. We must also take the time to learn how others truly see us.
To ensure the feedback you receive is insightful, in addition to telling people your goal is to grow and to give it to you straight, Marta Brzosko, the founder of “The Self-Awareness Blog,” shared with me a few best practices:
- Exchange vague questions like, “What are my strengths?” for specific ones like, “Based on my last presentation, are there any improvements I could make to become a stronger public speaker?” This simple switch will open the door to have an honest conversation about your shortcomings.
- Catch people off guard when you ask for feedback. Asking someone “What could I have done better?” directly after doing something has the potential to net more honest results than planning a feedback session at a later date.
- Steal a line from author Dr. Tasha Eurich, the author of “Insight,” and focus on asking “What” based questions instead of “Why” based questions. Questions like, “What do you think I could do to improve my public speaking abilities?” will net more productive critiques than asking a variation of “Why didn’t you like my talk?”
Asking for feedback may not be comfortable. You’ll never make the impact you are capable of making, however, without having a clear understanding of how the people around you truly see you.
5. Proactively schedule a daily “Worry Break”
Performance coach and human behavior professor Melody Wilding, LMSW, cites that one of the best ways to raise your self-awareness is by proactively learning how to properly deal with your worries and stressors.
To combat this common problem that can often lead to negative self-talk and overthinking, Melody recommends carving out 10 to 15 minutes a day for a “Worry Break.”
If this is your first time hearing about this strategy, put simply, a “Worry Break” entails finding a quiet place to sit with your worries and capturing them on paper.
To maximize this exercise, Melody suggests dividing your worries into 2 categories:
- Things you can control
- Things you can’t control
In addition to helping you to keep organized and giving you a better idea of where you should be spending your time. Scheduling a “Worry Break” will help you to put irrational thinking in its place. According to Melody, by doing this, you’re able to gain distance from your thoughts and reappraise them if needed, rather than buying into them as facts which can do wonders for your self-awareness.
We all have our worries. There is much to be gained, however, by developing the skill of worrying on purpose so you can free up more headspace to focus on what truly matters to you.
6. Listen to “Birdsong” or have a “Tea Ceremony”
When it comes to building our self-awareness, many experts recommend developing a consistent mindfulness meditation practice.
According to ex-investment banker turned mindfulness coach, Justin Caffrey, this is for a good reason. After losing his 11-month-year-old son, Joshua, honing a daily meditation practice allowed him to gain the clarity and healing to come to peace with this traumatic experience in order to live life in its rightful place: the present moment.
Meditation can be a daunting prospect for first-timers or return offenders. The way ‘teachers’ deliver their instructions in an overly complex way doesn’t help.
To get started, Justin recommends starting small by giving either of the two exercises a shot for just 7 days to see how you feel.
1. Listen to Birdsong
According to scientists at the University of Surrey, simply listening to birds sign can help you recover from stress while allowing you to restore and refocus your attention. This may sound silly or even fluffy. But for thousands of years, the bird song let people know they were safe, and if they ever stopped tweeting it was a sign that danger was lurking.
Take 5 minutes a day and sit with your feet flat on your ground and your hands gently resting on your knees and listen to the sounds of the birds either using electronic sounds or the real thing.
If your mind begins to wander, don’t sweat it, and simply refocus back on the sounds the birds are making.
2. Tea Ceremony
The act of simply sitting in silence, while sharing some tea with a friend for 10 minutes is a mindful and stoic practice that dates back thousands of years
This practice will help you to slow down while allowing yourself to just be while in the comfort of a trusted friend.
Again, while drinking the tea, if your mind begins to wander, don’t beat yourself up and just refocus on the flavor of the tea or your own body and breath.
On a personal note, as someone who has suffered from over-thinking and anxiety the majority of their life, Justin has been coaching me and I can’t recommend enough getting to know his work — his soft approach to helping us better deal with life’s hardest challenges is tops.
So there you have it — 6 exercises from 6 experts to better raise your self-awareness. Some of these exercises may hurt. But that’s a good thing. It means you’re growing.
Never stop tinkering with ways to better discover yourself.
You’re worth getting to know.
As are the kind people who took the time to speak with me above.