Natural talent, passion, determination, intelligence, charisma, experience–they’re all important traits when developing your leadership. But there’s one critical component that’s rarely discussed and absolutely critical to unlocking the best in yourself and others: self-awareness.
Self-awareness helps us discover our talents. It points us in a direction for growth, encourages us to learn, and aids us in assessing difficult situations. Tapping into it doesn’t just make you a better leader–it’s what makes you a better friend, a better leader, a better student, a better everything.
Self-awareness is important because it is the path to your highest potential.
That might sound abstract and lofty, but stick with me – it’s actually quite practical and the payoff is worth it.
Lacking self-awareness costs you
At times in my life, I have let my stress run rampant. It would keep me up at night, I would lose perspective, and I would even became physically ill. How can I be everything I need to be when I’m lost, running down rabbit trails and not even sure what the right direction is? How could I start having fun again?
Eventually I realized that when my stress was getting out of control, it was usually because my brain was looking externally instead of internally for direction. I let outside forces determine my fate instead of anchoring myself and observing. Something had to be done.
How often are you letting external factors drive your behavior? How are you in charge of what’s motivating you?
In this post, I will show you the steps I’m taking to re-balance myself, have a calmer mind, be more confident, regain focus, and feel healthier all around.
Self-awareness isn’t developed simply by reading a book or a blog post – you’ll need to be an active participant for it to work. The great news is that you already have access to everything you need. Let’s get started!
What is self-awareness?
Self-awareness is the process of understanding your own character, feelings, motives, and desires. It’s an essential step in early self-development as well as a core philosophy woven into the founding of America. It is about individualism, and a critical step in defining who we are.
All this focus on the self might sound a bit, well, selfish. Fear not: as you develop an internal awareness, you’ll naturally become more open and helpful to the people around you. You’ll be less stressed and more receptive of feedback. Guiding your team through a challenging situation will become something you’re in control of, rather than feeling like you’re treading over landmines.
Self-awareness will help you relate to others without compromising your core principles.
Think about self-awareness like this: you know how you feel when you’re anxious to get to your next meeting but you’re stuck in a conversation with someone else — your mind becomes focused on the door instead of how to tactfully wrapping things up with your colleague. Being aware of this anxiety and redirecting your attention from your next conversation to the one right in front of you will build respect and trust.
The more you know of yourself, the more you will know of others.
Desire self-improvement; settle into change
You can’t become self-aware if you’re not actively interested in improving yourself and your leadership skills. It takes prolonged focus, and that can’t happen unless you’re constantly checking in and re-focusing your efforts.
This in itself is self-awareness AND the first seed to developing it. To desire self-improvement opens the door to possibilities, new experiences, and a world of personal growth that would otherwise be inaccessible.
But wanting to be better is only half of the equation; being open to change is also essential. Change puts us in an uncomfortable place when our most primal instincts crave comfort. Being in the thick of change can even make our lizard brains feel as though we’re in mortal danger when we aren’t at all, which is why change makes so many of us so stressed.
Think about when you recommit to an exercise routine after a distracting holiday season. You start off excited, ready to take on the world. The first run feels novel and invigorating. Then the consecutive sessions in the coming weeks begin feeling less novel. You are always sore. You are tired and can’t muster the energy to get outside on a cold evening at the end of a stressful day.
Here, you are in the midst of change. Here, you have a choice: do you sacrifice your routine for the sake of keeping the status quo, or do you reach deep down for the exercise’s core purpose? Moving past the physical and mental discomfort becomes easier as you hone your self-awareness and can have a conversation with yourself, weighing the emotional and the rational.
Lasting improvement happens when we have the will to change a habit and the self-awareness to hold ourselves accountable.
Identify personal habits that are preventing progress
We all have them, often without recognizing them: personal habits that get in the way of our ability to be mindful and aware. Bad habits are a script you’ve unintentionally programmed into your brain over time; processes that run in the background and drain your energy or distract you from what’s most important in that moment.
Self-improvement depends on rewiring your brain for good habits, and that depends on honing your self-awareness (since you can’t know what’s working and what’s not if you aren’t paying attention).
Let’s start simple: define bad habits and catch them in the moment. You don’t even need to change what you’re doing at first — just being able to notice and catch it will get you on the road to honing your self-awareness and your leadership.
Define bad habits.
Putting a name to bad habits is like placing warning signs along a highway: you’ll know there’s a dip in the road before you hit it going 60 miles per hour. You’ll give yourself time to assess the situation and slow down. Being able to recognize habits in advance gives you power over your destiny.
So you love eating cookies when you get stressed. Or maybe you flip over to Facebook instead of responding to difficult emails. Maybe you just like to stay up until midnight playing Candy Crush and then have a hard time falling asleep.
List out all of your bad habits (the behaviors that are holding you back) along with when they usually happen and why they’re happening. These will be your markers along the road. You’ll catch yourself more and more often as you’re walking into the habits.
Think too about why each bad habit is, well, so bad. What does procrastinating cause? What problems do you have when you don’t sleep well at night? When you know what bad results you want to avoid, it’s easier to identify and quit the bad habits that cause those bad results.
Know what your first step will be when you bump into the habit.
You have a choice when you find yourself knee-deep in a bad habit: you can keep wading through the muck or you can do something different. Changing direction can often feel like moving a mountain, but in fact, the smallest of actions can make a difference.
When I feel myself wanting to visit Facebook in the middle of a busy day, I tell myself to look at the top of my to-do list. Then open the relevant document. That’s it. It helps change the script in my head by taking the smallest of steps.
This is just the beginning, but it’s a great place to start in light of self-awareness. (I’ve written more on psychology and changing habits here.)
Locate mental blind spots
Once when I was driving, I checked my mirrors in preparation to switch lanes. No cars in sight. I even turned my head slightly and didn’t see any cars to my side. Then I made the switch and nearly jumped out of my seat when an “invisible” car laid on the horn – I barely missed their bumper by inches.
Like me, you have probably experienced a shocking moment from a blind spot – something just out of your periphery that might as well not be there at all.
And now you can bet I’m far more thorough in checking that blind spot ever since: knowing where that blank area is so that my eyes can find it and register the information. A key to self-awareness is knowing where to look for a red flag, whether that red flag is a speeding vehicle or a quiet mental weakness that stymies growth.
Organizational blind spots are a mental challenge you might experience as a leader. They prevent you from selling your great idea because you’re missing a critical component, but don’t even notice it’s missing. They prevent you from giving a team member what they need. And when you find that organizational blind spot, you know where to look for them in the future.
Once you’re aware of that blind spot, you can begin to develop more awareness in upcoming situations. The good news is that once you’re aware of it, you can get ahead of your blind spot before it takes you by surprise – just like a muscle, the more you exercise your blind spot-locating abilities, the further ahead of it you’ll become.
Start with the goal and work backward to identify what’s tripping you up.
The trouble with receiving (most) advice is that it’s not tailored to your unique situation – no one knows you better than you. Even still, you can be lost in the forest of your mind. It just requires a little deductive skills to work back to the root cause. Know what you want, or recognize what your body wants. Then look to your daily activity – some activity isn’t immediately apparent that it’s causing stress. These are the quiet blind spots you are looking for.
Here’s one example that I have come across frequently, both in myself and in my fellow tech friends. For a time I carried stress and tension in my time away from the computer. I wanted my peace of mind back. What am I doing with most of my time? Working from the computer. Sure, my work was enjoyable and relatively low stress in itself. (I have ultimate freedom of creating content for industries I love. Seriously.) Come to think of it, I feel exhausted and tense after working at my computer all day. Not even ‘satisfied’ exhausted – just drained.
Setting a reminder to check in when I might be elsewhere.
When I’m at work, I set a timer that would remind me to briefly break from my mental work and check on my physical body. What is my body doing? Often I would notice that my breathing is shallow and irregular, my eyes would feel sticky, and although I started the day with a nice posture, I would devolve to hunching over my keyboard. And what’s with that tense spot between my shoulders?
Strengthen your blind spot muscle with trial and error.
Who knows if what’s causing my problems—I won’t know until I walk through trial and error. I listed out all of the physical symptoms as I discovered them in a left column, and listed potential solutions on the right column. Breathing: deep breathing for two minutes when I catch a held breath. Eyes: drops, gaze at a distant point every 90 minutes. Shoulders: stretching exercises every 90 minutes, lower shoulders when I notice tension.
This might seem like a lot to remember, but I was able to easily package them all into a routine every 90 minutes. I’m beginning to feel my brain relax and my productivity increase, leading to a more peaceful mind that is open to bursts of creativity.
Let someone (or something) track your behavior.
I won’t sugar-coat it: tracking yourself in a hectic day or when you’re wrapped up in emotion can be really difficult. Instead of trying to force 24-hour self-awareness and trying to monitor your behavior all day long while also doing your job, establish systems that can passively monitor what you’re doing with your time to help provide data that you can reflect on when you’re back in your rational mind.
An unproductive work day can make you carry concerns like a heavy backpack on a steep mountain hike. I use Rescuetime to monitor how I spend time at my computer and report back to me at the end of the week. If I’m feeling particularly unproductive, I can see which sites are sucking my attention–and I can even block myself from those sites for a preset time if I’m feeling weak-willed. I’ve made a game of it to see if I can top previous weeks’ productivity scores.
If your concerns are focused on physical health, try using a fitness monitor to gather data. Just how active are you on any given day? How well are you sleeping? A pedometer is a great basic tool. If you’re a data junkie, try a Jawbone UP or a FitBit to report a variety of information. For sleep hygiene, I use an app called Sleep Cycle that reports my average time in bed, when I sleep best/worst, the optimal time for me to wake up, and more. (Worth mentioning: none of these technologies track your caloric import/export–yet. Apple is rumored to be offering metabolic measurement with their iWatch.)
A trusted friend, family member, or accountability partner can also help catch what the digital can’t. When you find the right person it’s like a magic mirror that tells you what you’re doing in that moment – and you might not even realize it. Be careful with this one – find an ally you trust, see regularly, and have a good rapport with; they will (hopefully) be honest with you about your behavior, and you have to be willing to accept their feedback.
For example, when I’ve been snacking too much, I ask my husband to gently let me know when he sees me walking around with a bag of potato chips. It is an opportunity to ask myself, “Why am I walking around with a bag of chips when I am trying to avoid this behavior?” It pulls me out of my emotional brain and into my rational brain in that moment, but sometimes it takes a few seconds. Be sure to apologize to your advocate if you get short with them. :)
I don’t catch my blind spots all the time, and that’s okay. What’s more important is that I’m proactively recognizing my blind spots and creating the habit of “checking in” no matter where I am – a habit of developing keen self-awareness and locating that blind spot at any time.
Develop your meta observational skills
A big win for me was learning to observe my physical body at my most mentally concentrated moments throughout the day. It helps when you have an external reminder, like a timer, to tell you when it’s time to check in and observe yourself. But the moments that are most critical to “checking in” are often the most stressful and emotionally driven, and in those times, the last thing your brain wants to do is be rational.
Welcome to the most important tool in your self-awareness toolbox: meta observation, the ability to recognize when to observe yourself.
You look in the mirror every morning before you walk out the door, checking how you appear to others. It sets your confidence to know what you look like to colleagues in the office as you prepare to lead a meeting.
How about the internal? Develop the ability to hold a mirror to your internal self in even the most intense situations and unlock the most critical piece to self-improvement.
Journal when your mind is reflective.
How can you assess your appearance in the mirror if the mirror doesn’t reflect back?
