How to improve self-awareness

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Want to become a better, more relaxed, more skillful writer? Learn how to improve self-awareness….

I was a 29-year old, standing in the middle of the newsroom where I worked. My six-foot-two-inch boss was looming above me, yelling at the top of his (very large) lungs. Thank goodness I had the self-awareness to recognize this situation was bad for both of us. 

I looked him in the eye and said, “can we take this into your office?” He agreed so we walked the 10 yards to his room, shut the door and continued the conversation at a much quieter level. (He’d been unhappy about something someone I supervised had done.)

This boss of mine died at the age of 86 a few weeks ago so I’ve been thinking of him more than usual. The thoughts are not all happy ones — he was a manipulative, arrogant so-and-so — but I always find it useful to reflect on lessons I’ve learned, regardless of their source. And, the unhappiness I experienced working for him is part of what drove me to become self-employed so, really, it was a good news story in the end.

Having the self-awareness to reflect on the good and the bad is helpful in both life and writing. For writers it increases objectivity, it makes you more willing and able to edit, it makes you more aware of your ‘triggers’ (feelings that stop you from doing the writing you need to do), it allows you to be kinder to yourself and it helps you know when to challenge yourself more. 

But here’s the question: How do you improve something that’s so slippery?

Here’s how to improve self-awareness:

1-Make enough time for reflection. Eager to get work accomplished, many of us rush from one writing job to the next, trying to shut down the chatter in our brains. While it’s important not to let the negative chatter (e.g.: ‘my boss is going to hate this piece’) derail our writing, it’s equally important for us to make time to weigh what we’re doing well and what we’re doing badly. Anxious writers often allow a vague sense of anxiety to become an excuse to procrastinate, even while they avoid thinking through where they might have made some mistakes — and what they could do to prevent those mistakes the next time. Allow yourself — and I mean schedule it — at least five minutes a day to think back on the day and congratulate yourself for what you’ve done well and make some notes about what you can do better the next time. Then, once a week (or once a month if you’re really pressed for time), allow at least 30 minutes to reflect on both the good and the bad you’ve lived through recently. 

2-Write/mindmap. It’s easier to think or talk than to write but committing your thoughts to paper will give them more significance and will allow you to explore them in greater detail. Don’t just sit in a chair staring off into space – write your thoughts down! You can do this as a journal, if you like, but there’s no right or wrong way to do it. Try writing a few sentences each day about how you feel at that particular moment. Happy, sad, anxious or at peace? Just write it down. This self-reflective process will help you become more in tune with your thoughts and feelings, and will put you on the path to greater self-awareness. And don’t forget you can also use mind-mapping as a fast and fun way to explore your unspoken emotions. 

3-Ask for feedback. How often do you ask others for feedback about your performance? Probably not very often. But effective feedback is one of the fastest ways to help yourself grow and improve. If you’re uncomfortable hearing criticism, make sure to start small. Ask for feedback from someone who is sympathetic to you or inclined to see the good in most people. (Don’t begin with someone like my boss, a Scot whose nickname — the tartan tornado — was well earned.) And work hard on tamping down the natural human tendency to be defensive. Psychologist Adam Grant has a good technique for doing this. You will always learn more from your mistakes than your successes.

4-Review both your strengths and your weaknesses. I’m the hardest worker I know, which is one of my strengths. But I’m often slow to ask for help and I’m quick to hold a grudge — both of which are profound weaknesses. If you can be as quick to pinpoint your biggest failings as you are to acknowledge your greatest talents, you’ll increase your self-awareness. And, once you have a more balanced view of yourself, you’ll be able to get more words on the page. Writing more will always improve the quality of what you produce.

5-Figure out your emotional triggers. If you’ve never thought much about why you might be feeling anxious or overwhelmed by your writing (or by anything else) identifying your triggers will help. Triggers are events or situations that cause you to feel a certain way. For example, when you smell coffee, that may trigger you to want to drink a cup of it. But identifying emotional triggers can be a bit more complex. To help do this, consider similarities between the times when you are feeling a specific emotion. For example, does facing a deadline always make your heart race a little? Does having to attend a meeting make you feel anxious? Also, work to identify the people in your life who light you up — and the ones who make you feel like crawling into a hole. Finally, have a look at the various subjects or topics that might make you feel either elated or uncomfortable. You may need some extra support if your emotional triggers are especially strong. Look to supportive friends, therapists and coaches for extra help.

6-Meditate or do breathing exercises. Meditation is a powerful tool for writers. When you watch and observe your thoughts — without attaching yourself to them or even thinking about them — you begin to understand the life-changing idea that you are not your thoughts. I know meditation can be daunting. That’s why I suggest approaching it the same way as writing: begin with just one to five minutes a day and build from there. See my guide to meditation for writers here. And if you feel that meditation just won’t work for you, then spend the same (small) amount of time doing breathing exercises.  

7-Identify your core values. I’ve saved this point for last because it’s really the most important. If our work aligns with what we truly believe, we are far more likely to be successful – and happier. So ask yourself:

  • What activities do you do that give you the most energy?
  • What activities drain you and make you frustrated and tired?
  • What are you proudest of having done?
  • How do you want to contribute to the world?
  • Whom do you most admire?

Working on how to improve self-awareness is a project that will require time and considerable determination. But the payoffs will be profound — for both your writing and your life.


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My video podcast last week addressed how to handle lengthy quotes. Or, see the transcript, and consider subscribing to my YouTube channel. If you have a question about writing you’d like me to address, be sure to send it to me by email, Twitter or Skype and I’ll try to answer it in the podcast.


Have you learned how to improve self-awareness? How did you do it? We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section below.  Anyone who comments on today’s post (or any others) by March 31/22 will be put in a draw for a digital copy of my first book, 8 1/2 Steps to Writing Faster, Better. Please, scroll down to the comments, directly underneath the “related posts” links, below. Note that you don’t have to join Disqus to post. See here to learn how to post as a guest. It’s easy!

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