If you're like most people, you've probably spent the past year fretting about: the economy, the stock market, the job market, the future. Maybe you've spent so much time worrying about what could happen that you've lost sight of the plans you had all along. You know, those dreams about getting ahead and aspiring to bigger and better things. It's easy to get complacent, even in the good times. But when you're paralyzed by fear that it could all be gone tomorrow, the temptation to lie low and not make waves can be almost overwhelming.



Don't succumb. Now is actually the perfect time to get ahead. And the secret to succeeding has little to do with an impressive degree (or pedigree) or with knowing the right people. In fact, it's not a secret at all but something society seems to have almost forgotten about: hard work.



If you think you're already working hard at your job, think again. You can't expect to show up each day and just do your job and think that's going to cut it. What you have to do is make sure that you are never outworked.



Think about the successful people you know. Celebrities. Politicians. CEOs. Yes, most are talented and special in some way, but when you start to look closer, you may realize they aren't that different from the average person. What sets them apart? Their drive. Take Will Smith, for example: When asked by an interviewer to explain his success, he responded, "I'm not afraid to die on a treadmill. I will not be outworked. You may be more talented than me. You might be smarter than me. And you may be better looking than me. But if we get on a treadmill together, you are going to get off first or I'm going to die. It's really that simple. I'm not going to be outworked."



True, Will Smith is charismatic, funny, and a great actor, but so are plenty of other people in Hollywood. The secret to his success, according to him, is his work ethic. Although working hard may seem like a simple enough idea (and it is!), most people just don't do it.



Now is the time to start. By really pouring on the "elbow grease," you can not only set yourself apart from the less ambitious around you, you can help pull your company's tail out of the fire or maybe even start a thriving business of your own.



Here are a few guidelines for revving your work ethic into overdrive:



1. Burn the midnight oil. (And that doesn't mean empty "face time.") Nobody expects you to work all the time, and like everyone else, you need the occasional break. But that doesn't mean you should bolt out of the office at 5:00 sharp. These days your willingness to go the extra mile ? and the extra hour ? won't go unnoticed. With all the budget cuts and layoffs that have happened in the past year, there is more work to be done than there are people to do it. That's your cue to spend a few extra hours each week at the office, or at home in the evenings, striving to get it done.



If your department is having trouble meeting deadlines, step up and take charge of the time crunch. Come in to the office an hour early a few days a week to get ahead on things like answering emails and returning phone calls so you can spend your daytime hours being more productive. If you like to make it home for dinner with your family each evening, spend an hour or two catching up on work at night once the kids are in bed. Your boss will notice, and you will have more time to work toward getting ahead instead of spending daytime hours in a constant game of catch up.



2. Be willing to bear the load. If there are rumors of layoffs or pay cuts in your office, it can be tempting to do the bare minimum while you bide your time and wait for the ax to fall. But Gordon says that now is the time to step up and take on new projects and extra responsibilities. Volunteer to head up the new client account or to help out with any duties left behind when coworkers are let go. No, helping answer the phones or following up on new business leads weren't in your original job description, but they are tasks that must be done to keep the business running and your paycheck coming.



If you wait for someone else to step up to the task, then you are being outworked. Continually compare yourself with those around you. Are they working harder than you? Have they offered to take on more projects or extra work? If the answer is yes, then you have some reevaluating to do. When it comes time to make decisions about promotions, the people who have taken the initiative and stepped up to help have a much better chance of being considered, and that's precisely where you want to be.



3. Polish up your marketable skills. Yes, money is tight these days and your time is probably even tighter. And the thought of adding one more thing to your schedule may send your brain into a tailspin. But if there was ever a time to add to your skill set, it's now. Make a list of specialized skills that are important to your line of work and that could give you an advantage, then research continuing education in your area and online for increasing your talents and certifications. It's a great way to increase your worth to your employer and to constantly keep yourself current.



Continuing your education and adding to your skill set is always important, but now it can mean the difference between the same old job and bigger, better things. Companies still need the talents and qualifications that employees can provide; but they don't have the funds to hire new people like they used to. If you are already on the payroll and you can work a little harder and offer them those skills, you become an even bigger asset. It's like getting two employees for the price of one.



4. Be a penny-pincher and a pitcher-inner. In a down economy, every single penny counts. Just ask your boss ? she's probably spending her nights lying awake trying to figure out ways to cut corners around the office to keep the company running and you employed. Better still, don't ask your boss; come up with cost-cutting ideas yourself. It will also show her that you understand how business works and that you are constantly thinking of new ways to improve the bottom line. And don't hesitate to pitch in yourself ? even if it means resorting to (gasp!) manual labor.



Roll up your sleeves and start helping out with the little things around the office, like taking out the trash or cleaning up on Friday afternoons so that your boss can eliminate the added cost of a weekly cleaning service. Volunteer to stay late to help stuff envelopes or get the filing caught up so that there isn't a need to add a part-time intern to the payroll. It may seem like small potatoes to you, but those costs add up. Your employer will appreciate the breathing room, and your work ethic will stand out.



The truth is that there will always be someone smarter than you, or who has more experience or a longer, more impressive r?sum?. But no matter what other people have, take a cue from Will Smith: "You can always, always ensure that you will work harder. It's a proven virtue and one that our nation was founded on. Hard work won't let you down."



Make sure that when others are sleeping, you are working. When they are wasting time, you are improving. And when others are scattering their energy, you are practicing and zoom focusing on the skills it takes to do your job right. If you infuse your talent with hard work, passion, and a drive for excellence, you'll find yourself at the top of the ladder when everyone else is scrambling to stay on a lower rung.



Jon Gordon is a speaker, consultant and author of the international bestseller, "The Energy Bus: 10 Rules to Fuel Your Life, Work and Team with Positive Energy" and "The No Complaining Rule: Positive Ways to Deal with Negativity at Work." Gordon's new book, "Training Camp: What the Best Do Better Than Everyone Else," was released in May. For more information, please visit www.jongordon.com.