Ask a Boss: How Do I Improve My Work Ethic?

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Photo: Ghislain & Marie David de Lossy/Getty Images

Dear Boss,

Do you think it’s possible to improve your work ethic? If so, how? I feel like I’ve been lazy my entire life and I’m wondering if there is some way I could get past that. I work in a very cyclical industry, where some parts of the year we’re very busy and other times we’re incredibly slow. During those busy times, I can make myself focus and get everything done because of the momentum and adrenaline of trying to beat a deadline. But during slower times, I can hardly force myself to do anything and procrastinate terribly. I have always gotten positive reviews, but I’m afraid my lack of work ethic during slow times will eventually catch up to me and bite me in the rear.

I love what I do most of the time. I work on fairly technical projects that vary greatly in terms of complexity and duration. Some I can finish in a few hours, some take weeks. I feel like I’m very good at the small projects and pretty good at but still challenged by the big ones. The projects left to do during the slow times are typically the messy and difficult ones where information comes in piece by piece or are client special requests that are a hassle to deal with. But the thing is, once I actually do them, they are never that bad.

I think I just hit a mental roadblock and shut down when I think something is going to be hard. I was always a smart student who did well easily, and I don’t think I ever learned how to work hard consistently, even though I’ve been in the workforce for a decade now. I have had goals in the past I’ve wanted to achieve, long-term goals that take a lot of effort, and I’ve been able to do them, so I think it’s possible for me to learn how to work hard. But it seems like such a hurdle to overcome and I don’t know where to start.

Yeah, when you were a smart kid who didn’t have to try especially hard to excel at the things that brought you positive reinforcement, you can end up not developing much of a persistence muscle. You didn’t need to! Things were pretty easy, and you were probably able to avoid anything that wasn’t easy for you without much trouble, because your talents lined up well with the things that school and most parents reward. Then you hit adulthood and discover that when you have to do something difficult, that persistence muscle is atrophied and weak and it feels easier to just not bother. That can work out okay when the difficult thing is “learn to paint” or “do the Whole30,” but it tends not to be a viable option when it comes to your job.

But here’s the thing: This isn’t a moral failing on your part (which is how you’re thinking of it — “I’m lazy,” “my work ethic sucks”); it’s just an insufficiently developed skill. It’s something you can learn.

I speak from experience here. I’ve been a regular visitor to the land you described — I’ll put something off, spend days dreading it but simultaneously hating having it hanging over me, and then finally do it, discover that it wasn’t anywhere near as bad as I’d thought it would be, and wonder why I spent all that time agonizing over it.

I found it really helpful to realize that all that time I spent dreading whatever the thing was and feeling guilty about not doing it meant that it was taking up exponentially more room in my head than the amount of time it would have taken me to just get it done. Your mileage may vary, but I’ve found that thinking “if I just do this now, it’ll be done in a few hours and I won’t have to deal with days of it hanging over me” is pretty effective motivation.

Other things that you can try:

• Make an explicit connection in your mind between how you operate and what you want other people to think about you. You probably want to have a reputation as someone who’s respected and gets shit done, not someone who’s hanging out in her office playing Minecraft all day (or whatever you’re doing during those slow times), right? Sometimes staying focused on what kind of professional reputation you want — especially what kind of reputation you don’t want — can be pretty motivating. I think you’re conscientious enough for this to matter to you (as evidenced by the fact that you care that you’re not working hard). You just need to keep it in the forefront of your mind.

• On a more practical note, break things down. This might get right at the heart of your particular brand of procrastinating, since you’re good with small projects and struggle with big ones. Instead of letting a project remain huge and unwieldy, break it down into all of its component steps. For example, rather than thinking “I need to plan our fall event,” you want your to-do list to say “talk to Jane about the program / call the printer for cost estimates on signage / dig out the guest list from last year” and so forth.

• When you feel yourself procrastinating, decide that you’ll just work on whatever you’re dreading for just ten minutes. You can’t credibly tell yourself that you can’t tolerate ten minutes of work … and once you start, you’ll often end up putting in way longer than ten minutes. I am speaking without hyperbole when I say that using this method has changed my life. Sometimes after telling myself “I’ll just do this ghastly project for ten minutes,” I end up happily staying with it until I finish it. It works because this stuff tends to become far more awful in your mind than it is in reality. So if you can just get over the initial block and start it, you’ll usually be well on your way.

Got something to Ask a Boss? Send your questions to askaboss@nymag.com.