Help me understand the meaning of and develop a stong work ethic.
November 3, 2009 7:22 PM   Subscribe

Please help me understand what does "having a strong work ethic" mean?

I've been somewhat of a slacker all my life and have somehow managed to get by by doing the barest minimum necessary in almost all spheres of life but specially when it comes to school and work. As was to be expected, this has started to have long term consequences and affect my life in permanent ways and for the last few months, I've been trying to make amends. The problem is that I don't think I'm doing it right. All I've been doing is overcompensating by turning into a workaholic and putting in very long hours without matching gains in productivity or satisfaction.

So, my question is this: what does "having a strong work ethic" mean to you? If you consider yourself to have it, how does that translate into actual everyday life for you? Or if you admire and try to emulate someone else for theirs, what is it that you specifically like about them. If any books or blogs have helped you in this area, could you share them? Instead of just general advice that is to be found on some many productivity blogs, I'm seeking specific examples of what might for you count as a good work ethic. Thanks!
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (50 answers total) 68 users marked this as a favorite
So, my question is this: what does "having a strong work ethic" mean to you?

Identify what the expectations are, and figure out what you have to do to encourage yourself to meet them -- and wherever possible, exceed them.
posted by hermitosis at 7:24 PM on November 3, 2009

Believing there is merit in doing good/hard work, having a 'natural' feeling of satisfaction from accomplishing things, rather than from the reward one does or does not get for it.
posted by rokusan at 7:34 PM on November 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

Consistency. Showing up, working hard, every time.
posted by Zosia Blue at 7:36 PM on November 3, 2009 [4 favorites]

A compulsion to do things properly and thoroughly.
posted by fshgrl at 7:40 PM on November 3, 2009 [2 favorites]

Having genuine interest in your work and tasks and putting reasonable effort in them would be my definition.

If you are working for a corporate, you may have to deal with inter office politics and depending on the company culture you may need to adjust your ethics accordingly to be successful and protect your well-being (and sanity).

I cynically started to think that for some companies 'ethics', 'pride in work' etc is used by HR or executives to squeeze more out of the employees while company itself is not an ethical company. (Think about marketing ploys based on deceiving clients... etc)

What work ethic is not is "over doing" it. Actually over doing your without any financial benefit is called charity and that probably takes you away from the work ethic.
posted by neworder7 at 7:42 PM on November 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

I think it means never letting yourself not do your best. That doesn't mean you'll do everything perfectly, and it doesn't mean you shouldn't sleep; it means doing your absolute best at any given thing within the bounds of the rest of the conditions you've set. It means creating rules for yourself and not giving yourself the option of not obeying them. "I'll always go to every single class, no matter what other fun thing is happening." "I won't do anything fun until this assignment is completely finished and written up." "I won't go home tonight until my overdue paperwork is finished." It's definitely a balance that you'll have to find, of course, with your desire to be healthy and have a real life, but for many years I tended to err on the side of perfectionism and rigor and I don't really regret it.

That said: be gentle with yourself, and don't confuse doing your best with being perfect. You say you're overcompensating, but I think that's an okay way to go until you reach that balance. For example, I've learned that I can't work twelve-hour days for more than a few days in a row before I'm just spinning my wheels, so when my brain quits working I go home and watch TV, and I feel satisfied because I know I've put in as much work as I legitimately could. But it took a lot of being a workaholic and learning to trust my own commitment and find my limits before I felt okay with that.
posted by you're a kitty! at 7:43 PM on November 3, 2009 [6 favorites]

Viewing work as an enriching undertaking in and of itself, rather than a means to an end.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 7:45 PM on November 3, 2009 [2 favorites]

Seconding consistency - which, I think, goes hand in hand with reliability. Having a strong work ethic to me means, among other things, that your co-workers, boss, etc. should be able to rely on you without having to double-check you, follow up with you, or micromanage you. So - be consistent in carrying out your work well, and don't be flaky.
posted by Pontius Pilate at 7:45 PM on November 3, 2009 [4 favorites]

> A compulsion to do things properly and thoroughly.
posted by salvia at 7:46 PM on November 3, 2009 [2 favorites]

I'd say it's not procrastinating and being ruthless about eliminating roadblocks, rather than using them as excuses. You can easily have a strong work ethic in an 8 hour day, in fact, I have found that the folks that work 12 hour days tend to be terrible at time management and are no more productive than 8-hour a day ass kickers.

