Self-awareness and accountability are the ignition for improvement, whether it’s in the gym, on the playing field, or in life. Here’s how to become more self-aware.
Why does being self-aware matter?
When you better understand yourself, how you work best, and what makes you tick, you are better positioned to see better results from yourself.
I see it all the time:
Person sets highly ambitious goal. White-knuckles it for a week, maybe two. Setback happens, progress doesn’t happen as fast as they want…and splat.
See, I knew I couldn’t do it. It’s way too hard, what was I thinking? I never had a chance at this. I suck.
It’s not necessarily the setback that leaves us feeling bruised, it’s the avalanche of negative self-talk that solidifies the worst views we have of ourselves, discouraging another attempt.
For a lot of athletes and gym-goers it takes a little while to feel up to it again. They take that setback really personally, to the point that they give up for an extended period of time. And eventually they come around.
But if we haven’t picked up some self-awareness along the way the exact same thing is going to happen again. And again.
Stopping this banal, painful rinse-and-repeat cycle is why self-awareness is so important:
With increased self-awareness you set goals and expectations for yourself that are realistic. Which means that you are more likely to stick to them over the long term. As mentioned in the example, unrealistic expectations leave us feeling like we aren’t capable, when it’s usually just that we don’t have a true sense of how long things take.
Your focus gravitates towards the thing that really drives results—the process. Those with greater self-awareness tend to be more focused on improving their routine versus chasing a particular result. Instead of being fixated on the goal, and getting frustrated that they aren’t closer than they think they should be, they focus on their daily and weekly routines.
You gain a deeper appreciation of your strengths and weaknesses. While denial is a human trait that is deeply embedded in all of us, those who excel at the highest levels tend to better grasp the things they are good and not so good at. For instance, if you know that you aren’t a morning person, you aren’t going to schedule super early morning workouts for yourself. Seems obvious, but you’d be amazed how often this happens. It’s like that game kids play with blocks—we end up trying to stuff a square into the triangle hole. When it doesn’t fit we assume the game is broken.
You learn what it truly takes to accomplish big things in your life. It’s easy to believe that we can sit down, write out a plan, a little checklist, A through Z, and check them off methodically until we have achieved what we set out to do. Exactly as we planned, exactly on schedule. This lands on the desk of the planning fallacy: our distinct ability to make rose-colored and overly-optimistic expectations of how long we think it will take to complete a task or goal. While we will always have an optimism bias when it comes to predicting the future, greater self-awareness helps us be more realistic.
You are more open to setbacks and failures. When you are open to setbacks you aren’t admitting defeat, you are simply acknowledging the likelihood that things will happen to frustrate or impede your progress. Knowing that friction is going to happen makes a difference—knowing they will happen better equips us for when they inevitably surprise us.
It teaches you how function best. All of the training tips, motivational tactics and the most tailored workout routine imaginable is of little use if you don’t know yourself well enough to make the most of it. Better self-awareness means that you can take advice and assistance and match it with your strengths, instead of against them.
How to Be More Self-Aware
While this list is by no means exhaustive, it follows the fairly predictable pattern that I experience whenever I find myself getting frustrated with a lack of progress in the gym or in the pool.
1. Pay attention to your struggles and frustrations.
Gaining a deeper understanding of how long something will take to achieve is almost always preceded by a series of frustrations. When things aren’t going our way, we are forced to step back and evaluate what we are doing.
What is working? What’s not? The things that frustrate us, that keep us pinned in place, can often be difficult to pin down. And it might take a few frustrated attempts at better clarifying what it is that is causing friction.
For many athletes I work with, they get frustrated when they don’t see results fast enough. At some point they’ve fallen for the idea that if they work hard for two weeks they will drop serious time in their best events, or add 50lbs to their squat or bench press.
It’s worth remembering that we are wired to be overly optimistic about the future, so feeling frustrated at a lack of progress is the result of a natural thing, and not something to pile onto ourselves mentally about.
2. Write out your workouts in a training journal.
Your workout log is home base for the testing and retesting that you are doing in the weight room.
What worked? What didn’t work? Where are you finding yourself frustrated?
Having your workout history in hand is profoundly powerful in that it will help you better gauge how long it takes for progress to happen. It’s easy to flip through two months of workouts and see the improvement you made then, and apply it to what you can expect to happen if you train hard for another two months.
Writing out your workouts will also show us how we tend to inflate the impact of our good workouts, while flossing over the bad ones. For most athletes, when they begin writing out their workouts for the first time they experience a sudden realization that maybe they weren’t working so hard after all.
A training journal can do a lot of things for you, but self-awareness and better understanding the process of improvement is one of the biggies.
3. Build feedback loops.
The good news is that even if you train on your own there are some easy and powerful ways to get yourself some of that free-range awareness.
Video yourself working out. Set up a GoPro or your phone to video tape yourself training. You’ll likely find yourself surprised by what your lifting technique actually looks like. For example, every second Saturday I do a film session where I set-up the GoPro and film myself doing maximal efforts. It’s helped me clean up some sections of my technique, and gives me an odd sense of accountability as well—you always end up wanting to put in a solid effort when you know there is going to be a record of it.
Have a coach or fellow athlete watch your technique. There is no shortage of online coaches and trainers online these days. Find a couple that you like and share your training regimen and some of your technique videos with them. It’s likely that they will tell you things that you already know, but often it takes someone else telling us to make it stick.
Learn the lessons of failure. Making the same mistakes and errors over and over again is a huge symptom of a lack of self-awareness. When things go awry, write down why. Not because you “suck”, or because you don’t deserve it, or that you aren’t good enough—but legitimate, objective reasons for why things didn’t go the way you expected. You’ve heard it before—it’s not a screw-up if you learn something from it.
4. Maintain perspective.
High performers in the gym are often fairly high strung. They know precisely what they want, how they are going to go about it, and nothing is going to stop them. As a result, they can end up in an echo chamber of sorts that leads to a loss of perspective.
Grounding yourself is important, and will actually make you better appreciate the grind, and even help you sustain the kind of effort over the long term that your ambitious goals require.
The easiest way to do this is by keeping a little gratitude list.
Research has shown that it doesn’t have to take long at all—participants experienced better sleep, decreased stress and were 15% more enjoyable (made up stat, by the way) to be around when they expressed gratitude on the daily.
Spill open the pages of your training journal and write out three quick blessings at the end of each day. (Do it right before bed, especially when you are stressed—it will help calm your mind so that you can doze off.)
5. Create specific, clear goals.
The goal of increased self-awareness is so that you can improve. You want to lift more, get stronger, and murder-death-kill your workout goals in the gym, and more self-awareness will serve those aims wonderfully.
Having a concrete, specific set of goals, written out in a vision statement will help bring you clarity of purpose, while also encouraging your brain to work backwards to figure out what needs to be done between now and then to make it happen.
Research done with university students found that those who wrote out their ambitions within the framework of an organized goal setting program displayed significant academic improvements versus those who didn’t.
Put pen to paper and get crystal-clear about the person you want to become. It will help to guide your actions moving forward.
See More Like This:
- Become Unstoppable: How to Make Working Out a Habit. Is there anything more powerful than something that is habitual? Not likely. Here is your plan of assault for making exercise, nutrition, or whatever other change you want to make, lasting and routine.
- 15 Pro Tips for Getting Motivated to Workout. We asked a group of trainers and strength coaches what their favorite tip was to get motivated to workout (or to help their clients get motivated to hit the gym). This is what they came up with.
- Visualization for Athletes: How to Perform Best When it Matters Most. You are already using this mental training skill–here’s how to use it for your benefit.