I walked out into the middle of the street without looking both ways, forgot to pay parking tickets, lost debit and credit cards regularly and, when I became self-employed, convinced myself everything would just work out.
My “I’ll just make it” mentality is characteristic of my generation: Millennials are more optimistic about our futures than any other generation ever has been. Among millennials who say they’re not earning enough, 89% think they will in the future, according to Pew Research Center. Yet we’re making less on average than our parents ever did.
If success isn’t falling in your lap, don’t give up hope (seriously: pessimism impairs job performance). But it may be time to prioritize an underrated personality trait:
Conscientious people live longer, get better grades, commit fewer crimes, earn more (along with their spouses), have higher influence, are more likely to lead companies that succeed long-term, are happier at work and have better marriages.
Convinced by the benefits of conscientiousness, I set out to master it. One of my New Year’s resolutions was “finishing, details, polish.” In my research, however, I found that conscientiousness is far more than fastidiousness. In fact, acting “Type A” only has a weak correlation with conscientiousness. In the broadest sense, conscientious people have a knack for avoiding behaviors that will damage their long-term happiness and success.
Here are seven things they don’t do:
1. Buy stuff on a whim.
Conscientious people anticipate what they need and the future consequences of what they buy. (It’s called a budget.) Conscientiousness people are less likely to exceed their credit limit, miss a bill payment or cheat on their taxes. They’re also less likely to make an unplanned purchase under time pressure or be convinced to buy something based on promotions or sales tactics.
Next time you’re tempted toward an impulsive purchase, raise the stakes on yourself. Ask, “Do I want to earn more, have better relationships and live longer?” If “yes”, take a week to think on it.
2. Take mental notes.
Conscientious people know they won’t remember. So they plan, decide and draft on paper. They write down important dates. Highly successful people, like Richard Branson, carry a notebook in their pockets at all times. Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis told Forbes contributor Kevin Kruse, “Writing it down will make you act upon it. If you don’t write it down, you will forget it. THAT is a million-dollar lesson they don’t teach you in business school!” Likewise, Harvard Medical School suggests making daily plans and using reminder tools or apps to keep you on track.
Next time you think “Ooh, I want to remember that”, don’t trust yourself. Write it down–anywhere. Once, when Richard Branson didn’t have his notepad with him, he wrote an idea down in his passport!
Conscientious people stand up straight. Their posture is a reflection of their attitude: they care about others’ perceptions of them, want to do things the right way and have high self-esteem. Because conscientious people do good work, they report high self-efficacy which is, in turn, positively correlated with work performance.
How are you showing up in your day-to-day life? Literally. How do you show up to work? To dinner? To your workouts? Research consistently shows that how you act influences how you feel. Bad posture, for example, can make you stressed, sad and afraid. Is that how you want to approach your life?
Conscientious people know that small things add up. Every pound and every minute matters. Not surprisingly, conscientious people have a lower risk of obesity and are more likely to lose weight than those with lower levels of conscientiousness. Less conscientious people watch more television, oversleep and are more likely to engage in risky health-related behaviors like smoking and heavy drinking.
Conscientiousness, on the other hand, is associated with good health for both you and your partner. Dr. Jennifer Lodi-Smith, a postdoctoral fellow in the Center for Vital Longevity, explained, “Being conscientious predicts good health because the conscientious individual is actually going to go out and do the things their doctor says they should be doing to stay healthy.” Instead of binging on what you know is bad for you, take small, deliberate, scheduled actions to improve your wellbeing.
5. Break promises.
Conscientious people are dependable. They’re much less likely than others to back out of, miss or forget appointments. They rarely show up late. Conscientious people know that succumbing to convenience kills long-term goals; that good things take time and hard work. Perhaps this is why conscientiousness is linked to honesty and integrity.
Not breaking promises requires fully understanding what you’re able to commit to. Next time you’re tempted to say “yes” to something ask yourself, “Am I certain I’ll be able to keep this promise?” Framing even a small “yeah, sure” as a promise can help you internalize its weight, uphold your commitments and build trust in your relationships.
Conscientious people have grit. They’re more likely to continue solving a problem even after failing and work extra hard to make sure stuff is done right. Conscientious people may not execute better than anyone else, but they keep executing better than anyone else. “Highly conscientious employees do a series of things better than the rest of us,” explains University of Illinois psychologist Brent Roberts. University of Pennsylvania psychologist Angela Duckworth found that a strong combination of passion and perseverance is, in fact, more important to children’s scholarly success than IQ.
Duckworth believes there are four components of grit that all of us can cultivate: interest in the subject matter, a desire to understand; the capacity to deliver consistent practice, making something a daily habit; purpose, a conviction that what you do everyday is meaningful and beneficial to other people; and hope.
7. Ignore problems.
Conscientious people pick up after their dogs’ poop. They display high levels of autonomy and perceived internal locus of control; in other words, they take responsibility for what goes wrong in work and life and fix it. Unsurprisingly, those with an internal locus of control report higher levels of life satisfaction and perform better at work.
Conscientious people pay attention so well that they often anticipate problems before they arise: “By being conscientious, people sidestep stress they’d otherwise create for themselves,” Drake Baer writes for Inc. If you’re like me, you’ve spent a lot of your life realizing, “[xyz] is kind of an issue. This is a small problem. I should probably deal with this.” Problems don’t solve themselves. Small things become bigger things. Save yourself the headaches by scheduling time in your calendar every week to deal with the little stuff.
After all my research on conscientious people, I can sum them up in five words: they know they’re not invincible.
For millennials struggling to adapt to the real world, as I did, embodying this trait could be the key to a successful, happy adulthood. It doesn’t have to be a radical transition. I started small; I now make my bed every morning, pick up after myself and collect home office expense receipts for my taxes. And it’s not too late to change: Research shows that conscientiousness continues to develop even into old age.