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Business owners, here's how to get your employees to work smarter and better

Why are some employees already on step five of a project when others are contemplating how to approach step one? Or why is one worker never finished with anything and still another rapidly checking items off the to-do list?

Business owners, here's how to get your employees to work smarter and better

(Illustration: NYT/Julia Schwarz)

The answer may lie in a theory from an ancient Greek philosophy known as the Four Temperaments. The Greek physician Hippocrates surmised that people had different proportions of four fluid substances in their bodies: Blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile. Philosophers and early doctors alike believed that the levels of these fluids, or humours, determined an individual’s placement in one of four psychological groups: Sanguine, choleric, melancholic or phlegmatic. An imbalance among the fluids led to physical or mental illness.

In the centuries since these initial musings, the idea that these personality types (or even illnesses) arise from fluids has long been debunked. However in my work as a time management coach, I’ve seen that the concept of these four temperaments still proves useful in understanding why you struggle to start – or finish – projects and what you can do about it.

Each temperament describes a pattern of emotional or behavioural responses to external events. Your innate emotional response tends to stay stable over the course of your life. For example, you may always have a quick, strong emotional response. But as you grow and mature, you can choose to act in a way that serves your greatest and highest good. For example, you decide to take a day to calm down and think about the best course of action on a new challenge at work instead of diving in immediately.

Temperaments can have many facets. But for the sake of our time management discussion, we’ll focus on the speed of reaction and how long that reaction lasts. Of note, it’s common to have more than one primary temperament. For example, I’m a sanguine/choleric blend. My extroverted sanguine personality is quite breezy, but when my introverted choleric side commits to something, I’m all in. Hence having the tenacity to write multiple books.

To get a closer look at the temperaments and discover which one or two may best reflect you, you can take a free assessment at the Temperament Quiz. You’ll get an overview of your temperament blend as well as your temperaments’ natural strengths and weaknesses.

If you’re curious to know how you can work smarter and better based on your temperament, read on.


Sanguines exhibit fast, strong reactions that last for a short period of time. For example, they will bubble with excitement about a new idea at a staff meeting and then will have forgotten about the idea by the following week. Enthusiasm comes easily, especially with regard to new shiny projects, but follow-through is much harder.


If you’re sanguine, you’re likely to have ideas for 20 projects and counting rolling around in your head. But you’ll find it really hard to bring any of them to completion. You tend to feel more enthusiastic about talking about endeavours instead of doing them. And can lose momentum soon after jumping in.


Sanguines thrive on wins and celebrations. So a strategy for improving follow-through on big projects is to break down everything into bite-size pieces. Complete the first page of the report? Congratulate yourself: “Awesome! High five! Just four more pages to go!”

It also helps to have external accountability and encouragement, such as someone you can text about your progress. The positive affirmation that you’re on the right track keeps you going. Finally, since you are likely to come up with many new fantastic ideas, give yourself permission to have an “exciting ideas” list where you can park them while you work on current projects.


Cholerics command attention with fast, strong reactions that last for a long time. When they put their mind to something – it will happen, like it or not. Confident and determined, when a project comes under their purview, they’ll drive it to conclusion even if that means leaving tread marks on other people.


Cholerics have the issue of being too good at driving things forward. Between being given a hefty workload because of your strong execution skills and taking charge even when you’re not officially the leader, you can end up overburdened with work. This can lead to anger, dismissiveness and potentially burnout. It can also lead to those around you feeling overwhelmed by your relentless pursuit of getting things done at a pace they might not be able to match.


Even if you could move ahead on projects better and faster than anyone else, it doesn’t mean that you should. To feel more calm and collected, you actually need to give up control so that others can take on more of the weight of projects, especially at work.

If you learn to have patience with those who may work differently, and learn to trust them, you can act as a tremendous partner to help the overall team achieve more. Also, you can learn from the other temperaments the value of taking life slower at times. You don’t need to spend all weekend training for a marathon and remodelling your kitchen. It’s OK to have days in which you enjoy connecting with the people around you in an unrushed manner or even go so far as to take a nap.


Melancholics take a long, long time to decide how they will proceed on a project or goal. But once they do, that reaction endures. They will work tirelessly to bring the perfection they have envisioned into reality. They have a strong aversion for settling, and will work day and night once they’ve started something new.


Between where you sit and the start of a project lies a chasm of thought and research. As a melancholic, you tend to want to constantly research, learn more and feel confident that you’ve made precisely the right decision before you begin.

Unfortunately, this can lead to spending days, weeks or even months thinking about a project without ever actually starting said project. You also have a very hard time calling a project “finished.” So you can miss deadlines because you haven’t refined imperceptible details and are resistant to showing the work to anyone until it is “perfect.”


To get more projects done faster, you need to rein in your natural strengths. Want to research something? Great. Go for it. But put a timer on it. Once you’ve put a certain number of hours into research, you need to stop. While you’re at it, put a limit on how long you can take to make a decision before simply moving ahead.

This will feel super hard at first. But you’re better off moving forward your five projects imperfectly and getting them done on time than you are sitting on all of them until you have ideal solutions. The same goes with finishing. Instead of focusing on the perfecting of each part, push yourself to get the overall project done. Then if you still have time, you can come back and refine more details. And turn the project in even if not everything is perfect. It could help to have a co-worker of another temperament look over your project to affirm that it’s in good enough shape to ship.


Phlegmatics take a long time to get into a project and can lose momentum relatively easily. With slow, quick-to-fade reactions, phlegmatics don’t ruffle feathers with their intensity. But sustained effort, especially when there’s any resistance or conflict, is difficult to muster.


Because phlegmatics can find it difficult to really get inspired or motivated internally, all parts of getting projects done require more effort than other temperaments. This can lead to a mounting list of unstarted or half-finished work. This is especially true when you’re assigned to work on projects alone without external accountability or a supportive team.


Your best time management strategy is partnership with other temperaments. If you’re on a team where others help get the ball rolling and keep the ball rolling, your natural desire to stay in sync with others will keep you rolling along on your projects right along with them. This strategy works particularly well if your projects and big tasks are broken down into smaller, bite-size items and you can “keep the peace” at weekly meetings by having checked off all the items on your list.

As with all personality frameworks, the temperaments are an imperfect representation of the enormous diversity of individuals. However, understanding these broad, basic concepts can help you get a better sense of why you might struggle to start or finish projects and what you can do to break through those blocks.

By Elizabeth Grace Saunders © 2019 The New York Times

Elizabeth Grace Saunders is a time management coach and the author of The 3 Secrets to Effective Time Investment, How to Invest Your Time Like Money, and Divine Time Management. She is a regular contributor at Harvard Business Review and Fast Company.

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