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.
- Carry a notebook or a few sheets of paper for a week or two
- A few times each day write your exact thoughts — not the general
- Note the following
- What prompts each instance
- What emotions relate to it
- 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 — http://joshuaspodek.com/communications-skills-exercises