I'd say these are some things that are part and parcel of a "strong work ethic":

1.) Getting in right on time, or a smidge early. When you find yourself dragging your feet, hitting snooze on the alarm clock or dawdling before work, learn to say to yourself "I might as well get going NOW and get a jump start on the day, when it's over, I can sleep/surf facebook/organize my sock drawer".

2.) When a problem crops up, instead of using it to put your feet up, chase it down. Do everything in your power throughout the day to keep things moving. If you need someone's data for a report you're working on, for example, and they're not around, if you can get the data yourself, go for it. Or track that person down. Or failing either of those things, get started on something else. In other words, do everything you can to be productive during the day. Take your internal temperature and be honest with yourself -- have I exhausted all of my work options, or am I making excuses to take it easy in this moment because I can get away with it?.

3.) Keep the momentum. Once you get started it's hard to stop. Once you've been stopped for a while, it's hard to start again. Keep yourself honest.

4.) On the other side of that coin, avoid using negative terms or negative self talk when you do fall off of the wagon and goof off. DO tell yourself to cut it out. Do NOT use words like "lazy" "stupid" or "slacker".

5.) Try reading This Book.
posted by pazazygeek at 7:51 PM on November 3, 2009 [16 favorites]

I think being flexible is really important. For example I am a teacher and I am open asked if I can cover someone else's duty or switch class A with class B or something like this. Unless there is an extreme reason I cannot, I always do it. I figure I am there to work between hour X and hour Y so I don't mind being asked to do things, and I know the girl who does the schedules has a lot on her plate and will usually not ask for a switch unless she has to. It is a lot less stress for her to know that there has to be a schedule change and it's a huge hassle but at least she does not have to worry that I will pitch a fit about it :) Because believe it or not, there are people who would, and she knows who they are and so does everyone else :) So if it is something I can accomodate, I do it, and everyone likes me for it.
posted by JoannaC at 7:53 PM on November 3, 2009

Are your grandparents still alive? Mine were shining examples of strong work ethics - my paternal grandparents ran their own business and raised six kids. Never heard them complain; they just did what had to be done. (They also thoroughly enjoyed their retirement.)

Unfortunately it does not seem to be genetic.
posted by desjardins at 7:55 PM on November 3, 2009

Nthing rokusan and zosia blue and adding "whether you like it or not." Forget whether it's your "passion" -- a term well on its way to overuse -- you do it, conscientiously and well.
posted by jgirl at 7:56 PM on November 3, 2009

Consistently doing more than just the minimum required to get by. Being a leader within your role, taking initiative, and keeping an eye to self-improvement.
posted by contrariwise at 7:57 PM on November 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

Following up and following through.
posted by crazycanuck at 7:57 PM on November 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

To consistently do to the best of your ability that which is in your power.
posted by Emperor SnooKloze at 7:58 PM on November 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

So, my question is this: what does "having a strong work ethic" mean to you?

The firm, solid understanding that, when you're an adult, it's no one's job to save you and smooth over your foibles.

Mom won't make you supper. Your dog Skippy won't wash your clothes. Dad won't explain to your boss why you're late for work.

It's all on you to take care of you. Having a strong work ethic means you understand this implicitly, because you know if you don't take care of business, you won't have supper, you won't have clean clothes and you won't have a job. You'll just be a mooch.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 7:59 PM on November 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

Caring about the quality of my work.
posted by radioamy at 8:03 PM on November 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

Caring about the quality and quantity of your work, even if the work itself is not motivating. It leads to success in small and large ways.

Case in point, small ways: I worked at a grocery store, my second job ever, and late at night when the other stockers were bitching and moaning about having to do their work, I'd just do mine, and someone else'e, too, if it wasn't getting done. My bosses would notice, and when I'd walk up after and say "okay, what else is there?" more often than not they'd let me go home (while the bitching-moaning guys got stuck for another hour or two.) I didn't do that to get out early, though; that was a bonus. I did it because, hell, I'm there and the work needs to get done, so why not get it done instead of being bored and bitchy? That's a work ethic.

