Why self-awareness, not superpowers, is the key to success at work

Could it be that trying to be a superhero at work is productivity kryptonite, asks Hannah Prince.

Reading time: 5 minutes.

We can spend a lot of time at work trying to be a superhero – fighting metaphorical fires, feeling like we must be constantly available and solving other people’s problems – with no thought as to how it is affecting our own performance and health.

These days we have instant access to colleagues, so as soon as a message comes in, we rush to provide an instant response. We check emails early in the morning and late into the night.

Studies have found that even the ping of an email notification can trigger a stress response – a function historically reserved to protect us while hunting, now at play in a minor scenario. No wonder stress levels in the workforce have reached epidemic proportions!

Superman vs Clark Kent

Although being Superman rather than Clark Kent (or the female equivalent) may seem more attractive on the surface, if you try to be a superhero at work, you will inevitably burn out. It is impossible to be everything to everyone.

Make sure you identify that ‘tension point’ by understanding your areas for improvement, weakness and stress triggers, as this will prevent you from constantly being unproductive. 

It may feel counterintuitive to take some time out and take stock – that you will be seen to be slacking – however it is important to remember that being seen to be constantly ‘doing things’ doesn’t mean you are being effective. Often the opposite is true; working longer hours do not equate to increased productivity.

Ultimately, although you can’t control what others think about you, you can control your response to situations. Here are some strategies to help us become the best version of ourselves at work through developing self-awareness and self-care, rather than ‘superpowers’:

Develop self-awareness

Knowing your strengths will help you recognise which areas come naturally to you and which don’t. Talk about self-awareness through the use of colour – this gives a non-judgemental language for teams to talk about interpersonal preferences. Invite feedback from others, who may cover aspects of your personality that were hidden from you.

For instance, a colleague may share that I ask lots of questions and that sometimes it causes them stress, particularly when they don’t have the answers. I wasn’t aware that my need to understand and gather as much information as possible may actually not be that helpful to others in certain situations.

Sashay to your strengths

We all find certain tasks come more naturally to us. We need to find a balance between being comfortable with what we’re doing and stretching ourselves. This requires boundaries – consider the analogy of an energy tank; you only have so much energy in the tank, therefore you have to choose wisely how to spend it so that you’re not out of fuel.


If on a team call there are tasks which you know play to your ability, it is ok to be ‘selfish’ sometimes and opt for these. If a colleague asks you to help them out, rather than jumping in immediately, pause and consider how it fits in with trying to look after yourself. While of course it is great to help, you are no use to your colleagues if you are burnt out.

Know your triggers

Of course if you only do things you feel comfortable with you won’t grow, however you can also only stretch so far before you snap. Make sure you identify that ‘tension point’ by understanding your areas for improvement, weakness and stress triggers, as this will prevent you from constantly being unproductive. 

For example, when I have been researching all day, I can get stuck and stare at my screen for ages, which isn’t productive, so I need to know when to take myself out of that situation, even just for a few minutes for a break. 

Plan ahead

You can only make a certain amount of decisions in a day and research suggests you make the most important ones in the morning as your brain’s ability to make decisions is at its peak. 

If you know you have a heavy workload and recognise that you may struggle later in the afternoon, try putting together a plan first thing in the morning to help you remain as productive as possible. For example you may need to take short breaks or specific actions when stress triggers emerge.

I like to do something physical when I feel anxiety rising, so I’ll go for a walk or do some gentle stretching.

Respond carefully

Manage the stresses of constant email communication by limiting how often you check them, setting Out of Office replies more frequently and resigning to the fact that, if a matter is urgent, colleagues will call you. You don’t have to respond to every single thing immediately.

Practice self-care

Make sure you take time to do the things which relax you, rather than working all hours non-stop. These vary greatly from person to person. For example meditation may work for some people, however others find it increases their anxiety levels as they’re thinking too much about not thinking. The key is to try various techniques. 

Other ideas might include:

  • Mindfulness – In its truest form mindfulness is about being present in the moment with your experience and accepting it. This mindful acceptance does not mean changing your perception about emotions as they arise, rather accepting emotions in whatever form you experience them. 
  • Exercise – Mindful walking, stretching, yoga, running, team sport- some people find that physical activities relax them best.
  • Socialising – Having a conversation over the phone or meeting with friends can be all that is needed to refocus the mind.
  • Practising gratitude – Often we just go through working week and never take stock of what’s happened – other than in the classic annual appraisal. Often the most amazing things we’ve done have accumulated over time, so it helps to regularly take stock. 
  • Considering expectations vs reality – Ask yourself, “am I being really harsh on myself when I’ve actually achieved an awful lot?” You can easily become fixated on what you ‘have to do’ when you have ‘already done’ most of them.


About the author

Hannah Prince is the business psychologist at Insights Learning and Development


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