TIME Careers & Workplace

10 Excuses Unproductive People Basically Always Use

Relaxing in the office
Relaxing in the office Hemant Mehta—IndiaPicture RF/Getty Images

Want to spot the unproductive employees? Listen to the excuses they make.

This post is in partnership with Inc., which offers useful advice, resources and insights to entrepreneurs and business owners. The article below was originally published at Inc.com.

By John Brandon

They moan. They wail. They shuffle around the office looking for free candy. Unproductive employees have an excuse for everything. Here are a few of the phrases they use to explain away the problem. Listen for them, then correct the action to get things back on track.

1. I’m overworked.

I hear this one constantly. What unproductive people might not realize is that we are all overworked. We’re in an overworked age. Instant access to email and a mobile browser means work is always just a click away. What separates the wheat from the chaff? The really productive people don’t dwell on the problem. They just do the work.

2. That’s not my job.

I’ve written before about staying productive by focusing on your job and not doing the work of unproductive co-workers. That’s always a bad pattern to set. Curious, then, that the really unproductive people always seem to notice when they’re doing extra work to help a project. They focus on their role too much and on what everyone else is not doing. Truly productive people don’t even care. They just do whatever it takes to get things done and plow ahead, analyzing the exact role definitions later.

3. I’ll finish that later.

Forget the Mark Twain quote about procrastination. Unproductive people waste time because they live in a constant state of incongruity. The loose ends of their tasks never meet up, and stay loose. They start one Word document, work on it for a while, drop it, then start working on a PowerPoint. In the “picking up and setting down” process they waste time because each tasks needs a jumpstart, which uses more energy.

4. I don’t have all of the answers yet.

Overly detail-oriented people use this one. They wait until everything is perfectly lined up before starting a task, usually languishing in perpetuity because things rarely do line up. And, ironically, some of the employees in your company who are wasting time mindlessly browsing all day are the ones who think they have to wait for the project pieces to fall in place. The solution? Productive people just do whatever they can now on any tasks that need to be done. They don’t wait for the perfect timing.

5. I’ll wait for the boss to tell me what to do.

For any employee in a small business, a lack of independence is a true productivity killer. While someone is waiting to be told what to do, a project will spin out of control. We all know the “get it done” crowd just figures out the problem and starts working on a task. Besides, if the boss has to explain every little detail, that’s using up valuable time anyway.

6. I don’t understand all of the variables.

Really? Is there an employee who won’t act until he or she has all of the answers? That is a sign of someone who will be waiting a long time because no one ever has all of the answers. The folks who started Airbnb and Uber didn’t wait for all of the regulatory issues to be ironed out. And Google didn’t wait to test driverless cars until every state allowed them.

7. I don’t see the benefit for me.

We are living in a world of narcissists who take selfies every 30 minutes and post about their inner feelings on Twitter. The underlying problem? They’re slowing down a project because they only care about their own rewards. Productive people see the greater reward of a successful company and want to play a part in building something cool. The selfies can wait until the weekend.

8. I might not get the credit.

Related to that problem is another productivity destroyer: the need to take credit for the task. The process of hyping up your work, demanding crediting, and pestering people to notice your actions all contribute to an unproductive day. The employees who are slowing things down the most are spending too much time trying to get the attention of the boss.

9. I’m worried about my quality of work.

Productive people know how to slam out good work in a constant flow of creativity and skill. They care about quality, but they also understand that being productive requires a push to finish. When the goal is to always create perfection, unproductive people create a serious slowdown. Praise quality, expect proficiency, but encourage productivity.

10. I might fail.

The hallmark of every unproductive person at work is being worried about failure. It’s a time-tested truth. If employees don’t ever start a project, they don’t have to worry about failure, right? I’ve written about total failure before, but letting a few tasks fail is okay. It means you are trying new things and staying busy. Holding back because you want every task to succeed? It just means completing fewer tasks.


TIME Careers & Workplace

9 Terrible Habits You Need to Stop Immediately

Guy checking internet with laptop at late night with dark room, view from above.
Guy checking internet with laptop at late night with dark room, view from above. Artur Debat—Moment Editorial/Getty Images

This post is in partnership with Inc., which offers useful advice, resources and insights to entrepreneurs and business owners. The article below was originally published at Inc.com.

Author Tim Ferriss suggests some common bad habits you should definitely add to your not-to-do-list.

Perhaps you’ve heard of a “not-to-do list.” CEOs and productivity experts recommend the idea highly as a huge productivity booster that will help you free up time and headspace for all the things that really matter.

