The most effective self-awareness exercise I know

August 18, 2011 by Joshua
in Awareness, Blog, Freedom

Know thyself.

Every system of improving your life has some concept of increasing your self-awareness. But what is self-awareness? People with low self-awareness, who could benefit from it most, tend to understand it least. The self self-awareness is aware of refers to something different than, say, knowing you have ten fingers and breathe air.

Experience increases self-awareness best. I wrote below the most effective exercise I know of to increase your self-awareness. I often assign this exercise to my clients, usually as the first. This exercise increases your awareness of how your mind works, in particular a part of it that influences your perception of your environment and how you react to it every moment of every day.

Mental chatter (or self-talk, internal monologue, or voice of judgment, among other names)

Your mental chatter is the voice in your head that runs nearly every waking moment. It runs on and on. It communicates in English. A different part of your mind observes it. It often takes cues from your environment but can jump on its own to whatever topic. It often evaluates and judges.

Comparing mental chatter with how people answer “What are you thinking?” helps illuminate it. You might say “I’m thinking about what to eat,” but your mental chatter goes more like

I’m hungry… I wonder what I’ll eat… is it 12:30 yet?… oh no it’s only noon, it’s too early to eat now… but I’m hungry… man, I’ve been eating too much lately… if I make it another half hour I’ll be good… I’m so bad at controlling my diet… I better work out after work today… that’ll be good, I’ll work out… then I can eat early… what time is it now?…

… it goes on and on. The first thirty seconds of this preview to the movie Adaptation illustrates a character’s mental chatter.

Like breathing, you can consciously control mental chatter but if you don’t it will run on its own. Learning to control and manage your mental chatter is one of the most fundamental elements to improving your life. And awareness of your mental chatter is the foundation to managing it. Amazingly, people tend not to notice their mental chatter despite its presence nearly every waking moment of their lives, like a fish in water.

The exercise

  1. Carry a notebook or a few sheets of paper for a week or two
  2. A few times each day write your exact thoughts — not the general
  3. Note the following
    1. What prompts each instance
    2. What emotions relate to it
    3. How the instances relate to each other, what categories they fit in

Each time you write will probably take a few minutes. The whole exercise will take about an hour over a week or two.

At first writing your thoughts will feel like drinking from a fire hose. You can’t write fast enough to keep up with your thoughts. Writing changes your thoughts, so you have to figure out how to write what you were thinking. Part of the reason to do the exercise over a week is to get past initial distractions to observe your mind at work.

To get more out of the exercise, write up what you’ve observed when you finish, especially trends in what you noted in step 3. To get yet more, do it with others and compare results.

EDIT: I created another self-talk exercise that builds on this one, helps build self-awareness, and gives a great social skill too —

EDIT 2: I put examples of self-talk here and here.

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24 responses on “The most effective self-awareness exercise I know

  1. Interesting! Several friends of mine utilize transcendental meditation to focus the mind away from mental chatter. I have only heard good things about TM and SGI.

  2. I am very glad that Josh suggested this exercise to me. I think this is a very worthwhile exercise for people to do. After completing it I noticed the following changes:

    -There was a clear increase in the quality of my meditation.
    -I was surprised by how much my mind entertained negative thoughts even when I was feeling good.
    -I was also surprised that I was a lot more present and had less thoughts running through my head while interacting with others than when I was by myself.
    -I noticed certain activities that completely drew me in and caused me to be more present such as reading. I also noticed the reverse that other activities such as watching ted talks caused me to be a lot more in my own head and for me to not even realize.
    -As the week progressed I became more present.

    The main takeaway that I plan to use to improve myself is to try and re-frame the way I talk to myself and to become more calm in relation to all the different possible outcomes in particular the ones that involve other people and the ones that I do not have control over instead focusing just on what is with in my sphere of influence.

    If you are reading this now, stop thinking and go start this exercise, it is amazing.

  3. Interesting. This is a good practice for me to improve my self-awareness. I don’t realize about the mental chatter until i read this. Almost my whole waking time, I’d mental chatter. it’s like somebody talk to me from inside. I can try this exercise to improve my self.

    • As you know, I consider it the most effective self-awareness exercise I know. If you do it, please let me know how it goes.

      If you like it, there are other exercises that follow it up.

      • Hi Joshua, I will incorporate this into my practice. After 51 years of self loathing, the last two years have been heavenly as I escaped the darkness and I am experiencing new growth every day. Thanks in large part to people like yourself that are kind, generous and caring.
        One thing I have done to enhance my writing and slow down the chatter, is to write with my opposite hand. The results amaze me every time and the handwriting is really cool looking! Thank you Joshua!

        • You’re welcome. I share what works for me, my students, and clients. I didn’t make up this exercise, I’m passing on something that I found works. I hope it works for you too.

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