A place for everything . . .
Conscientious people are well organised. At home, they make their beds in the morning, wash their dishes directly after a meal, and take out the rubbish before it overflows. At work, they keep their desks tidy and their paperwork filed away. In addition, they plan their day, and help remember important information and dates by making lists and regularly consulting their calendar.
– Be organised. In your workplace, file away any piles of papers, put pens and pencils in a drawer marked ‘pens and pencils’, and get rid of those half-full coffee mugs. Take five minutes each morning to plan the day ahead and clear your desk when you have finished working each evening.
Also, get into the habit of writing down important information. Entrepreneur Richard Branson always carries a notebook with him, Oprah Winfrey has kept a handwritten journal for most of her life, and George Lucas regularly jots down his ideas in a notebook.
Half the time
In 1955, British historian and author Cyril Northcote Parkinson suggested that work expands to fill the time available for its completion. This idea, which has come to be known as Parkinson’s Law, has been put to the test and come up trumps. Conscientious people understand that shorter deadlines can encourage them to find innovative ways of streamlining tasks and stop them wasting time.
– Decide how long a task should take, and then give yourself half that time. Scheduled an hour-long call? Cut it to 30 minutes. Have a writing assignment pencilled in for three days? Aim to do it in two days.
Even if you don’t get everything done, powering through the majority of the task will leave time to focus your attention on the more problematic elements.
Arrive 10 minutes early
Conscientious people are punctual people. They don’t miss meetings, cancel at the last minute or arrive late. Part of the reason is that they tend to wear a watch and watch wearers are especially likely to be on time. In addition, they have a more accurate perception of how long they have to get somewhere.
A few years ago, San Diego State University psychologist Jeff Conte examined the way in which two groups of volunteers perceived time. Those in one group were prone to being punctual, while those in the other group were perpetually late. All of the volunteers were asked to judge how long it took for one minute to elapse. The punctual types came in pretty much right on time, while the latecomers were closer to the 80-second mark.
Finally, conscientious people understand that the best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry, and make allowances for possible problems, such as buses running late or them having to struggle through a crowded street.
– Be realistic about how long it will take you to get somewhere. Allow for unexpected delays, wear a watch, and plan to arrive early. As some of the mission controllers (during NASA’s Apollo missions) used to say: ‘If you are not 10 minutes early for a meeting, you are late.’
Adopt a frog-based diet
Conscientious people are especially likely to follow Mark Twain’s advice and adopt a frog-based diet. Twain once remarked: ‘If it’s your job to eat a frog, it’s best to do it first thing in the morning. And if it’s your job to eat two frogs, it’s best to eat the biggest one first.’
Twain was describing a great way of promoting productivity. If there’s something that you don’t want to do, do it first thing in the morning, because you’ll have more energy then, and it will provide a sense of accomplishment and momentum for the rest of the day.
– Start your day by confronting the hard tasks first.
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One of the most important reasons why conscientious people keep their promises is that they don’t overcommit themselves. In 2008, Emily Pronin of Princeton University presented volunteers with a horrible tasting concoction of soy sauce and ketchup.
Some of the volunteers were asked to decide how much of the unpleasant drink they were prepared to consume right there and then, while the others were asked how much they would be prepared to down in two weeks’ time. The volunteers in the ‘right there and then’ group were willing only to drink two tablespoons, but those that were estimating how much they would down in the future said they would be prepared to drink half a cup.
The same happens in everyday life. We all tend to overestimate how much time and energy we have in the future, and so end up taking on more than we can handle.
– When it comes to committing yourself to something in the future, think like a conscientious person by asking yourself; ‘Would I want to do it tomorrow?’ If the answer is ‘no’, find a way of politely declining the request.
Press the pause button
An inability to overcome the need for instant gratification can lead to poor habits, financial troubles, health issues, a lack of productivity, and all-round laziness. Conscientious people are good at avoiding temptation.
When it comes to money, they tend not to buy stuff on a whim, exceed their credit limit or miss a bill payment. Similarly, when it comes to healthy eating, they don’t tend to succumb to temptation and so are able to avoid chomping away on sweets and chocolates. Because of this high level of self-control, they find it much easier to prevent problems before they begin.
For instance, when it comes to their finances, they don’t end up buying something they don’t want or need, they avoid paying late fees or getting a poor credit rating. Similarly, avoiding sugary snacks means that they are less likely to become overweight and suffer from several health issues.
– Overcoming the need for instant gratification often involves taking time out. When you are tempted to act on an urge, pause. Try to put some space between the moment of temptation and the moment of action.
For instance, if you’re tempted to buy something on a whim, ask yourself if you really need to make the purchase. Even if the answer is ‘yes’, walk away, have a cup of coffee and think on it. Similarly, if you suddenly feel like reaching for an unhealthy snack, take a moment to reflect. Ask yourself whether this is the best way forward and, in doing so, give yourself an opportunity to make a much better choice.
A few years ago, researchers at the University of South Florida asked a group of science students to complete a personality test and also report how much time they spent working in the laboratory. Before completing the questionnaire, the students were told that they would receive a reward (course credits) for spending time in the laboratory, and the longer they said that they spent in the lab, the bigger the reward.
The experimenters then secretly recorded how much time the students actually spent in the laboratory and discovered that the conscientious students had been far more honest than the other volunteers.
This sense of honesty extends to everyday life. Conscientious people are less likely to cheat on their time sheets, steal office supplies, lie, break the rules in games and sports, litter, borrow something and never return it or use someone else’s stuff without asking. They have a strong sense of fairness, are especially likely to apologise when they make a mistake, and treat others with respect.
– Conscientious people are honest and as a result gain the trust and respect of those around them. Be honest and dependable. Don’t exploit others, or take more than your fair share.
This is an extract from Shoot For The Moon (£20, Quercus) by Professor Richard Wiseman.
Listen to our Science Focus Podcast episode with the author below, where we speak to him about his new book, the history of the Apollo program and how you can incorporate the mentality of the crew and command into your own lives.
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