Sounds great. But what should go on it? Best-selling author Tim Ferriss has some ideas. In a recent short podcast he offered nine suggestions of bad work habits that many entrepreneurs and others desperately need to eliminate (chances are you are doing at least a couple of these–I’m personally massively guilty of two and five), so there is almost certainly something here that can boost your output.

Don’t overwhelm yourself, Ferriss says. Just tackle one or two at a time, eliminating counterproductive habits step by step, and eventually you’ll reclaim impressive amounts of time and energy.

Do Not Answer Calls from Unrecognized Numbers

Ferriss gives a couple of rationales for this one. First, the interruption will throw your concentration, costing you far more in time and brain power than just the conversation itself, and second, if it’s important, you’ll find yourself in a poor negotiating position, scrambling to formulate your thoughts when the caller is already well prepared. Instead, use Google Voice to check your messages or a service like PhoneTag to have them sent to you as email.

Do Not Email First Thing in the Morning or Last Thing at Night

“The former scrambles your priorities and all your plans for the day and the latter just gives you insomnia,” says Ferriss, who insists “email can wait until 10am” or after you check off at least one substantive to-do list item.

Do Not Agree to Meetings or Calls With No Clear Agenda or End Time

“If the desired outcome is defined clearly… and there’s an agenda listing topics–questions to cover–no meeting or call should last more than 30 minutes,” claims Ferriss, so “request them in advance so you can ‘best prepare and make good use of our time together.’”

Do Not Let People Ramble

Sounds harsh, but it’s necessary, Ferriss believes. “Small talk takes up big time,” he says, so when people start to tell you about their weekends, cut them off politely with something like “I’m in the middle of something, but what’s up?”

But be aware, not everyone agrees with this one (and certainly not in every situation), and you may want to pay particularly close attention to norms around chit chat when traveling internationally.

Do Not Check Email Constantly

Batch it and check it only periodically at set times (Ferriss goes for twice a day). Your inbox is analogous to a cocaine pellet dispenser, says Ferriss. Don’t be an addict. Tools like strategic use of the auto responder and Boomerang can help.

Do Not Over-Communicate With Low Profit, High Maintenance Customers

“Do an 80-20 analysis of your customer base in two ways,” Ferriss advises. “Which 20% are producing 80% or more of my profit, and which 20% are consuming 80% or more of my time? Then put the loudest and least productive on auto-pilot, citing a change of company policy.”

What should those “new policies” look like? Ferriss suggests emailing problem clients with things like guidance on the number of permissible calls and expected response times. If that sounds like it might annoy your loudmouth customers, his response is, essentially, who cares? Point them to other providers if they don’t like the new rules. “Sometimes you really have to fire your customers.”

Do Not Work More to Fix Being Too Busy

The cure for being overwhelmed isn’t working more, it’s sitting down and prioritizing your tasks, Ferriss believes. So don’t make the mistake of working frantically if you’re swamped. Instead, sit down and decide what actually needs doing urgently. If that means apologizing for a slightly late return call or paying a small late fee, so be it, as long as you manage to get the important things done.

“If you don’t have time, the truth is you don’t have priorities, so think harder, don’t work harder,” he says.

Do Not Carry a Digital Leash 24/7

At least one day a week leave you smartphone somewhere where you can’t get easy access to it. If you’re gasping, you’re probably the type of person that most needs to do kick this particular habit.

Do Not Expect Work to Fill a Void That Non-Work Relationships and Activities Should

“Work is not all of life,” says Ferriss. This seems obvious, but the sad truth is that while nearly everyone would agree to this in principle, it’s easy to let things slide to a point where your actions and your stated values don’t match up. Defend the time you have scheduled for loved ones and cool activities with the same ferocity you apply to getting to an important meeting for your business.

TIME Careers & Workplace

How the Best People Handle Setbacks and Criticism

This post is in partnership with Inc., which offers useful advice, resources and insights to entrepreneurs and business owners. The article below was originally published at Inc.com.

Executive Coach Mark Thompson shares lessons from America’s most successful executives on how to gracefully survive a professional drubbing.

When it became clear this spring that Alan Mulally, Ford’s CEO, wasn’t going to be selected for the top spot at Microsoft, the software company’s stock took a hit. You might think Mulally’s ego would take one, too. As it happens, he took it in stride. (Ford showed their love by awarding him another $14 million in stock for the company’s prior year’s performance. And now that he’s announced his retirement this summer, there’s an epic line of companies hungry to recruit him.)