Case in point, large ways: I work for a large internet firm, and (along with another guy) got fed up with the poor quality code on a project we'd inherited. So "officially" we did what we were supposed to do (maintain it), but on our own initiative we kicked off a project to recode everything using small, reusable pieces optimized for the job. A month into it, a higher-up got wind of our efforts, and after some discussion of what we were trying to do and why, we became the front-end and back-end leads for a larger project to generate small, reusable pieces optimized for a specific job. These pieces are in use company-wide now, and I can directly credit the project with keeping us employed and safe while others are being laid off. We didn't do it to score a big company project, though; we did it because we decided doing what was expected wasn't enough, and doing something innovative, interesting and effective would be better. That's a work ethic.
posted by davejay at 8:04 PM on November 3, 2009 [15 favorites]

Being self employed, the way I operate is quality inside the office and integrity outside the office. The former refers to my work, and the latter refers to my dealings with clients and peers.
posted by crapmatic at 8:11 PM on November 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

Oh, one more thing I wanted to say. Don't expect that it should be easy. Some of the people I know with the best work ethics you can imagine love their work and have incredible focus, but some of them are easily-distractible procrastinators who have to battle with themselves every time they sit down to do work. What matters is the end product, which is always top-notch.

If you have any control over it, of course, the former approach is much more pleasant. But don't give up if it's not easy.
posted by you're a kitty! at 8:11 PM on November 3, 2009 [2 favorites]

Execution is everything. Can you develop a project and then complete it?

Also, try to figure out what success looks like, and try to achieve that.

Set goals and milestones along the way. That way you don't waste as much time and get things done quicker.

Accomplish objectives, and then take some time off doing something else.

Remain actively engaged in your surroundings and your life.
posted by KokuRyu at 8:16 PM on November 3, 2009

Simple put, working for your well being. The desire to do it for yourself and recognize this fact. In this scenario you are driven by your own personal goals. When this is in place you work longer, harder and more focused than your peers. You clearly understand your motivations and are driven to follow though. Getting this focus is the hard part. Over coming the everyday obstacles are your enemies. Therefore, each day your feet hit the floor you have to wake up believing that which you are doing is driving you towards some greater good to be recognized in the future.

I believe it is all about passion, desire and being driven.

Not everyone has it. Many have it to varying degrees. Some grow into it, others can never find it and lack the qualities to make it work. They are called "workers" and they have a place in all societies. So, your first question on your path of "Driven Enlightenment" is where do you fall... and will it be the answer five years from now.
posted by bkeene12 at 8:17 PM on November 3, 2009

One of the best butt-kicking mechanisms for me is peer pressure. Find some people who do have good work habits and work with them as much as possible. If you have any sense of shame, it's harder to slack when surrounded by the conscientious.
posted by emeiji at 8:23 PM on November 3, 2009

I do the work, and when its done test it. This generally means I actually end up with a lot of spare time (at work) during those times, rather than actually slacking, I prefer to learn something new, work on my other (programming) hobbies and what not. This ensures I keep my momentum going, and I stay sharp.

But when the work "bell" rings, I drop all and go home. Now is my relax/entertainment time, which is equally important to me :) If I don't ensure I have that, my work quality and productivity is destroyed.
posted by lundman at 8:27 PM on November 3, 2009

I go to work every day promptly and do my job properly. I am a self starter.
posted by Upon Further Review at 8:50 PM on November 3, 2009 [2 favorites]

Usually "strong work ethic" is code for "willing to suborn my priorities for work." Not snark, just my experience.
posted by squorch at 9:01 PM on November 3, 2009 [2 favorites]

In the words of the voice of one of my great uncles in my head, "Get yer shit done, don't bitch unless it needs bitching at, and keep your nose out of others shit unless they are screwin it up royal."
posted by strixus at 9:10 PM on November 3, 2009 [6 favorites]

Strong work ethic starts with a strong to-do list and the guarantee that NOTHING will slip in between the cracks. Start tracking every task and how long it takes to do each task. Then determine if you're taking a reasonable amount of time at each task, and brainstorm any steps you can take to be more effective.

