Let’s get straight to the point. Those who are conscientious are likely to be more successful than those who are less so. But why is that? And what does it mean to be conscientious?
One dictionary defines conscientiousness as a person’s ‘wish to do one’s work or duty well and thoroughly’. It points to people who have a laser-like focus on the task at hand, with a mindset that whatever they do is serving their long-term goals. In other words, they sacrifice whatever short-term gains they might receive from distractions and other temptations.
Price’s Law describes the idea that half of the work is done by the square root number of the people involved. For example, if you have ten people working on a project, the chances are that three people from that group will do the lion’s share of the work. This notion can be applied across any field that produces volumes of work.
For example, most of the classical music that’s commonly listened to comes from a handful of composers. These usually include Mozart, Beethoven, Bach and Chopin. When you walk into a bookstore at the airport, you’re most likely to find books by authors such as Danielle Steel, Stephen King, Paulo Coelho and Agatha Christie.
In both the literary and the music world, hundreds of millions of works are published each year, and yet, only a few prominent names stick in our minds. Common among all those who are prolific in their work is that, in their prime, they were the most committed to their passion: their time was dedicated to their work, with little being wasted on anything that did not add value to their long-term goal.
The secret to success
…If you work hard enough and assert yourself, and use your mind and imagination, you can shape the world to your desires.” – Malcolm Gladwell
In a 2012 study, Angela Duckworth and colleagues wanted to know who does well in life. What does it take to truly excel? Is it genius? Luck? Financial resources? What they found was that conscientious people excel most in objective and subjective success. They are able to focus on what matters and dedicate their efforts to manifest whatever goal they shoot towards.
Explaining their findings, the researchers note, “What seems to tie facets of conscientiousness together is the tendency to act in accordance with long-term, global goals, and standards when there is a temptation to do otherwise.”
“In the workplace, conscientious individuals who work hard, complete tasks thoroughly, stay organised, act responsibly, and make decisions carefully are more productive than less conscientious co-workers.”
“The same behavioural tendencies may help conscientious individuals maintain healthy social relationships, a key predictor of subjective well-being. Conscientious individuals are more likely to avoid unnecessary interpersonal conflict and amend rifts when they do appear.”
Conscientiousness is one of the Big Five Personality traits that measure five major dimensions of personality. These are: openness, conscientiousness, agreeableness, extroversion and neuroticism. Forming the basis of personality research, by taking the test, we are able to get a sense of where we sit on each scale of the five dimensions. As Duckworth and her colleagues imply, conscientiousness relates to the level of our work ethic. It makes sense that those who work harder achieve more, right? Well, there’s a little more to it than that.
It’s not enough to just work hard — our efforts need to be carried through with diligence, focus, and a deliberate commitment to do the best we can… and to raise our game wherever it’s needed. For some, being conscientious can be a difficult trait to develop — but it can be developed.
Instead of succumbing to distractions or a temptation to procrastinate, we can harness the power of our minds to focus on getting the job done where it helps us to move forward at a quicker rate. Studies on time wasted, for example, have shown that we can waste, on average, up to five hours per day on things like checking email, aimlessly scrolling through social media, watching TV shows, and so on.
Over the course of a working week, that amounts to one full day’s worth of work lost. Across one year (assuming an hourly rate of RM20), the time lost amounts to RM26,000. When we boil it down, conscientious people are more successful because they simply make the most of their time.
Of course, it’s important to take breaks from time to time — hopefully, no-one would suggest we should work 24/7 — but time wasted refers to the time that is available outside of leisure time that could be put to more productive use. Some might say, “It’s alright for those who are already conscientious, but what about the people who procrastinate and find it difficult to get motivated?”
Thankfully, like leadership, conscientiousness is a skill that can be learned over time, and there are a few steps you can put into practice to get you started. Let’s take a look at four of those right now:
#1. Don’t try to be conscientious. Instead, focus on the specifics.
If someone were to say to you, “Just be more conscientious!” you might (understandably) be confused by such broad advice. Think of it in the same way as fitness. If someone tells you to become more fit — to set that as your goal — it doesn’t really help much. On the other hand, if someone says, “If you commit to running 1.5km four times a week for a month, you’ll begin to see improvements,” that gives you something to aim for.
Therefore, set specific goals such as “For the next month, I’m going to reduce my social media use by one hour per day and devote that time to reading/mastering a new skill/learning how to start an online business.” Taking that one step at a time has already increased your productivity rate by seven hours every week, and that’s a great start that you can then build on as you become more focused.
#2. Set yourself reminders
Trying to change the habits of a lifetime can be tough, which is why it’s important to set reminders of the times that you’ve committed to improving your conscientiousness. Let’s say you’ve set a goal to read for one hour per day. Set the time aside on your calendar and treat it like an important appointment, such as going to the doctors or attending a job interview.
By treating this as a time of utmost importance — something that’s going to add enormous value to your development — it will help you to cultivate a new behaviour that will become a productive habit.
#3. Let people know what you’re doing
Oftentimes, when we set ourselves a new goal to work towards, we fail in our endeavours (New Year’s Resolutions, anyone?). In many cases, this is because we keep our goals private, which limits the accountability to the very person who might procrastinate on our goals… ourselves.
By telling a few close friends or family members of our intentions and asking them to help keep us accountable, they can help to minimise distractions and keep us focused by providing support and the occasional morale boost when it’s needed.
After all, we wouldn’t want to let down the people who are there for us, and so we’re much more likely to stick to the commitment of improving ourselves when others are in on it.
#4. Remember to reward yourself
One of the reasons people give up while attempting to create changes in their lifestyle is because they feel like they have to push themselves all the way without stopping. In other words, they don’t celebrate the small victories along the way, and that’s a vital component of maintaining your enthusiasm.
Self-improvement of any kind should be seen as an investment in yourself, not a chore, so remember to reward yourself. For example, you could approach your goal through the Pomodoro Technique, or you could reward yourself whenever you recognise positive progress.
Let’s say you’ve managed to cut out seven hours worth of unnecessary social media scrolling in a week. You could reward yourself by doing something you enjoy, such as treating yourself to your favourite dessert. The important thing here is to create positive associations with the efforts you’re making, which will increase the likelihood of staying the course, rather than feeling that your new lifestyle change is based on sacrifice and denial of small pleasures.
The most important thing to keep in mind when making any kind of positive change in your life is to focus on the value you’ll receive from your commitment. Never think of your conscientious efforts as sacrifices. Instead, see them as part of the journey towards creating your best self. With this at the forefront of your mind, you’ll be motivated to keep pushing forward.
There’s a good reason why behavioural change is referred to as part of our development — it takes time, and while we might prefer quick-fix solutions nowadays, the old adage still rings true: anything worthwhile takes time. But as Charles Duhigg reminds us in his book The Power of Habit, “If you believe you can change — if you make it a habit — the change becomes real.”