When faced with a challenge, where do you find the insight to move your life forward? Last year, over fifteen million books were sold in the self-help genre.1 That doesn’t account for the videos, courses, and workshops that fuel this multibillion-dollar industry. Include business and diet books, and that number balloons to over $1.7 billion spent on advice-seeking books.2 But there’s a secret the gurus don’t want you to know—many of the answers to life’s most important questions can be found inside of you, for free. It's called introspection.
Take my friend, who we’ll call Bill. Bill felt he was stuck in the movie Groundhog Day, only it didn’t feel funny to him. As we sat drinking coffee, he confessed his problem. “Every day is the same. I get up early. I feed and let out the dogs. I cook breakfast for the family. I pack lunches. Then I shower, dress, go to work. I spend way too much time in the car commuting to clients, and I’m on the phone. It kills my back. I rush home, in traffic, to make dinner. I spend too little time with my young son. At night I sit up late in bed with my laptop trying to get a little more work done. Then I get up and do it all over again.”
Have you ever found yourself feeling this way? Many people feel stuck from time to time, going through the motions of a life they know could be better.
Unbeknownst to Bill, he had already taken the first step to changing his life for the better—he had identified the problem. Bill recognized he felt like a hamster spinning on a wheel. By articulating the feeling, he could do something about it. His self awareness was the first step in seeing himself not just as a character in the movie of his life, but as the director.
Why Self Awareness is Important
According to researchers, knowing yourself better results in “stronger relationships, a clearer sense of purpose, and greater well-being, self-acceptance, and happiness.”3 These benefits can help you in almost every area of life. They’ll make you a better manager, employee, colleague, parent, spouse, and friend.
How do you look within for the answers to your most vexing challenges? This guide is for people who want to practice self awareness and introspection, but don’t have a lot of time. Over this 7-minute read, you’ll find sections on:
What is Self Awareness?
The American Psychological Association defines self awareness as “self-focused attention or knowledge.”4 It means paying attention to yourself. It’s knowing what’s going on in your life. It’s knowing whether you’re happy with what’s happening in your world. (That’s what Bill started with—knowledge that his life wasn’t living up to his expectations.) What are your aspirations for your career, your family, and your life?
Going deeper, self awareness means understanding your personality. You also understand your values, your relationships, and your beliefs. Self awareness includes understanding how you process your experiences. Do you like to reflect on what happens each day or do you avoid thinking about your feelings?
Gaining greater self awareness is a long-term process, not an overnight achievement. You do it over time by creating a routine of self-reflection and introspection. It’s something you’ll do for the rest of your life.
In the next sections, we’ll dive into how use introspection to reveal life-changing insights. Before we do, if you find yourself enjoying this guide, you’ll likely enjoy my other writing. I frequently share new research on the science of behavioral design through my free email newsletter.
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The Benefits of Self Awareness and Introspection
You want a life change that will last. A regular practice of self reflection and introspection can help you take the right actions today to achieve your goals in the future.
The goal of self awareness is actionable insight you can use to change your life for the better. But how do you access those insights? Self awareness involves three elements to get you where you want to go:
- Introspection is “the process of attempting to directly access one’s own internal psychological processes, judgments, perceptions, or states.”5
- Self reflection involves the “examination, contemplation, and analysis of one’s thoughts, feelings, and actions.”6
- Insight is “the clear and often sudden discernment of a solution to a problem.”7 It’s the result of self reflection and introspection.
In addition to leading to insights for what to do, self awareness also makes it more likely you’ll do as you say. Self awareness increases your ability to exercise control over your emotions by reducing stress and anxiety8and providing a greater sense of well being.9
Through self awareness, you become less likely to veer off track when difficult emotions surface. Instead of doing something you later regret, you’ll be better equipped to ride out emotional troughs.
An Introspection Method: Do’s and Don’ts
Don't ObsessSo you just need to think about yourself all the time, right? Nope. That won’t automatically lead to deeper knowledge.10 In fact, if you aren’t careful about how you reflect on your life, you might end up unhappier than when you began. Studies show people who spend more time in introspection “tend to have more anxiety, less positive social experiences, and more negative attitudes about themselves.”11 Why is that? They’re doing it wrong.
Don't Ask the Wrong Questions
When we engage in introspection, we too often start by asking why questions. It might be as simple as, “Why do I feel this way?” We search for the reasons underlying our discontent. On the surface, it makes sense, but it can lead to misery.That’s because when we ask why, our brain points toward the most obvious answer. We usually land on the one that confirms our pre-existing beliefs. That’s because most of our motives are beyond our conscious awareness. It takes more than ruminating to bring root causes to the surface. We tend to turn to answers that feel true in the moment. Unfortunately, these easy answers are frequently dead wrong.12
For example, if you lose your temper at a coworker, you might think, “I just can’t work with her. She really rubs me the wrong way.” But the real reason you snapped might be that you’re anxious about an upcoming performance review.
