One of the biggest compliments you can give and receive is to be associated with having an excellent work ethic. But what does it really mean to have a good work ethic? We can know its definition, just like with procrastination, hard work, and time management, but what does it truly mean, i.e. what is its significance in our lives? This section of the chapter on “hard work” will discuss the concept of work ethic, how it goes hand in hand yet also differs from ‘hard work,’ and how we can develop good work ethics in our day to day lives.
The Definition and Meaning of Work Ethic
What is work ethic? We’ve asked this question other times for other concepts around hard work and procrastination, so we must also ask this for work ethic, and in the process find out both its “definition” and its “meaning.” Most people think work ethic means that you’re a hard worker, and while this is true, it’s focusing too much on the first half of the phrase, “work.” What about the second half, “ethic?” In what sense is there a concept of ‘work ethics’ or the ‘ethics of work’ that we can understand and apply to our own lives? If you look in the dictionary, you will find that work ethics is defined as “the principle that hard work is intrinsically virtuous or worthy of reward.” This is an interesting definition, as it emphasizes that work is ‘good’ in the sense that it provides either intrinsic or extrinsic rewards. Having a good ‘work ethic’ thus doesn’t necessarily mean that you work hard in itself, but that you believe (and your behavior reflects) the notion that hard work is good in itself as well as in the products that it can help create. Where does this idea come from?
The Source – The Protestant Work Ethic
While the concept of ‘hard work’ and ‘work ethic’ is quite general and universal, most people associate its rise in importance with the rise of the so-called “Protestant work ethic.” This was the religiously rooted belief (especially through the Calvinists) that hard work, and the success in this world that came with it, was a sign of a person’s salvation. Thus, it was ‘required’ in a sense to work hard, because otherwise being lazy would be a sign that you weren’t one of God’s chosen or someone who would be saved.
Even if you are not Christian or religious at all, you have still felt some of the effects of this philosophy in the way our society holds up a strong work ethic as something to be praised and valued. While most people today don’t believe that you will go to Hell if you don’t work hard, we still believe deep down that hard work is good for our body, our mind, our soul, and our society.
Of course, as we discussed in the section on the concept of ‘hard work,’ sometimes this obsession with work ethic can go way too far. We work ourselves so hard that we hurt our bodies, our minds, our souls, and our relationships. Thus, an important component of a good work ethic is the ability to stay in balance – to dedicate ourselves to a cause and a project, yes, but also to remain in balance and be able to sustain such effort. And in the end, we work hard because we want to enjoy life, so letting work dominate our lives in such a way that it harms the quality of our life significantly is going against the principle reason why we want to work so hard in the first place.
Thus, the concept of “work ethic” means not just what it produces but also what it reflects about our own character; it’s our position statement with respect to what we believe our efficacy is in the world. We look up to those who work hard not simply because they are successful but because they are in some way inherently noble and good. Tales of amazing work ethics abound; there are plenty of work ethic examples out there if you look in nearly every human endeavor. From business to sports, academia to industry, to hobbies of every shape and size and all human pursuits, we praise people and seek to emulate those examples of people who work hard and grow in their chosen domains and as people.
Note that other cultures too have their own versions of work ethics, so I don’t mean this just to be about one culture or about one religion. The point is to see that our beliefs about hard work are embedded in our culture in significant ways, and that avoiding them can be difficult even for the nonreligious.
Does Work Ethic Matter?
In general, having good work ethics should translate into personal and professional success. Companies are always looking for people who work hard (but work healthfully, too). However, in some situations it may seem that working hard and having a good work ethic isn’t really worth it for the worker. This is a sad situation and should be avoided, both by the worker and the company or organization that is creating such an environment. In a perfect world, people should be rewarded in proportion to the value they create and how hard they work, but unfortunately it doesn’t always work like that in practice. Still, this is no reason then to throw up our hands and slack off at everything. On average, working hard will lead to better outcomes in our lives, so we should try our best to do it.