Sometimes it's useful to start showing your work efficiency to your boss. I tend to keep my supervisor up to date on my tasks and "done!' items over twice-weekly emails. It's fast to type up, since I maintain my to-do lists anyway, and it keeps my sup informed that I'm actually working efficiently.
posted by samthemander at 9:19 PM on November 3, 2009 [2 favorites]

Nah, you don't have to be a workaholic. Skipping lunch and staying after quitting time is doing it wrong. The people I know who I consider to have an unstoppable work ethic are the ones who make "Do it Now" their prime directive.

Everyone has a list of stuff to do. Obstacles come up for everyone. The superstars resolve obstacles even when it isn't technically their job, just because it's holding up what is their job. If they can't do that, they get something else done while they're waiting. Given a one-day project due in a week, they finish on the first day. Weekly tasks are done on Monday, not Friday. I'm waiting on so-and-so to call becomes a call to so-and-so to proactively get a time to be there, so something else can be done in the meantime.

That kind of thing.
posted by ctmf at 9:32 PM on November 3, 2009 [3 favorites]

Skipping lunch and staying after quitting time is doing it wrong.

This. I have years of "you have a fantastic work ethic" feedback under my belt, but I generally work less than my peers. It's what I manage to get done on a regular basis -- and my willingness to put in the extra time when it genuinely matters in an immediate and measurable way -- that get me that feedback.
posted by davejay at 10:38 PM on November 3, 2009 [2 favorites]

quick clarification: when I say I work less than my peers, I mean in terms of real hours spent "at work", versus hours spent actually working -- I do more actual work within fewer real hours.
posted by davejay at 10:39 PM on November 3, 2009

I work in an industry where a lot of the good jobs, the prestige jobs at least, are gotten purely based on recommendation. If I don't slam it out of the park every time, I don't know whether there will be a next time. Actually, there will be, but they will be shitty jobs that don't pay very well and don't do much for my resume. That is what drives me to do a good job.

Also, 2nding "Do It Now". Mostly because it gives you time to not have to bump up against your own limits. If you're making lots of stupid mistakes even after admonishing yourself not to and taking breaks, it's time to put it down for the day, even if that means asking for more time.
posted by saysthis at 10:46 PM on November 3, 2009

Doing things properly. Looking for tasks to do when there's nothing leaping out at you. Being prepared to do the boring unsexy stuff as well as the cool stuff.

None of this means putting in face time "just because" or not spending time with family and friends or whatever.
posted by rodgerd at 10:57 PM on November 3, 2009

Say, you're editing a rock video. You've got the Avid (or whatever) until 8AM tomorrow. It's 8PM now and you've already been at it for 12 hours, you've got a pretty good cut. You've shown it to a few people and they like it ... but nobody's CRAZY for it. There's pros I know who'll say, "Good enough," and call it a night. And good on 'em ... I guess.

There's others who'll say, "F*** it," make a pot of coffee and start to tinker, dig deeper, see what comes up. Maybe not much, except lost sleep. Maybe something amazing.

That's work ethic to me. Or as Admiral Haddock said a while back:

Viewing work as an enriching undertaking in and of itself, rather than a means to an end.
posted by philip-random at 11:47 PM on November 3, 2009 [2 favorites]

You show up. You're loyal to the company. You don't give away secrets. You don't rat out anyone. You support your peers. You keep your word. You respect the boss. You put in a full work day. You don't slack off.
posted by watercarrier at 4:30 AM on November 4, 2009

When I was serving coffee, we had a saying: "A time to lean is a time to clean."

Always be doing *something* at work, even if it's just a little task like neatening up your desk. Also, a clean workspace will be more inspiring to work at than a messy one.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 5:43 AM on November 4, 2009

(Note: I even do this as a nanny, and I'm so much way better at cleaning at work than at home. It really does help keep momentum going throughout the day.)
posted by grapefruitmoon at 5:43 AM on November 4, 2009

But when the work "bell" rings, I drop all and go home. Now is my relax/entertainment time, which is equally important to me :) If I don't ensure I have that, my work quality and productivity is destroyed.

