How to Improve Your Conscientiousness and Win the Day
Ever wondered why it’s so difficult to overcome your tendency to procrastinate? It may be more than a habit. I want to share how you can begin doing improving your conscientiousness instead.
Personality plays a part
As you might remember from your psychology class, personality is the combination of behavior, emotion, motivation, and thought patterns; they are what define an individual. It is deeply ingrained, largely heritable, and consistent from childhood right on through the adult years.
It’s difficult to be objective in a conversation about our own personality. That’s because it’s just about impossible to detach our selves from that which defines our selves. But psychologists have developed different systems to determine personality make-up: the traits that make us tick.
Most of their methods link descriptors to broad categories. That way, the words we use to describe ourselves or others, our behaviors and thoughts, add up to discrete traits that can be used as predictors for all manner of future outcomes, including longevity, workplace success, and political affiliation.
The personality test du jour is a five-factor model. It separates an individual’s personality into the “Big Five” traits:
- Openness to experience (inventive/curious vs. consistent/cautious)
- Conscientiousness (efficient/organized vs. easy-going/careless)
- Extraversion (outgoing/energetic vs. solitary/reserved)
- Agreeableness (friendly/compassionate vs. challenging/detached)
- Neuroticism (sensitive/nervous vs. secure/confident).
You can remember these by their acronym, OCEAN. Participants answer a series of questions related to the various traits. Then, they receive a score accordingly along a percentile ranking for each.
I want to focus on trait #2, Conscientiousness, because it’s a particularly powerful predictor of future outcomes. In fact, along with intelligence, a high percentile ranking in conscientiousness is the strongest indicator of success in life. It is even associated with better health, longer life spans, and more stable romantic relationships are associated with conscientiousness.
Words grouped under the umbrella of conscientiousness include: hard work, persistence, reliability, and order. Conscientious people keep promises, complete tasks they begin, and maintain a tidy home. Those low on the scale, by contrast, are easily distracted, often disorderly, late to appointments, and prone to procrastination.
I have had many students over the years who command a great deal of intelligence but score low in conscientiousness. It’s a difficult combo. In order to make good on the potential brimming inside, you must practice vigilance and a self-disciplined response. Of course, self-discipline is exactly what people with low conscientiousness lack. So: what to do?
Visualizing the steps to your goal
Researchers at Harvard and Yale have puzzled out this question in a recent issue of Personality Disorders: Theory, Research, and Treatment. There are some promising strategies for improving your conscientiousness.
They suggest a series of “goal-related metacognitive techniques” designed to reframe an individual’s thinking with regard to tasks that need doing. Metacognition is a working knowledge and awareness of one’s own thinking process, and can be sharpened with practice. The researchers recommend one technique called “mental contrasting”. This is where you visualize a goal vividly, and imagine the path towards that goal as well as potential obstacles. It is important that you envision contingency plans to match the shape of these obstacles. By doing so, overcoming them is more likely when they inevitably arise. The more specificity one brings to these visualizations, the more likely they are to inspire the adjustments necessary for change.
The steps to improve
The best way to adjust a chaotic and undisciplined personality is by making a schedule and sticking to it.
Now, it will have to be a schedule designed with incremental growth in mind. That is to say, people who score low in conscientiousness are extremely unlikely to abide by the structure of a dogmatic and overbearing schedule designed to move the shape of one’s day from 0–60 in no seconds flat.
You’ve got to negotiate with yourself as you would another person. Our lives are ruled not just by our conscious desires, but also by the deep sea of our subconscious. Try not to plan the most productive day ever seen. Instead, make a schedule that plots out a day you would be proud of and that you’d also actually like to have. Reward yourself for completing small goals and aim to increase those goals slightly day-by-day and week-by-week. It’s extraordinary how powerful accumulated effort can be, especially contrasted against its dark opposite: accumulated procrastination and unfinished business.