That’s why asking why questions is the wrong kind of self reflection. It can lead you to see relationships between two things that do not exist or to overestimate the degree to which two things are related to each other. This is a cognitive bias called illusory correlation.13
Here’s another example: let’s say you submit a proposal at work. One of the members of the evaluation committee sat on the previous committee that judged one of your ideas, and he rejected it. All of a sudden, you are sure your current proposal will fail. Why? Because you believe that person had something to do with your recent defeat, even though you don’t have any evidence to back this up. This kind of thinking only serves to damage your perception of fairness at work.
Why questions can cause you to obsess over your problems. They lead to greater anxiety and symptoms of depression.14
Ask the Right Self Reflection Question
Instead of asking why questions, you need to ask questions that will help you focus on solutions or goals. That’s why you should try asking what questions.15 Ask questions like, “What am I feeling right now?” rather than, “Why do I feel so terrible?” This kind of thinking can help you to name your emotions, which has been shown to reduce negative feelings and attitudes.16
Also, avoid asking yourself a problem-centered question. Don’t ask, “What difficulty am I facing right now?” Instead, frame the question around a goal, as in, “What would I like my relationship with my boss to look like a month from now?” Coaches and counselors are learning that solution-focused questions make their clients feel good, whereas problem-focused questions make their clients feel less satisfied.17
If you have a persistent problem on your mind, ask yourself questions that shift your focus to its possible solution. These could be as straightforward as, “What is one possible solution to this problem?” and then, “What is one way I could start to move toward creating this solution?”18
Using solution-focused questions has two benefits:
- It reveals potential answers to the problems
- It increases your confidence in your ability to solve future dilemmas.
A feeling of agency and control affects your feeling of confidence, improves your self-worth,19 and increases the odds you’ll follow-through on your intentions.
Why is Self Awareness So Hard?
In many ways buying a self-help book or looking for inspiration from a guru can give us the quick feeling that we’re doing something about our problems. However, self awareness requires finding time to answer our problems for ourselves and by ourselves.
Although there are numerous benefits to cultivating self awareness, the practice does take time. Thankfully, that time is free and available to us if we plan ahead.
Instead of jumping to easy solutions, make time to sit down and think. Schedule at least 15 minutes for reflection into your daily—or at least weekly—routine. Consider making time for reflection your first activity of the day. Put your phone away, wait to turn on your computer, put a “do not disturb” sign on your monitor, and give yourself that quarter of an hour to think.
You may have to get creative with how you organize your day so you can find uninterrupted time. Maybe it’s during a short lunchtime walk, your ride on the bus, or the minutes when your kids are napping or doing their homework. For me, writing what’s on my mind before I start my workday is an excellent way to find answers I never knew I had in me.
Clearly, the answers to all your problems can’t always be found within you. There is certainly an appropriate time for research. However, making time to think and reflect can help you whittle down the few questions where you need more information rather than ruminating (or even worse, Googling) endlessly.
After our coffee, I advised Bill to sit down with his thoughts, alone. I told him to take out a sheet of paper and start writing down what he was feeling. I told him to do so without letting his mind wander into negativity and blame. I told him to first reflect on what he was feeling without judgment so that he could understand what was really going on.
After a few weeks, I heard back from Bill. He told me the introspection exercise revealed important truths he hadn’t considered before. He actually loved his job, and he truly enjoyed working with his clients. He also loved doing little things his family could depend on, like always making their breakfast and packing their lunches.
However, there were also things he disliked about his job, like having to endure the daily rubbernecking on the interstate highway. But when Bill started to reflect on what he was feeling, he began to realize that he could separate aspects of how he felt about his work. Hating the traffic didn’t mean he wasn’t cut out for the job, it just meant he needed to find a better solution.
His insights came when he gave himself permission to reflect, let his mind wander, and come up with creative new solutions.
Today, Bill drives to work, where he leaves his car in the company lot. He then orders a ride-hailing service from his phone to take him to his client meetings. While seated comfortably in the back of the car, Bill responds to emails he previously answered late into the night. This frees his evenings to be with his family. Bill even convinced his company to pay for the car service, justifying it by his increased productivity during the day.
Had Bill gone fishing for answers to his problem outside himself, he may have never discovered this unique solution. Only by getting into the routine of self reflection and making time in your day to think for yourself can you come up with solutions just waiting to be discovered inside yourself.
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