This is the secret- having a good work ethic means you can get more done in less time and that you will suddenly have the luxury of not having to stay late and wreck the rest of your life.

Another tip would be to plan and compartmentalize. Work your schedule and mindset such that you only have to focus on work while you are at work.
posted by gjc at 5:53 AM on November 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

One thing that helps me in addition to what's been said is to make the structuring of my work a task. (on preview, a little like what gjc says) This task, organizing, is perhaps the only task that truly belongs to myself - better yet, it is my time and happiness I'm managing here.

For me, that could sound like: - check morning emails; answer those that take under 30 seconds, pile up the others for a later time-slot - free-write for 60 minutes - read this book and make annotations for 45 minutes - have open office until lunch. - have lunch, 30 minutes, and free internet surfing, 20 minutes - revise a bit of previously written text, 45 minutes - do bibliographical research, 45 minutes - prepare next week's lecture, 60 minutes etc. etc.

Lists like this could include precisely anything, even: - face this or that co-worker's unreasonable demands and just listen and agree, 30 minutes - take said demands to office, sit down and work on a sensible strategy to tackle them, 15 minutes - have telephone hour and listen to angry customers (patiently), 60 minutes - pop in at superior for casual-chat, 5 minutes, just to make face seen, take care to only say bright things (but not freakishly so), etc.
In environments where you are likely to be interrupted mid-task, you'll have to plan buffer zones as well.

While doing these tasks I think it is important to try avoiding to think about any of the others. Most of the time, a bad work ethic may actually be caused by one being overwhelmed with minutiae rather than by one's general indifference. Keep the clutter out of your mind, do one thing at a time, for a given period, period. After you learn to relax around this routine, the smiles and positive demeanor so cherished by co-workers will come automatically.
posted by Namlit at 6:27 AM on November 4, 2009

If you work for a boss, in a corporation, the most important thing I ever learned about a good work ethic was from my first boss. He told me in no uncertain terms, early on in my first post-college job:

"Your job is to deflect as much bullshit as possible from me. You need to come to me with the big issues you can not handle on your own, but otherwise, you are here to deflect the bullshit."

The higher up I've moved into executive management over the years, the more "work" I've picked up. Much of it is administratia - the more more people I manage, the more performance appraisals I have to write. The more HR issues I have to deal with. The more reports I have to review from my direct-reports. Etc..

What makes a difference to me, as a manager, is the employee who creates as little work for me as possible. I have enough frickin emails and paperwork and meetings and conference calls. I have plenty of work - bullshit and not - being thrown at me from my own boss. We all do. What I don't need is more bullshit from my peers, other departments, and particularly my direct reports.

The good employees get what is written in their Job Description (JD) done on a daily, monthly, and annual basis. They report on their work simply and honestly. They hold themselves accountable when we are missing a deadline, and they don't sit on problems and let them get worse (because that is what problems do). They produce quality work with attention to detail - they don't give me stuff I have to worry about editing the grammar and punctuation of. They treat their peers and their boss with respect, and don't play stupid political games or get into face-time bullshit. This is what is expected of a good employee.

The great employees are those who do everything that the good employee listed above is doing, and then, because they've gotten the job done and have more bandwidth - do something more to make my job easier. They respond to a problem outside their JD. They help an under-performer get their job done. They edit a document that they weren't asked to review. They take a call from a vendor and track down an issue that I otherwise would have had to. And they don't bother promoting the fact that they are doing this stuff. I am the boss, I'm going to find out sooner or later, and its much better when people discover your better traits without you having to self-advertise them.

So, long story short - get everything that's expected of you done, and done well. Then pick up something that isn't, that will deflect bullshit from your boss. Then keep your mouth shut, and keep doing the first 2.

