Lately, I’ve been hearing about all kinds studies and articles describing the prevalence of compulsive behaviour and an unhealthy approach to multitasking with respect to our work. They tell us that our relentless connectedness has warped our thinking and placated us into thinking that we are more productive than ever when in fact, we are much less so. Apparently, an endless stream of emails, notifications, and texts has reduced our ability to focus on any one thing. Being able to focus, after all, is an essential ingredient to proper multitasking. Multitasking defines our ability to increase our focus on more than one thing. Instead, we’ve diluted our focus on countless things and have become compulsively addicted to flipping back and forth between them.

So, what’s the remedy?

The question of how to build a strong work ethic is a question of discipline. After all, you can’t just decide to be focused and attentive to your tasks if you’re unpracticed at it. The great philosophers of Classical Antiquity described a set of virtues that people of good will should aspire to. One that features a lot in their writing is temperance. Temperance can be described as self control. A person who is temperate has the full capacity of the consent of their will. A person who is not temperate, by contrast, is someone who is a slave to their appetite, compulsions, and addictions. The former is free to do as he or she chooses because he/she is a master of themselves. They are undeterred by appetite, emotion, or peer pressure. They live by reason and principle.

So how do you become temperate?

The answer to that depends on your current threshold for discipline. You see, the choices you and I make change us. Every decision, no matter how seemingly insignificant shifts us and our character into certain directions. This is probably one of the most underappreciated principles we are faced with. For example, anyone who has learned to play a musical instrument will understand this analogy. If you were to spend 10 minutes (a seemingly insignificant amount of time) of every day practising scales on an instrument like the guitar, by the end of one year, you will have developed an intimate skill and understanding of guitar playing. Simply by repeating the same decision and the behaviour that it imposes, you will have wired new connections in your brain and changed from a person who couldn’t play an instrument to someone who is well on their way.

This fact demonstrates the power of small decisions done repeatedly. We often confront these kinds of challenges by thinking that we have to make some grand resolve to make big changes all at once. That’s why we’re so prone to make New Year’s resolutions which usually don’t outlast the first month. We think of progress in terms of big decisions in order to reach big outcomes. Instead, we should be thinking of it in terms of realistic small decisions strung together to lead to a big outcome. It’s a much less exciting way to think of it, but sometimes reality is less sexy than fantasy.

It’s like the difference between saving and investing your money wisely or trying to get rich quick. The latter approach is so infrequently effective that it’s a virtual 0% chance of succeeding. Saving and investing your money wisely, on the other hand is proven to build wealth consistently. A quick stat that demonstrates this tells us that the average Canadian will earn between $1-2 Million in their lifetime. This means that millions could pass through your fingers if you just string together the small decisions it takes to manage and leverage it.

So getting back to having a good work ethic. The secret is building the virtue of temperance and understanding that this isn’t isolated to mere work. Temperance is something that effects and is affected by all your decisions. You can’t avoid practicing self control in one aspect of your life and then expect it to kick in when it comes to work. If your ability to freely make decisions, unhindered by your desires, isn’t something that you practise consistently, then it won’t be there when you want it to; so start there. Here’s some simple suggestions to help you appreciate where this goes:

  • Practice some form of abstinence. Try saying no to a dessert or to watching tv when you feel a strong desire to do so. This will teach you two things. First, how free you are to make your own decisions and, second, how to build up your threshold.
  • Limit your technology usage (think cell phones). Without placing those limits on yourself, you will become the sum of your exposure which is someone who is scattered, unfocussed, and distracted. Maybe this means that certain hours of the day, you have to turn your phone off.
  • While working, try closing down anything that isn’t strictly related to the task you’re working on. This could mean background music, your inbox, your internet browser, etc.
  • Try taking a leave of absence from social media for a certain amount of time. Be deliberate about this. Set an amount of time before hand and then see if you can do it. This is just one way of practising discipline, but again, it will reveal to you the degree of your addiction to these kinds of things. If social media isn’t your thing, than substitute whatever is in its place.

These are some good places to start, but you may have to adapt them to your specific situation. Remember, we’re all on a path in life and the choices we make steer us in a certain direction. I think that you’re life is important enough to be deliberate about this. In the absence of that kind of effort, you will become the sum of your desires. I’ve also heard it said that you will either master your desires or be mastered by them. Make sure, when people think of you, they think of the former scenario.