7 Habits of Highly Effective Employees

1. Self-awareness, self-awareness, self-awareness

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Photo by Erik Lucatero on Unsplash

4 years ago I was a shy, young grad about to enter the world of work with no idea what lay ahead of me. I had no book to read, no website to go to, no idea what I was about to get myself into. These are the habits I wish I cultivated early, the tips I wish someone had shared with me as I unknowingly entered the most testing time of my life.

So these are my gift to you, wherever you are.

I’ll cut to the chase. Work is a scary prospect. You’ve gone from the comfort of university to now being deemed capable enough to add value into the big wide world. It’s a daunting prospect but one full of pretty cool stuff if you get it right.

1. Self-awareness, self-awareness, self-awareness

I feel that the simplicity of life is just being yourself. — Bobby Brown

When you enter the office on day one, it‘s easy to put on a face that fits. To start talking like you think you should be talking, to change your mannerisms and habits to fit in with what you think the status quo is. This is a recipe for disaster and should be avoided at all costs. Who you are and what you care about is why they hired you in the first place and if they don’t like who you actually are, then it won’t work in the long run anyway. You might as well cut your losses now.

Don’t start using fancy words because you’ve heard someone else say them and you think that’s what you’re supposed to say. The only thing you are meant to do is be unapologetically yourself. No masks, just you.

If you start your career by pretending you are something you are not you’ll fast become someone you don’t want to be or don’t recognise. You’ll find yourself 10 years down the line in a job you hate with people surrounding you who have no idea who you are.

In a nutshell:

How do you be good at being yourself? Well, do what you’d usually do, say what you’d normally say, ask the questions that are swirling around in your head without fear of what people will think. Forget where you are, forget this idea of being a ‘professional’, be you. It’s the best way to find happiness in work.

2. Embrace your inner sceptic

Scepticism is the first step towards truth — Denis Diderot

Curiosity is the making of the new world. Curious people wondered if we could cure cancer, yield rockets that jetted into space and create a carbon-neutral future. Years before, curious people wondered if we could create a trading system that would save time, develop a faster mode of transport than horse and cart and if one day we’d be able to type on a computer and communicate across the world in seconds.

The first step in curiosity is being sceptical. It’s not being convinced by what’s in front of you and asking questions that go deeper. It’s saying:

“Could you just explain that again” or “Are we sure this is the best solution?”

Just because someone has said something with confidence does not mean it’s right. When you’re new you have the luxury of asking questions and no one bats an eyelid because they know you are trying to learn and get up to speed. Use that to your full advantage. Bear in mind, this isn’t about being a dick and trying to catch people out, it’s about seeking understanding. It’s about learning whether this really is the best way to do things and figuring out whether this is the best way to do things.

In a nutshell:

Just because something has been done a certain way for years, doesn’t mean it’s right, it might just mean no one has questioned it. If something doesn’t feel like it makes sense or doesn’t quite add up, ask the question.

3. Create a habit of positive self-talk

“Self-talk reflects your innermost feelings.”― Dr. Asa Don Brown

Everyone talks to themselves. Whether it’s out loud or internally, we’re all telling ourselves a story all day long. Whether you’re having a good day or bad day, whether you feel like you are smashing life or you are pailing in comparison and whether you are living a life of purpose and fulfilment or dreading every waking moment. It’s your story you are writing moment by moment.

This was never made more clear to me than from the moment I started work. All of a sudden you are thrown in the deep end and your opinion matters, you’re thoughts are counted (well sort of), you’re in the room because you’re part of this now. So now you are in this and you probably will be for a long time, the last thing you want to be doing is constantly telling yourself you don’t deserve to be here. That this was all a joke and they accidentally messed up with the interview and you’re going to get kicked out any moment.

  • This isn’t a joke
  • You deserve to be in the room, in this conversation
  • You are totally capable of contributing

Beating yourself up after every meeting will become exhausting after a few weeks. You need to teach yourself to find the positives out of a scenario and not constantly look for the negative. Don’t spend your drives home thinking about how stupid you sounded in that meeting or how ill-prepared for that question you got. Instead, look for 2 positives and one thing you could improve. This will shift your mind into looking for positives as a default, which is absolutely what you want to be doing.