That, in my book, is a good work ethic.
posted by allkindsoftime at 6:31 AM on November 4, 2009 [9 favorites]

What most people have said... although I think of working hard as distinct from doing things thoroughly or caring about how well they are done. (though they are certainly related) Working hard is motivating yourself to ignore all the little distractions and do something as fast as possible, without compromising quality. E.g. when I wash the dishes, I could typically wash them quite a bit faster than I do, but if I don't have any reason not to, I'll go at a pace that feels more "natural" to me. I would not call that working hard. (and neither did my supervisor when I worked on assembly line for two months...)

In a white collar job, working hard becomes more about working efficiently and staying focused than simply moving quickly.
posted by ropeladder at 6:35 AM on November 4, 2009

It's tough sometimes, especially if you can't stand the place you're employed at - but try to consider the place as yours. Meaning - if there's something to be done - you do it. Just because you work there. Now - I'm not saying become the company flunky - just saying - care enough. You do it because it builds integrity. And that is really something that carries over to all other aspects of your life.
posted by watercarrier at 8:16 AM on November 4, 2009

At my mostly desk job, which has a LOT of leeway, and little suprevision, I feel that I am doing a good job if I embrace the "just do one thing" view.

If there are issues or tasks piled up, do one of them right now, as best I can. Then do another single thing as best I can, and so on, and don't look at the pile.

This thinking helps me more than anything.

Also, as you grow on the job, things that now take a long time will get simpler, through repetition.
posted by Danf at 8:16 AM on November 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

Strong work ethic to me means strong self discipline and taking responsibility for some things, even when it's not your responsibility. But I find most of life exists in the gray and you kind of have to intuitively know where and how to throw your weight. You can't make everyone happy all the time, so instead, learn how to hustle when it matters.
posted by Rocket26 at 9:03 AM on November 4, 2009

Having a good work ethic is all about being sure that you did the best damn job that you could. It's not directly related to productivity in my book either. I've worked with plenty of people who were incompetent, but hard workers. They had a good work ethic, they just weren't very good at what they did. Their efforts didn't go unnoticed, though, because others knew that they were trying as hard as they could to succeed. Folks like this tend to get cut a lot more slack than people who simply perform all requisite components of their job with little effort (which seems sort of odd in some ways, but is totally understandable in others.

I also think that there are people who do the 'bare minimum' to get by but still have a good work ethic. It all depends on what standard you set for 'getting by.' If you take on an enormous amount of work, and just barely get it all done, even if every bit of it isn't perfect, that still demonstrates to me a good work ethic. Of course, how much responsibility you are able to take on varies from job to job, and consistently churning out sub-par results isn't going to get you any work-ethic accolades, but doing one task extremely well doesn't indicate a better work ethic to me than doing ten tasks well enough.
posted by solipsophistocracy at 9:28 AM on November 4, 2009

Mike Rowe (the guy who hosts "Dirty Jobs") had a talk at a TED conference that was basically in praise of hard work. link to the video

Beyond that, one thing I think of as being part of a good work ethic is being willing to do the shit work, the boring stuff that needs to get done.
posted by rmd1023 at 11:37 AM on November 4, 2009

Doing what needs to be done, whether asked or not, and doing the things you undertake with enough mindfulness to ensure that you can be proud of your results, or at the very minimum, your effort.
posted by bashos_frog at 2:21 PM on November 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

There's lots of good advice here. But something the original poster said caught my eye:
"All I've been doing is overcompensating by turning into a workaholic and putting in very long hours without matching gains in productivity or satisfaction."

An excellent supervisor I once had said, "work smart, not hard." What he meant by this is, don't do long hours just to say you're doing long hours. Don't do long hours just for the face time. If long hours aren't making you more productive, you're just spinning your wheels. Doing unnecessary long hours without clear gains is working hard, but not smart.

To work smart, be focused. Instead of surfing the internet, get the job done. Instead of goofing off, focus on the task at hand. Get into work, get the job done, get out. Work smart, not hard.
posted by cleverevans at 2:24 PM on November 4, 2009

Also, while the advice to chip in and help out with other things that aren't your responsibility is great, you have to make damn sure your own stuff is 100% done. The only thing worse than a slacker is a slacker who thinks he's being helpful but really creating chaos.
posted by gjc at 8:23 PM on November 4, 2009

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