I responded to some questions from someone practicing “The most effective self-awareness exercise I know” and thought the answers would help others doing the exercise. Or might help motivate people to try it if they haven’t. I think it makes sense without the question. I’ll check with the person practicing about including the question. Here’s what I wrote:
The feeling that you don’t have anything to write or that your mind is empty is common. I suggest that your mind is never blank. I’ve never experienced anyone’s mind but mine, so I can’t say for sure, but everyone I’ve worked with who has said things like that has later found that they were thinking things that were so like fish-in-water, they couldn’t recognize the thoughts.
We have preconceived notions of what thoughts are supposed to be about so we don’t recognize what feels like idle thoughts — but they’re still thoughts. I think of those thoughts like a car engine idling when the car isn’t moving. Someone who doesn’t understand cars might think because it isn’t moving forward, the engine isn’t on. The more you understand cars, the more you understand how they work.
For example, many people, when they think their minds are blank, are actually thinking something like
I can’t think of what to write. I’m not thinking anything. How can I write anything if I’m not thinking anything? I’m just not thinking anything. Will I think of something later? Maybe I should only do this when I’m thinking something. When will that happen? I’m not thinking anything now…
and those thoughts continue repetitively.
It also happens when you want to talk to someone you don’t know, like at a social event. If you’ve ever heard the advice, “Just say what’s on your mind,” you may have thought, “But nothing is on my mind,” your thoughts are probably similar, like
I don’t know what to say. I’m not thinking anything. I can’t just say what’s on my mind because nothing is on my mind…
and stuff like that.
One reason I assign this exercise for a week and not just one practice attempt is to give you the chance to develop the skill to recognize and identify these more subtle thoughts. They’re slippery, if that makes sense. When you try to grasp them, they slip out of your consciousness. Practice gives you the skill to grasp them.
Regarding feeling you might bias your writing based on what you want to read later, I find that bias also goes away with practice. The more you recognize thoughts and thought patterns, the more you find the value in awareness and the more you want to recognize more thoughts.
At first you have automatic defenses that keep parts of your consciousness from realizing some of your thoughts—typically judgmental and negative thoughts, repetitive thoughts, or whatever you’re uncomfortable with—so you hold back from consciously recognizing them. After you’ve recognized thoughts you accept more easily, you can’t help but notice these other thoughts.
If you’re worried this isn’t happening yet, later exercises will help the process. They have you actively working with these thoughts, changing them, which you’ll find improves your life. The more you improve your life through working with these thoughts and beliefs, the more you’ll want to increase your awareness of more subtle thoughts.
The patterns you described—what ifs, hopes, schedules, etc—are common, probably universal. The goal at this stage isn’t to evaluate or judge the thoughts but to develop awareness of them and skills to identify them.
Learn to make Meaningful Connections
with a simple, effective exercise from my book, Leadership Step by Step.
- Step by step instructions
- Video examples of me and Marshall Goldsmith
- An excerpt from my book