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How to Build a Reliable Work Ethic

How to Build a Reliable Work Ethic

Have you ever noticed how some people seem to just get things done? They don’t need “productivity hacks” or GTD and procrastination is a foreign word to them. These people have a reliable work ethic.

A work ethic is a set of values based on the ideals of hard work and discipline. Building a reliable work ethic means training yourself to follow these values. Training yourself so that work becomes automatic instead of a struggle.

Constructing Habits

A work ethic is based on habits. Persistence, focus, “do it now,” and “do it right” are the key habits in building a dependable work ethic. Here are some steps for building those habits:


Forming the Persistence Habit

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The first part of a reliable work ethic is persistence. If you quickly burn out after only a short period of work or you can’t stay focused on a task for long, you lack persistence. Building persistence is like building endurance for a race, slowly training yourself to work harder for longer periods of time.

Persistence should always be balanced with periods of rest. Working twelve hours straight won’t usually be the most effective strategy even if your work ethic is strong. But training yourself to work longer can help you if you need to and it makes working shorter periods of time easier.

Here are some tips:

  • Measure Yourself – Figure out how long you can work effectively. Measure how long it takes before you slow down or give up. Measurement can be a source for improvement.
  • Run a Burnout Day – Try working longer for one day, following it with a lighter day afterwards. By stretching your focus for longer periods once in a while you can boost your persistence for normal days.
  • Do an Extra 20% – When you feel like quitting, go an extra 20%. If you’ve been working intensely for three hours but are feeling the desire to stop, try another forty minutes before taking a break.

Forming the Focus Habit

Even more critical than persistence is focus. A car going 70 mph for one hour will go further than a car going 10 mph for six. Focusing all your energies for even a short period of time can be tiring, but combined with persistence it is a powerful ability to have.

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Here are some tips for forming the focus habit:

  • Timebox – Give yourself 60-90 minutes to work on a particular task. During that time you can’t rest or engage in any distractions.
  • Accelerate – It can take anywhere from 10-30 minutes to build up a concentrated focus. Give yourself time to accelerate into a focused state.
  • Cut Distractions – Practice the habit of turning off all outside noise. Phones, e-mail, RSS, Twitter and visitors should be shut out while trying to focus.

Forming the “Do It Now” Habit

Don’t let yourself procrastinate. Having a strong work ethic means having the phrase “do it now” as a constant hum in the background. Time for leisure is fine, but if you are trying to work make sure the only thing you are doing is work. Don’t let yourself procrastinate when you still have an unfinished to-do list.

Do it Now for 30 Days – Kill the procrastination bug for good. For the next thirty days define periods of your day you want to devote to work or personal projects. During those periods of time, remind yourself of the “do it now” phrase and get working whenever you feel the urge to procrastinate.

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Forming the “Do it Right” Habit

The final aspect of getting things done is doing them properly. Sloppy work, hastily finishing things or spending too little time working out details leads to poor quality. If you aren’t going to do something properly, it’s probably not a good idea to do it at all.

Perfectionism isn’t necessary for many tasks, but most things require a minimum standard of quality. Writing code without useful variable names or documentation. Graphics with merged layers. Articles filled with spelling and grammatical errors. The “do it right” habit means actively slowing yourself down slightly to fix problems before they occur.

Here are some tips:

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  • Separate Creation and Criticism – Ideas require mess. Solving a programming problem or writing an article often requires that you first let go of your need for perfection. But once you’ve finished the idea, you should separate a specific time for clean-up afterwards.
  • Measure Twice, Cut Once – For tasks that don’t have an Undo feature, take extra care in doing them properly the first time.
  • Set Two Deadlines – Avoid analysis paralysis by setting two deadlines. One to complete the task, and another to review and polish the work. With two deadlines you won’t stumble into the trap of perfectionism, but you won’t hastily finish something that isn’t ready.
  • Sit on It – If you’ve hit a milestone in a task or project, take a few minutes to work on something else. When you come back you can use a fresh perspective to tweak problems.

Using the Habits

What’s the point of building a work ethic in the first place? I can’t comment on your job, but if you don’t feel a natural desire to get more done and work harder, you are probably in the wrong line of work. Doing the absolute minimum and laziness might seem like an ideal solution if your working at a job you hate. But if you are involved in a job or personal project you love, having a work ethic means you get to create, accomplish and provide even more.

More by this author

Scott H Young

Scott is obsessed with personal development. For the last ten years, he's been experimenting to find out how to learn and think better.

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Last Updated on July 17, 2019

The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

What happens in our heads when we set goals?

Apparently a lot more than you’d think.

Goal setting isn’t quite so simple as deciding on the things you’d like to accomplish and working towards them.