In a nutshell:

You will have enough people in your life trying to tear you down at different points in your career, you don’t need to add to that by tearing yourself down. You need to be your own biggest fan, you need to be able to rely on yourself to lift you up when you’re feeling like crap.

4. A note on your coffee, food and water intake

If there was ever a part of this article that you need to pay close attention to, it’s this bit. This bit could quite honestly save your life, it probably has mine. When you transition from university to the working world, there is a lot of change going on. You might be in a new city, with new people, new expectations, new schedule, new clothes and new ideas. It’s all very exciting, but very crucially it’s a change that needs managing carefully.

The most important part of this change is the energy required. In university you became comfortable. You knew where to go, what was expected and let’s face it, your schedule wasn’t particularly gruelling. Now you are expected to be awake 8 hours a day, you are expected to arrive on time with no hiccoughs, you are required to give your opinion and do work for deadlines.

All this takes a little bit of getting used to. When I first started the world of work I was completely and utterly knackered. That first week I must have slept 11 hours a night. I would be in bed by 7:30 pm without fail. I’d gone from waking up at 9 am and walking 2 minutes to a lecture theatre to waking up at 5 am, driving 1.5 hours to work and being in the office for 8 am. On top of that, I would argue that sitting in a lecture hall listening to the lecturer teach is quite a bit easier than actively doing work.

Talking to people all day is exhausting, preparing for meetings, writing reports and understanding politics is all a learning curve in itself.

So that brings me on to nutrition, coffee and drinking enough water. It’ll keep this short and sweet, you’ll need to increase your calorie intake to have enough energy to get through your working days. For me, eventually, that meant preparing lunch the night before and eating breakfast on the way to work. If you’re not a breakfast person I find that some sort of breakfast drink works well. Drinking water is a must, you will be staring at a screen or talking on the phone most of the day, you’ll get dehydrated. The best bet is to take a bottle of water (already filled) to work. Get into the habit of at least drinking a bottle before lunch and a bottle after.

Finally coffee…

A word of warning: do not rely on coffee as your energy source. It’s a dangerous game to get into. It, of course, depends on your coffee tolerance but in my early days at work (the ones where I was sleeping 11 hours a night), I would drink coffee constantly. Going from not drinking coffee to drinking it extensively in a short period of time is a dangerous game. I would overindulge and feel sick, get lightheaded and feel my heart thumping through my chest. All things not conducive with a particularly productive workday. Limit your coffee intake and only use it when necessary. Although I would say that one necessary time is driving. Driving to and from work, especially if your commute is a long, is extremely tiring. That isn’t a good thing if you are already exhausted from your workday. Whilst you adjust have coffee before the drive to and from work. You might find you don’t need a whole coffee or a sugary drink will do the trick, whatever works for you, just don’t fall asleep on the drive home. It’s a real worry for grads just starting the working world. It was for me.

In a nutshell

Nutrition and coffee intake is easily the most important thing you need to master in your first 4 months at work. Forget trying to master anything else until you’ve got this in the bag. It seems trivial but it isn’t, it’s absolutely critical to being an effective grad.

5. Take the pressure away from trying to find your thing

“The mystery of human existence lies not in just staying alive, but in finding something to live for.”― Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov

If there is ever a time to question your existence, it’ll be your first year at work. At university, you perhaps had big ambitions about what you thought the working world was like. Maybe you pictured presenting to thousands, being rung constantly to be asked for your opinion and having a paycheque that allowed you to buy anything you want.

When you turn up to work though, you realise that it’s not quite as exciting as the movies. It’s not quite as thrilling as you expected it to be, in fact, it’s quite predictable.

Once you realise that, you will begin to question everything. You will question why you took that course at university, what you were thinking of going to university in the first place and why on earth you just didn’t go travelling. You will eventually end up at the one question us grads all end up at.

“Yeah, but, how do I add value?”

I’m not sure what happened over the last 10 years but it feels like there was a cosmic shift in the way people started to view work. My dad will tell you to work is a means to an end, something you do to get enough money to do the things you want. Grads though, they will tell you that work is there to be enjoyed, to make your mark in the world. And that’s exactly what I would say. However, as I’ve gone through work over the last 4 years what I would say is this.

Work can be a means to an end whilst simultaneously leading you to the thing that you love to do.