Every morning I engage in what author Julia Cameron famously dubs “the morning pages”: three pages of unscripted, stream-of-consciousness writing. Yes, hand-written on physical paper. Handwriting slows down your recording of thoughts, which gives your brain room to relax on ideas instead of flying through a word processor in a frenzy.
Write down whatever is on your mind. Purge frustrations onto the page, ideas that are nagging at you, or a happy moment you experienced this week that you just can’t get your mind off of. It’s OK – no one will see these pages but you. The idea isn’t just to write for writing’s sake, but to clear your mind for the day ahead.
As I write I’ll notice themes popping up and thoughts that give my gut a visceral reaction. Often these will be about occurrences that are bothering me, situations I’ve experienced recently that led my emotional brain instead of rational brain. Things that I was unable to close the loop on.
I train my brain to see where those moments are. I imagine how I was feeling and mentally earmark that emotion in that setting. I’ll even picture it in my mind as if I’m reliving it and acting out what I would’ve done if I had been more rational.
Now I can catch those moments in real time. Conflicts with a friend don’t end in a fight, but instead I can stop myself in a moment where I can calmly step away. Office disagreements don’t send me into an unproductive back-and-forth, but a moment I can put a wedge in the flywheel and guide the conversation–or at least step away for a moment.
I can feel when my emotional brain starts walking (or running) down a path and now, thanks to more closely monitoring my emotions and my reactions, I can separate myself from the situation, observing it like reading ahead in a book and making a rational decision for my next step.
Life is full of patterns; train your mind to find them, practice navigating them, and you will be in the right mindset to reach your goals.
Exercises to connect mind and body
What if I told you that the way you move your body can change your brain? Simple exercises can calm our minds, quiet our thoughts, relax our bodies, and make us more in control of our awareness and ourselves.
Everyone has different chemistry and body compositions – select which exercises work best for you. (And disclaimer: I’m not a health professional. These are just what have worked for me.)
Go for a walk
A brisk 20-minute walk can often settle the storm swirling in your head. Even ten minutes in a busy day is better than nothing. Block the time off on your calendar and treat it like an important meeting with yourself. Stepping away from the steady stream of work and getting in a new environment clears your mind and gives you perspective.
Remember: a brisk walk (without breaking a sweat) is more effective for your energy than a lethargic one. Challenge yourself to breathe deeply and steadily as you walk – in through your nose, out through your mouth.
Movement that requires thought
Any exercise is better than no exercise. However, exercise that requires you to be mentally present helps hone your self-awareness while burning calories.
Some examples of mind-body exercise are:
- Competitive team sports – requires analytical thinking on-the-go
- Yoga – an emphasis on mind-body connection
- Martial arts – purposeful movement, no wasted energy
- Dancing – spatial awareness, connecting body to rhythm
- Weapons training – the weapon will tell you when you’re not present
A moving meditation that helps circulate your breath and energy. Eastern philosophies have said that it helps recenter, awaken your mind, and achieve your higher potential. (At the very least, it will help you feel more relaxed.)
There are a variety of Qigong exercises – although seemingly simple, they actually require a considerable amount of focus. Ten minutes of Qigong in the middle of my workday relaxes both my mind and body.
Invest time in yourself
Self-awareness is a critical component to honing your leadership skills. It requires time, patience, and personal reflection – but the payoff is a calmer mind, unwavering focus, improved empathy, and balanced guidance.
There’s a lot of information here, but it can be summarized in six steps:
- Want to know yourself
- Be open to change
- Define bad habits and how you will address them
- Become aware of mental blind spots
- Learn how to observe yourself
- Exercise to connect your mind and body
Some techniques will work for you, and you’ll even discover your own methods of developing self-awareness. Take small steps every day and understand every hiccup is a chance to improve next time. None of us are perfect–but don’t let that stop you from striving for perfect balance that leads to exceptional leadership.
She helps software and digital gaming companies get seen and grow their audience. Lauren is powered by martial arts, tea, video games, and cosplay.
Follow her on Twitter @hallstigerts.