How to Be Conscientious
Building Career Success by Being Bothered
Ileana has received a dressing-down in her performance review.
Tearfully, she confides to a friend that her boss sees her as "easily distracted," "chaotic" and "not dedicated enough." At first, Ileana thinks that these criticisms are unfair, but she then casts her mind back over the past couple of months and starts to reflect.
She soon recalls missed deadlines, complaints, occasions when she arrived late, and mutterings from colleagues about the state of her desk. Suddenly, her manager's comments start to make sense.
Ileana realizes that she needs to work harder and be more organized if she wants to improve her reputation, but it all sounds very dull. Then her manager begins talking about how she would almost certainly be happier and healthier, and earn more money, if only she could be more conscientious. Ileana's interested, and she starts to think again.
Even the most committed people can let their standards drop and their dedication slip. However, conscientiousness is a quality that you can cultivate, and this article shows you how.
What Is Conscientiousness?
A 2007 study, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, found that conscientiousness has two distinct parts. We each have them, to varying degrees.
Industriousness stems from our desire for achievement. Common motivators are chances to produce quality work, to demonstrate expertise, and to increase knowledge. When you're "industriously conscientious," you excel in making plans and setting goals. You tenaciously pursue them through setbacks, and you show self-discipline, control and determination.
Orderliness is rooted less in ambition and more in a sense of duty to your team and organization. As an "orderly conscientious" person, you're good at following rules and norms, and at being diligent, reliable and responsible. You're organized, diplomatic and punctual. You think before you act, and you care about doing a good job.
The Big Five or "OCEAN" Model is a commonly cited framework for looking at personality traits. The "C" stands for Conscientiousness but, here, it is seen as a single continuum on which you score higher or lower.
If you're a conscientious person, you resist behaviors that could harm your ability or reputation. A co-worker might be known for being slow to start work, but you avoid procrastination and "buckle down" without delay.
The Benefits of Being Conscientious
If you feel like Ileana, and consider being conscientious to be boring, why would you bother making the effort?
There's a lot of evidence that conscientiousness can bring huge benefits to many areas of life. Researchers have found it to be the best and most reliable predictor of successful job hunting and workplace performance. Being conscientious also makes it more likely that you'll earn a higher income and achieve more job satisfaction throughout your life.
A conscientious attitude boosts your reputation, too. Being seen as "reliable," "hardworking" and "organized" can gain you a higher standing than people who are considered to be "lazy" or "disorganized." You'll be trusted to work remotely, to take charge of your professional development, and to work on important or sensitive projects. And if you're a conscientious manager, your team will know that you keep your word.
Most importantly, the biggest benefit is to your health. Many studies have found that highly conscientious people pay more attention to eating healthily and taking exercise, and tend to live longer and to avoid cognitive impairment later in life.
The Downside of Being Conscientious
Unfortunately, there can be a darker side to this responsible approach to work.
Conscientiousness can become perfectionism and workaholism if you fear neglecting your responsibilities and can't contain your drive to deliver. You'll likely take failure badly and worry how others view you. And, according to Psychologist Gregory Feist, you might find it hard to be creative, spontaneous and flexible.
Strategies for Becoming More Conscientious
Because being very conscientious can make such a positive difference to your life, it's important to develop and sustain it. Here are seven strategies for doing just that.
1. Assess Your Conscientiousness
How conscientious are you? Do you finish work before surfing the internet, or do you google throughout the day? Do you plan ahead, or take days as they come? Do you check the detail before signing off on projects or race straight on to your next task?
Consider your self-awareness and focus, too. How present in each moment are you? How easy do you find it to clear your mind and concentrate on tasks?
You can't improve without finding out how you currently stand, so consider questions like these to identify the areas you need to focus on.
2. Slow Down
Our lives are so full of demands – colleagues clamoring for our attention, mobiles ringing, social media profiles that won't update themselves – that, no matter how hard you try, being conscientious can feel like an impossible dream.
In this context, there's much to be said for slowing down and not trying to do everything. In particular, look out for unreasonable requests and deal with them assertively. Even if your To-Do list is long, be sure to avoid multitasking. Instead, focus on one challenge at a time and you'll likely become more thoughtful, more productive, and less harassed. The quality of your work will rise and you'll get a chance to relax for once.
3. Get Organized
Order is central to conscientiousness, particularly when people make a lot of demands on our time and we have heavy workloads to manage. Without order, it's easy to fall prey to distraction and procrastination.
You can create more order in your life by using key time management tools such as an Action Program and To-Do Lists. Work to your strengths by finding out your most productive time of day and scheduling your most important activities to fit. And remove anything that will make your work more difficult or cause delays: it’s time to get on top of your filing and to back up your data so you can find what you need when you need it.
4. Cultivate Conscientious Habits
Creating good habits can improve your life enormously, as you’ll need less thought and effort to consistently deliver important responsibilities. Consider which behaviors would benefit you the most – such as punctuality or formality – and turn them into regular, repeated actions.
5. Train Your Focus
Distractions don’t just lower our productivity; they increase our stress levels, too, as they force us to keep switching our attention and make it harder to achieve our goals. By improving your ability to concentrate, you can lift the standard of your work and focus more clearly on your responsibilities. Try training your attention through meditation and mindfulness, and by improving your environment, nutrition and mindset.
6. Look Outwards
Being conscientious isn't just about looking inwards. It's also about your responsibilities to others and how you interact with them. So, take the time to understand other people's needs and to put more thought into how you communicate. This positive and open attitude will likely boost your reputation, and could protect you from isolation and workaholism.
7. Work on Your Willpower
Becoming more conscientious can feel like an uphill battle, particularly when procrastination or laziness are your normal behaviors. Avoid self-sabotage, get support, and don’t let a fear of failure derail you. Consider monitoring your progress with an app such as StickK or by finding a mentor.
Listen to our review of Chip Heath and Dan Heath's 2010 book, "Switch," for more about keeping going when change feels hard.
Being conscientious means being industrious and orderly, and aiming to do a job well.
It is the most reliable predictor that you'll perform better, earn a higher salary, and be more healthy than less dutiful co-workers, as long as you guard against perfectionism.
You can take some commonsense steps to become more conscientious, while reaping the benefits and avoiding the risks.
First, look out for an online assessment of how conscientious you are now, so that you understand what challenges you face. Then give yourself the best chance of success by limiting the number of demands that other people put on you and that you put on yourself, and tackling one at a time.
Take control of how you use your time, too, so you can prioritize effectively and channel your energies where and when they're needed the most. Save yourself unnecessary effort by turning key behaviors into habits, and don't waste your time or energy on distractions.
Remember that your responsibilities include paying attention to people as well as tasks. But be sure to ask for help and guidance in return, so you don't become isolated or burned out.
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