According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. That is, by setting something as a goal, however small or large, however near or far in the future, a part of our brain believes that desired outcome is an essential part of who we are – setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals to fulfill the brain’s self-image.

Apparently, the brain cannot distinguish between things we want and things we have. Neurologically, then, our brains treat the failure to achieve our goal the same way as it treats the loss of a valued possession. And up until the moment, the goal is achieved, we have failed to achieve it, setting up a constant tension that the brain seeks to resolve.

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Ideally, this tension is resolved by driving us towards accomplishment. In many cases, though, the brain simply responds to the loss, causing us to feel fear, anxiety, even anguish, depending on the value of the as-yet-unattained goal.

Love, Loss, Dopamine, and Our Dreams

The brains functions are carried out by a stew of chemicals called neurotransmitters. You’ve probably heard of serotonin, which plays a key role in our emotional life – most of the effective anti-depressant medications on the market are serotonin reuptake inhibitors, meaning they regulate serotonin levels in the brain leading to more stable moods.

Somewhat less well-known is another neurotransmitter, dopamine. Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. Dopamine is also involved in maintaining attention – some forms of ADHD are linked to irregular responses to dopamine.[1]

So dopamine plays a key role in keeping us focused on our goals and motivating us to attain them, rewarding our attention and achievement by elevating our mood. That is, we feel good when we work towards our goals.

Dopamine is related to wanting – to desire. The attainment of the object of our desire releases dopamine into our brains and we feel good. Conversely, the frustration of our desires starves us of dopamine, causing anxiety and fear.

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One of the greatest desires is romantic love – the long-lasting, “till death do us part” kind. It’s no surprise, then, that romantic love is sustained, at least in part, through the constant flow of dopamine released in the presence – real or imagined – of our true love. Loss of romantic love cuts off that supply of dopamine, which is why it feels like you’re dying – your brain responds by triggering all sorts of anxiety-related responses.

Herein lies obsession, as we go to ever-increasing lengths in search of that dopamine reward. Stalking specialists warn against any kind of contact with a stalker, positive or negative, because any response at all triggers that reward mechanism. If you let the phone ring 50 times and finally pick up on the 51st ring to tell your stalker off, your stalker gets his or her reward, and learns that all s/he has to do is wait for the phone to ring 51 times.

Romantic love isn’t the only kind of desire that can create this kind of dopamine addiction, though – as Captain Ahab (from Moby Dick) knew well, any suitably important goal can become an obsession once the mind has established ownership.

The Neurology of Ownership

Ownership turns out to be about a lot more than just legal rights. When we own something, we invest a part of ourselves into it – it becomes an extension of ourselves.

In a famous experiment at Cornell University, researchers gave students school logo coffee mugs, and then offered to trade them chocolate bars for the mugs. Very few were willing to make the trade, no matter how much they professed to like chocolate. Big deal, right? Maybe they just really liked those mugs![2]

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But when they reversed the experiment, handing out chocolate and then offering to trade mugs for the candy, they found that now, few students were all that interested in the mugs. Apparently the key thing about the mugs or the chocolate wasn’t whether students valued whatever they had in their possession, but simply that they had it in their possession.

This phenomenon is called the “endowment effect”. In a nutshell, the endowment effect occurs when we take ownership of an object (or idea, or person); in becoming “ours” it becomes integrated with our sense of identity, making us reluctant to part with it (losing it is seen as a loss, which triggers that dopamine shut-off I discussed above).

Interestingly, researchers have found that the endowment effect doesn’t require actual ownership or even possession to come into play. In fact, it’s enough to have a reasonable expectation of future possession for us to start thinking of something as a part of us – as jilted lovers, gambling losers, and 7-year olds denied a toy at the store have all experienced.

The Upshot for Goal-Setters

So what does all this mean for would-be achievers?

On one hand, it’s a warning against setting unreasonable goals. The bigger the potential for positive growth a goal has, the more anxiety and stress your brain is going to create around it’s non-achievement.

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It also suggests that the common wisdom to limit your goals to a small number of reasonable, attainable objectives is good advice. The more goals you have, the more ends your brain thinks it “owns” and therefore the more grief and fear the absence of those ends is going to cause you.

On a more positive note, the fact that the brain rewards our attentiveness by releasing dopamine means that our brain is working with us to direct us to achievement. Paying attention to your goals feels good, encouraging us to spend more time doing it. This may be why outcome visualization — a favorite technique of self-help gurus involving imagining yourself having completed your objectives — has such a poor track record in clinical studies. It effectively tricks our brain into rewarding us for achieving our goals even though we haven’t done it yet!

But ultimately, our brain wants us to achieve our goals, so that it’s a sense of who we are that can be fulfilled. And that’s pretty good news!

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Featured photo credit: Alexa Williams via unsplash.com

Reference

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