Metacognitive Exercises

Why did I just do that?

This is a question I try to ask myself regularly. Being conscious of the reasons behind our actions isn’t something most of us are taught to make time for, but I find it’s an excellent way to ensure the way I live is aligned with what I believe; with the type of person I want to be.

A simple example of this type of exercise is recognizing when you’re behaving hypocritically.

Do you complain and get angry when someone tailgates you—drives close behind you when you’re on the road? But do you then turn around and do the same to others?

This is a simple and relatively tame example of practical misalignment. You’re ascribing one motivation to the person in the car behind you, assuming they’re a horrible person, a bad driver, a jerk who cares nothing about the safety of those around them. But when you perform the same behavior you either conveniently gloss over your actions, neglecting to notice what you’re doing, or you justify them as somehow normal. You’re a good driver with good reflexes, so you can get away with it. You’re just being efficient. You’re not really that close to the car in front of you, not compared to how close other people get.

All of us, in some aspect of our lives, do these kinds of cognitive gymnastics to justify our bad behaviors. And in most cases we’re not doing it maliciously: we genuinely do think we’re wonderful drivers, so when we tailgate, it’s okay, while it’s a bad idea for anyone else we might encounter.

That doesn’t mean our thinking is clear in these cases, though. It just means that we’re good at justification and warping the data to suit our actions. In other words, we’re really good at making it seem like the status quo weighs heavily in our favor, and that we don’t need to change anything about ourselves, while the world around us has a lot to work on.

“Metacognition” means “thinking about thinking.” It means being aware of how we think, and ideally, using that awareness to adjust our thinking and our behaviors over time.

Our brains are consistently tricking us into mentally adjusting circumstances to favor our behaviors, whether those behaviors are positive or negative if viewed from an unbiased, outside perspective. If we can make ourselves more aware of this trickery more of the time, we’ll be capable of fooling ourselves less frequently.

Now, it’s unlikely we’ll ever catch ourselves in every single instance of self-deception. We engage in this all day, every day, more or less, so there’s a great deal to work through. But it is possible to recognize and act upon the low-hanging fruit, and some of the most jarring, misaligned behaviors, with time and effort.

One example of low-hanging fruit in this space might be asking yourself why you prepare your lunch the way you do. Why do you eat lunch at that time each day? Why you do eat what you eat? Why do you prepare it in that way? Why do you eat it where you eat it? When and where did this particular habit begin, and are the variables that led to its creation still relevant for your priorities and circumstances, today? Is there a minor adjustment you could make to this habit to shake things up, to possibly lead to better outcomes? What outcomes are you hoping to achieve in the way you eat lunch? What other aspects of your life influence this particular habit, and how might those variables change if you were optimizing your life?

Or how about this one: what am I stressed about right now? Why am I stressed about it? Is that stress rational, or irrational? In other words, is it something I should legitimately be worried about, or I am worrying purposelessly? Is there something I can do immediately to address this stressor? Is this something for which there’s nothing to be done but, perhaps, to forgive myself? To forgive someone else? How might I change my thinking so that I avoid this kind of stress in the future?

Another good exercise—and this is one I find myself engaging in a lot—is asking yourself if what you’re doing is for you, or for someone else.

Is this habit, this routine, something that actually benefits me, or is it something I imagine benefits someone or something else? If the latter, who? And how? And why? Is it possible that your wires are crossed, and you imagine this behavior is beneficial to someone else, but it’s actually not? Is it possible your perception of the matter is based on old or bad data? Is it possible that asking might lead to a change in habits, in routines? Are you giving too much of yourself, harming yourself even, so that someone else can gain a tiny bit in the trade-off? Is that a worthwhile exchange? Is there a way to rebalance things so that you and whomever is on the other end achieve better outcomes? Is that person or those people on the other side still worth your sacrifice? Are you, perhaps, telling yourself that this behavior is for someone else, when in reality it’s something you do for you? Is that okay, or something you might want to change?

One more valuable metacognitive exercise is checking in when you experience something that pulls you from psychological homeostasis; something that unbalances you or makes you feel high or low, sad or happy, awkward or confident.

What was it about that specific interaction that made you feel that way? Have similar circumstances resulted in similar feelings, previously? Is this something you can change? A fear or tendency you can address? Has your sense of self been updated to include this bit of data? Is this something that’s already part of your self-perception, but which you’d like to remove, perhaps by consciously addressing it and working through the rationality of it? Is there an action you can take in the future to reduce this negative feeling you’re experiencing? Or if it’s a positive feeling, is there a way to have that experience more frequently?

For me, this last exercise has been most valuable when I’ve found myself unconsciously cutting someone down in small ways, or being critical for reasons that weren’t immediately evident. And afterward, when I realize what just happened, I step back, take stock, and try to figure out why I said that, why I did that, what the purpose was, if there was, in fact, a purpose. And often I realize it’s self-consciousness that makes me lash out and try to pull someone else down. This realization gives me something to watch for next time; something to improve upon, to ensure I feel better about how I live my life and so that I avoid dinging anyone else’s happiness along the way.

These aren’t easy routines to perform, and there’s almost always (in my experience, at least) an immediate punch-to-the-gut regret that you didn’t catch a negative behavior sooner. But the psychic weight that’s lifted as a result of noticing these intellectual blind spots tends to be worth that quick-fading sense of self-judgement.

All of these exercises are valuable unto themselves, as they help us better know ourselves, and as a consequence, better chart out our mental cartography.

But better still is acting upon what you learn, ever-so-slowly but surely nudging your practical self—the inner-self you make manifest through your actions—toward something that looks more like the most ideal version of you. Which, thankfully, is something you’ll be increasingly capable of defining.

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