It’s not as black and white as passion or no passion. There is a transition period and you probably won’t realise you are in the transition period until you look back in a few years time. You will have to kiss a few frogs to find your career prince (or princess). So in the meantime, in your early days, take the pressure off. Don’t even remotely entertain the idea of fulfilling your passion until you’ve been in work for a while. Until you’ve learnt more about yourself to understand how you want to add value to the world.

In a nutshell:

As a grad, you have got decades to work out what you want to do and where your place is in the world. You grads are just on the very start of that journey and by doing this job you are on the road to working it out. Avoid the habit altogether of putting the pressure on. Just enjoy the ride for a while.

6. Don’t write emails when you are frustrated

“It’s a lack of clarity that creates chaos and frustration. Those emotions are poison to any living goal.”― Steve Maraboli

Email is the communication tool of the working world. It’s like professional texting. During your time at work, you will spend a good proportion of time emailing. It’s a brilliant tool but there is one thing about an email that is important to remember.

Once it’s been sent it can be evidenced forever.

Unlike a phonecall (unless it’s being recorded) there is no actual evidence of what’s being said. However, a snotty email can be copied and pasted to whoever wants to see it. In an email, it’s hard to convey what you want to say and typically they are read more aggressively than intended anyway, so emailing when you are frustrated is a complete no-go.

Instead, go for one of these options:

  • Picking up the phone and talking it through
  • Leaving it till tomorrow
  • Writing out the email in a word document that you want to send and then delete it
  • Venting to someone that you trust
  • Going for a walk and getting a snack

In a nutshell:

Avoid sending an email when you are frustrated at all costs.

7. Concentrate on doing a good job

“I’m a greater believer in luck, and I find the harder I work the more I have of it.”- Thomas Jefferson

Sometimes, as humans, we make life a lot harder than it needs to be. Sometimes we get swept away in complication when the answer is glaring us right in the face. There is no replacement for pure, hard work. No shortcut, no secret handbook, no quick-fix.

If you want one piece of advice that is guaranteed to make you feel like you have meaning like you are on the right path and that will most likely lead you to success in the long run well then it’s simple. Work hard. Try your best. Turn up every day (or just most days) with the attitude that you are going to do your best work today.

  • Send your best-worded emails
  • Try hard to ensure every phone call you make people feel heard
  • Work to meet deadlines and to produce work you are proud of
  • Present with confidence and ambition

I heard once about a CEO who told us of the story of her route to success. She was once asked to clean out the stationery cupboard. She said she made that stationery cupboard the neatest it had ever looked. I’m talking colour coded, labelled, pens arranged in colour-order. That mentality led her to now be the CEO of a huge company.

In a nutshell:

Just work hard. There is no replacement for sheer hard work.

Some final thoughts

Entering the world of work, especially as a grad, is a tall order. University didn’t prepare you for what you are about to experience. If you are not careful and not checking in with yourself on a regular basis, you could be scheduled for a full-scale life crisis by week 10.

Luckily they are a few habits you can embed that should help avoid this.

Being authentic and having the confidence to question the status quo is critical in the world work. Never try to be something you are not, it leads to pain and misery further down the line. Be unapologetically you and if people don’t like you (and they will if you’re a nice human) then maybe this place isn’t the right place for you.

More than that though, you must focus on cultivating a habit of positive self-talk. You will have enough your plate being new to a company and new to the job, you want to be kind to yourself. It will stand you in great stead for the long run. Most importantly though, especially in the early days, is taking care of yourself. That means managing your coffee intake, drinking enough water and eating enough calories to sustain your brain for the day. I can’t stress this one enough when you enter the world of work you will be tired. Really tired. Make sure you are getting enough sleep and most importantly not driving when you are knackered.

After the basics are met then will come the inevitable. The pressure you put on yourself to find your passion. Forget it. Honestly, ditch the word passion from your vocabulary. Instead, if you want one, full-proof way of enjoying what you do and finding whatever you find fulfilling, work hard. There is no substitute for pure hard work.

No magic pill, no get rich quick and certainly no mastermind course that will get you there. If you want one way to be effective as a grad, work your arse off for 5 years and you will be impressed with where you end up.

Science-led self-help. BSc Biomedical Science, studying MSc Behavioural Science.

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