Note as well that work ethic goes hand in hand with other qualities – that is, that are certain work ethic characteristics and values that go along with someone who works hard. These qualities may be valuable and noble in and of themselves. These values include punctuality, cooperation, persistence, integrity, creativity, responsibility, and more. By strengthening our work ethic, we can develop other qualities and values that others will admire and respect and that will help us succeed in all domains of living.
How to Improve Your Work Ethic
If you believe that you are lacking in this area, don’t worry: there are some tips, tricks, strategies, and methods to help develop a hard work ethic. In the end, as with almost all human behavior, it comes down to habits: learn how to control your automatic behavior and you’ll be able to change nearly any aspect of your life. Thus, learning how to change your habits won’t happen in a day or even a week; however, once they are learned, they will stick with you!
- Make sure you’ve got your time management and procrastination issues worked out. Obviously these go hand in hand with a solid work ethic, so if you need help in these areas, check the other chapters of this book that deal with them! Some of the concepts in those articles will be repeated here, but there will be techniques and tips that only be found there, so make sure you check out those chapters.
- For instance, you’ll want to be on-time or early to work and other places where you want to be productive. If you run around like a mad person, you won’t be able to get situated and focused. Being scatterbrained and multitasking won’t be conducive to a truly good work ethic, even though it may give the illusion of one.
- Work on your communication skills. To work hard you will also have to work well with others. This also means that you should be positive and constructive with people, especially when offering criticism. The goal is to increase the capacity of everyone, no matter their position or abilities.
- Be professional and put off a good, positive attitude. Not only will this help your interactions with other people, but it will help you to keep in a positive and productive frame of mind. Negativity and doubt is a sure productivity killer, so reframe your mind to look for possibility rather than negativity.
- Don’t just worry about yourself – help others out too! Having a good work ethic not only means respecting your own capacity for work, but also helping others when they need it and when it would raise the efficiency of the group. Be a ‘team player,’ not just a ‘me first’ player.
- Don’t wait to be told what to do – be proactive, not just reactive. Take initiate on projects and try to anticipate potential problems and setbacks.
- Structure your environment to improve your work ethic. Surround yourself with great work ethic quotes. Put up pictures or other things to remind you of your values. Play music, set up your desk, avoid distractions…do whatever it takes!
- Put down your tasks on paper. You need to be able to get everything out of your head and onto a visual medium, so get used to writing down your short, medium, and long term projects and goals. Then break them down and tackle each piece one by one.
- Believe in yourself! This goes with having a positive attitude, but you need to have an external locus of control. This means that you have to believe that working hard can actually make a difference in your life and in society. Sometimes it doesn’t always work, but it’s certainly better than giving up and not trying at all.
- Focus on quantity, yes, but not at the sacrifice of quality. Take pride in your work – don’t just do things quickly to “get them done.” At the same time, don’t get sucked into the perfectionism habit. Nothing will ever be perfect, so it’s an insane attempt to even try it. And in general…
- Avoid the illusion of productivity. Don’t try to show off to colleagues or impress the boss with empty actions and words. Truly be productive; this will be more valuable and effective in the long run.
- Don’t be flaky – if you have a deadline, meet it. If you have a meeting, don’t be late or skip it unless there’s a true emergency. Dependability is another virtue of a strong work ethic, so cultivate it and guard your reputation.
- Keep at it. As stated above, everything we do is habitual. It takes time to break an old habit and form a new one, so monitor your progress and keep going until you succeed.
- Rest and recuperate. A good work ethic doesn’t mean “working constantly until you burn out or die.” A good work ethic means that you can sustain it for an indefinite period of time, i.e. your entire life. This means taking time to smell the roses, enjoy your family and friends, enjoy hobbies, and just enjoy life.
The Four Keys of an Awesome Work Ethic
If I had to sum up work ethic in four phrases, they would be:
- Do it now
- Do it right
- Keep doing it
- Finish it
Follow these and the keys to the kingdom are yours.
Now let’s learn about more about not only how to work harder, but also to work smarter.