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Career identity

What to do when conscientiousness gets dark.

Most of you probably know, my first career was spent in the Royal Air Force. It was the defining part of my identity for a long time. I thought of myself, and spoke of

myself, as a RAF Officer before pretty much any other part of who I was. Then, about a year after I left the Air Force, I was at the end of my Post Graduate certificate coaching course and a fellow coach - who has a lot of coaching experience - asked me how I would define myself if it wasn’t as someone who had just left the RAF.

I was reminded of this lately when a client mentioned something about their identify being bound up in their work. This is something that is particularly prevalent if you’re highly conscientious. If you’re someone who often finds themselves committing to unpaid overtime, who regularly takes work home, who wakes up worrying about things that haven’t been done in the office, then this might strike a chord with you too.

Being conscientious is a great trait with a lot of positive associations. The definition of conscientious is

Conscientious worker 'wishing to do one's work well'

‘wishing to do one's work or duty well and thoroughly’. Most line managers, senior management and directors, love to have conscientious staff because they know that they do their utmost, even on projects that they care little about. Conscientious people tend to care about other people’s perceptions so can be relied upon to take their obligations seriously and to go out of their way to ensure that clients are satisfied. They’re generally reliable, organised, tidy and can even have fewer car accidents than those lower on the scale!

As with most traits though, there is a ‘dark’ side to conscientiousness. Whilst it is often good to be less impulsive, it can also mean that you miss out on spontaneity which can be frustrating for others in your life. Your commitment to work life can seem obsessive to others and cause friction within close relationships as it is easy to misread high work endeavour as caring more about work than family.

As you care deeply about results, it is easy to take too much blame on yourself if things go wrong even if it is not your fault. This is particularly prevalent when you work in teams and other people are not as conscientious as you.

Burnout: a downside to conscientiousness

Probably the biggest downside to having high levels of conscientiousness is that it can make you ripe for burnout, fatigue and illness. This isn’t a surprise if you think about it. You’re working more than you’re paid for, which cuts into your rest and recovery time. Even when you’re not working, if you’re thinking about work then you’re not recuperating from work stresses.

The good news is, you can channel your conscientious trait to minimise those negative effects.

'Put limits on your work life'

The first tip that I suggest to any client is to place limits on your work life. Work can, and will, expand to fill the time you allow it. If you can’t do extra work one evening, does your whole work life fall apart? Probably not. If the very thought of limiting your extra work fills you with anxiety, start by tracking how many extra hours a week you work. That alone can be illuminating. If you’re paid to work 40 hours a week, but you’re putting in 70, how does that sit with you? Begin with limiting your work to a set number of hours and then reduce this at 15 minute intervals.


Prioritise more. I really recommend the book ‘Eat That Frog’ by Brian Tracy. When you’re conscientious, it is hard to ignore the little nagging tasks that aren’t high priority but you want to do because ‘they just take 5 minutes’. But if they are low priority, they shouldn’t be where you’re spending your best energy. If you spend 8 hours working on your high priority big projects, make great head way and are left with 20 ‘5 minute’ low priority tasks, it is much easier to leave those at the office. Spend 2 or 3 hours dealing with those ‘5 minute’ tasks (which never take just 5 minutes) to get them out of the way, you’re then starting your high priority big project later in the day when your energy is lower. Get to the end of your shift and you still have work on those projects to do and you don’t feel the same sense of satisfaction so you are much more likely to want to take work home to finish off.

'What else is important?'

Spend some time and effort thinking about other things that are important in your life. Family, friends, hobbies, sport. What percentage of your life would you like to spend on these things that aren’t work? And what percentage do you currently spend? What can you do so these align more? Try channeling your conscientiousness into those other areas as well as your work.

I was at a networking event earlier this week and spotted someone wearing a Veterans badge, signifying that they were once part of the Armed Forces. For a moment, I felt an urge to go over and introduce myself, but I quickly realised that I much preferred to stay talking to my friend, catching up on everything that had been going on and enjoying the moment. Given that I was there to network, on the work front, that was a ‘fail’. But on a human front, it was most definitely a win. I will always be proud of being a RAF Officer, but it’s no longer my first thought about who I am.

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