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Why It's Sometimes Worth Sweating the Small Stuff

New research suggests that conscientiousness can have unexpected benefits.

Key points

  • There’s no reason to be ashamed if you are the type of person who sweats the small stuff.
  • New research shows the benefits of being highly conscientious on your ability to navigate daily stress.
  • Even hindrances can appear as challenges if you have a highly conscientious personality.
Mix Tape/Shutterstock
Source: Mix Tape/Shutterstock

Are you the type of person who pays attention to even the smallest of annoyances? Perhaps you returned from a shopping trip, looked at your receipt, and realized that you were charged twice for the same item. The amount borders on the trivial, but still, “it’s the principle of the thing,” you say. It’s a little embarrassing when you go back to the store to challenge the overcharge but you’re satisfied that it was worth the effort.

You may also find yourself spending what some may regard as an inordinate amount of time on tidying and fixing small things that are wrong, like moving a houseplant over two inches to get better lighting. If your work involves numbers, you greatly enjoy it when you write a formula in a spreadsheet cell and all the other numbers automatically adjust. Even if it takes you several hours to make that happen, you derive more pleasure from this than you’d care to admit to anyone else.

Not everyone would take this approach to these situations—and maybe you’re one of those people who is just as glad to take a “big picture” approach and it’s your partner who falls into the tiny details category. So what is it that leads some people to fret when some small aspect of your life doesn’t go the way they’d like it to?

The Role of Personality in Defining What’s Stressful

According to a new study by Jinan University’s Jie Ma and colleagues (2021), frustrating situations in life, such as these minor incidents, can be viewed as either challenges or hindrances. Using the transactional model of stress and coping, the Chinese research team propose that whether you see a situation as positive or negative depends on both the characteristics of the situation and the characteristics of the individual in that situation.

Among those individual characteristics, most importantly, is personality. In the words of the authors, your personality “determines the extent to which a stressor is personally significant to an individual, which is the key to an individual’s primary appraisals” (p. 2).

The stressor itself, furthermore, can fall into the category of being a challenge or a hindrance. Challenge stressors at work, for example, include time pressure and a job that is just plain hard. Although both of these can be seen as leading to job strain, you can also regard them as positively motivating. A hindrance stressor, by contrast, can make you feel that you are unable to achieve your goals because of things that stand in the way. Examples of hindrance stressors are red tape and others that limit your ability to produce the results you want. Although theoretically hindrance stressors should offset any perceived benefits of challenge stressors, Ma et al. cite prior research showing that these are not even always that detrimental to an individual’s well-being.

Thinking back on the “small stuff,” you might regard that overcharge as a challenge you need to overcome (to get your money back) or as a hindrance (the time involved in setting things right). In the model proposed by the Jinan U. researchers, what will determine the impact of this situation on your perception of stress is whether or not your personality falls into the high end of the conscientiousness dimension. By definition, people high in conscientiousness spend a great deal of their time sweating the small stuff to make sure things come out right.

How Can Being Conscientious Lower Your Stress?

Ma and her colleagues began their exploration of personality and its relationship to challenge and hindrance appraisals by gathering data from an online sample of Chinese bank employees over a 4-week interval. The 322 participants who completed both surveys averaged 34 years of age (52 percent male), most of whom had a college education, and been employed for approximately 6 years.

At the first testing, participants rated their challenge stressors with items such as “I have a considerable number of projects and assignments to finish” and hindrance stressors with items such as “It is not clear what is expected of me on the job.” The idea that your job demands are ambiguous are, in the Ma et al. model, regarded as a hindrance because you are then uncertain of how to proceed in your work. To measure conscientiousness, the researchers administered a standard measure at the first testing occasion, consisting of self-ratings to items such as “I am someone who perseveres until the task is finished.”

In the second test occasion, participants rated their feelings of work engagement on a scale assessing the factors of dedication, vitality, and absorption (e.g. “I am immersed in my work”). They also rated the amount of work anxiety they experienced by indicating how anxious, tense, and worried they were in the past month.

A second study conducted by the Jinan researchers drilled more specifically into the daily experiences of stress appraisals and work outcomes. Using similar measures but administered on a daily basis, the researchers were able to trace the daily vacillations within each person between stress and outcomes as influenced by personality. The 132 architects in this more intense version of the study completed a total of 597 matched daily surveys. They were of similar age and education as the bank employees, but their gender distribution wasn’t reported.

Turning to the results, the authors reported that, in line with their predictions, “conscientiousness [is] an important boundary condition for primary appraisals of challenge and hindrance stressors” (p. 10). People high in conscientiousness appraised high-challenge stressors as more challenging. However, when it came to hindrances, the highly conscientious perceived even the most bothersome as manageable. For these workers, “maintaining one’s composure in stressful situations may stimulate a sense of challenge” (p. 11).

Why It’s Worth Sweating Some of That Small Stuff

The Chinese findings didn’t dismiss completely the possibility that even the most conscientious would find hindrances to be stressful. In some analyses, there was a trend toward a “double-edged sword” in which the highly conscientious were more likely to be put off by a hindrance that prevented them from reaching their goals.

However, what saved them was the quality of self-control, or the belief in their own efficacy. This doesn’t mean you should always throw annoying obstacles in front of yourself (or others), but that those high in conscientiousness seem to have greater psychological reserves to draw from in those situations.

Regarding conscientiousness itself as a personality attribute, Ma and her fellow researchers maintain that it’s a quality that can benefit you in the workplace above and beyond your ability to manage stress. Who would you rather hire for a job you need done around the home—someone who shows up 90 minutes late for a scheduled estimate or someone who arrives promptly at the agreed-upon time? You didn’t even have to pause and think about that answer. Similarly, supervisors would rather hire employees who attend to their duties in a reliable and diligent manner. The new recruits don’t even have to be particularly brilliant as long as they’re trustworthy.

What if you’re not naturally inclined to be conscientious? Are you doomed to a life of slacking both the small and large challenges that come your way? Although not tested in this particular study, personality change over time is possible once you recognize which aspects of yourself you’d like to change. Try dialing up your conscientiousness in small degrees by training yourself to spend just a little more time and effort than you naturally would on the details of each project that comes your way. Eventually, the rewards can help motivate you to keep up that level of involvement without having to give it any thought.

To sum up, there’s no reason to be ashamed of having the personality wherewithal to tackle and defeat the small (and large) challenges that come your way. Conquering these challenges can help ensure that your fulfillment will continue to grow in ways that can accumulate into measurable outcomes over the course of your daily life.

LinkedIn and Facebook image: Mix Tape/Shutterstock


Ma, J., Liu, C., Peng, Y., & Xu, X. (2021). How do employees appraise challenge and hindrance stressors? Uncovering the double-edged effect of conscientiousness. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology.