I think the biggest key to productivity (and all self-improvement) is one that doesn’t get talked about: knowing what makes you tick.  Being organized and having a great day planner is great, but it doesn’t get things done.  Self-awareness allows you to work around your weaknesses.

Self-awareness is a lofty word thrown around so often it’s started to lose meaning.  I’d like to focus on practical self-awareness, namely:

  • Why you do what you do.
  • More importantly, why do you fail to do what you set out to do.

I like to emphasize the last point because I get a lot of reader feedback about it.  Many emails I get start with the person describing all the things they’ve failed to accomplish.  The intention is definitely there, and in many cases, the will is there too.  But something is holding them back.

I don’t want to sound preachy about this, because everyday I go through the exact same process.  I accomplish some things, but often I fail to do the things I want to do.  I think the dividing line between achievers and non-achievers is that achievers recognize those failures, find the underlying problems, and figure out how to work around them.

Frequent Hiccups are More Dangerous Than Huge Mistakes

Blogging friend Ben Casnocha has said that he doesn’t like to ask a person about their “biggest failures”.  Instead, he likes to ask them about frequent failures, or the mistakes they make repeatedly.  I fully agree with this line of reasoning.

Frequent failures are deceptive because, although they may not cause problems individually, they add up to disasters.  The millionaire who loses $100,000 on a bad investment pays a huge price for that mistake.  But losing that much isn’t permanent, and she will probably recover soon.

However, let’s say you’re a person who can’t wake up on time in the morning.  This means you’re always 30 minutes behind at the start of most days.  Individually, missing your alarm clock will have few penalties.  But if you add up all the missed opportunities of procrastinating over several years, it would be much worse than the $100,000 lost.

People with self-awareness will still make big mistakes.  These mistakes are often inevitable, since you never have perfect information.  Often these accidents will teach important lessons that prevent them from happening again.  It sucks to go bankrupt, break up or lose a business, but it’s not permanent.

But if you lack self-awareness, you probably have a lot of frequent mistakes that aren’t addressed.  Procrastination, chronic lateness or being unable to motivate yourself are all recurring problems that silently add up.

The Truth Hurts

Self-awareness isn’t a trip into positive thinking.  Although you can turn it around to make new solutions, it needs to start by recognizing your shortcomings.  And recognizing your shortcomings doesn’t feel great.

Every habit change I’ve made successfully started with this uncomfortable recognizing step.  A step where I realized that how I was acting wasn’t who I wanted to be.  This can be simple, like looking around a chaotic room and realizing you’re too messy.  Or it can be difficult, like looking around your social calendar and realizing you have no close friends.

If you skip the painful self-awareness step, then you won’t change.  The problem doesn’t have an emotional impact, so you’ll give up as soon as things get hard.

Find the Simplified Problem

Some people take the truth-swallowing step, and never do anything with it.  So they’re stuck feeling miserable, but nothing is improving.  Once you’ve found the problem, you need to reduce it into something that you can handle.

Let’s say you’re out of shape, and you want to be healthier.  But, you’ve failed at all your attempts to diet or exercise more.  You’ve recognized this shortcoming (being able to change your diet), now you need to simplify it.  Here are some questions you could ask:

  • Is the problem motivation?  Do you feel you should be healthier, or do you really want it?
  • Is the problem your habits?
  • Is the problem your approach?  Should you try a different diet, or find exercise that you’ll be passionate about?

Simplifying the problem helps you solve it.  When you have a big, complex issue, you can’t act on any solutions.  Every problem seems unsolvable if it’s too complicated.  Simplifying it down to one or two general problems can give you an approach to solve it.

Sometimes the simplification won’t work.  You’ll try tackling your health and exercise through habit changes and nothing sticks.  In that case, you simplified it the wrong way.  Look at the issue again and try a different direction.  Self-awareness is essentially your skill at boiling down complex problems to their key parts.