Mulally wasn’t always in so much demand or as sanguine in the face of rejection. When Mulally was Boeing’s president, it was widely expected that he would be made CEO after a decade of successes at the company. He lead the development of the 777 and shepherded the aircraft maker through a vibrant recovery from the financial wounds inflicted by 9/11 (the terrorists used a Boeing 757 and 767s in the attack).

Mulally admits that when Boeing passed him over for the job, he was briefly devastated. But he quickly recovered because, he says, “a bad attitude simply erases everyone else’s memory of the incredible progress achieved.” He did not want to tarnish all “the great progress we had made” by becoming that bitter guy. He chose, instead, to remain a proud and gifted leader – albeit one who had suffered a professional setback. He was promptly recruited by Ford to re-ignite another iconic American manufacturer.

Legendary leaders like Mulally have three coping mechanisms that help them get through times when criticism, failure or disappointment threaten to rob the mojo that made them successful in the first place.

  1. Just let it go! Anyone who’s spent time with Mulally has inevitably heard that signature catchphrase. When I asked how he felt about being slighted by bosses during various turns in his career, he took a long, deep breath and exhaled as deliberately as a yoga instructor. “The competition is out there,” he advised, looking peacefully out the window from his Dearborn, Michigan, office. “Not in here.” Don’t let anyone else’s opinion define who you are going to be.
  2. Turn your wounds into wisdom. When Charles ‘Chuck’ Schwab flunked English and was nearly thrown out of college, he said he was “humiliated because I had always thought I was a reasonably smart guy and I didn’t realize how pathetic I was at the skill of reading and writing.” Schwab recruited friends and family to help him deliver the goods in school. His reading and writing troubles, he would later discover, were, and still are, the result of dyslexia. “It might seem odd,” said Schwab, “but what felt like a deficit was a real benefit.” His reading disability taught him how to recruit a talented, trustworthy team and forced him to become a skilled delegator. Ultimately, those skills enabled him to scale a business much sooner than most of his classmates at Stanford Business School. “Brilliant entrepreneurs think they can do everything, and they don’t spend enough time finding the right people to grow the business,” he shrugged. Failure teaches life’s most important lessons if you’re smart and brave enough to listen.
  3. Face the brutal truth. Criticism usually hurts most when it’s true. Learn to suck it up and face the music. I’ve been on many Silicon Valley boards, including Rioport, the San Jose startup credited for having popularized the mp3 player long before Apple’s iPod. The battle for digital content was in full swing (Remember Napster?!) and we felt full of ourselves because we were actually making real money selling thousands of the newfangled media devices. I was bragging about all this during a speech in Silicon Valley when Steve Jobs wandered up to the front of the room. He smirked at me and said our hot little gadget was a “geeky piece of crap” and that he’d “crush it in about year.” All I wanted to do in that moment was to hit the arrogant SOB in the face with my handheld microphone. I’d just mortgaged my house and was about to invest the proceeds in Rioport. Then there was this horrible feeling in the pit of my stomach. He was right, and he knew it – and if I was honest, I knew it, too. The brutal truth was that Rioport was a quality product and an awesome step forward in the digital revolution, but frankly those features weren’t enough to overcome the fact that it was way too hard for the masses to use. I spent the following year having a series of dinners with Steve, soaking up his vision for digital media. The good news is that I invested those mortgage proceeds in Apple stock rather than that long-forgotten, but visionary startup. As Alan Mulally often counsels “Winners learn quickly how to get out of their own way.”


TIME Careers & Workplace

9 Guaranteed Ways to Kill Your Credibility

Frustrated businessman sitting at desk with head in hands
Paul Bradbury—Getty Images/OJO Images

These common mistakes make others wonder whether you're worthy of their attention

This post is in partnership with Inc., which offers useful advice, resources, and insights to entrepreneurs and business owners. The article below was originally published at Inc.com.

Your ability to influence others is directly dependent upon how credible you seem. If meeting attendees don’t perceive you as intelligent, competent and trustworthy, they’ll want to do business with somebody else.

With that in mind, here are nine common meeting-room behaviors to avoid:

1. Phrases that imply deception.

Beginning a statement with “In all honesty,” “Honestly,” or “To be honest,” it implies that up until that point, you’ve been lying

2. Words that sound sales-y.

Most people don’t trust salespeople (wrongly, in my view) so using words like “guarantee,” “discount,” and even “solution” makes you seem less trustworthy.

3. Excessive corporate-speak.

The occasional use of words like “leverage,” “impact,” and “reach out” is no big deal but it sounds ridiculous when every sentence is splattered with biz-blab.

4. Overuse of acronyms.

Acronyms are OK as shorthand, but if you use them too much, people get lost in the alphabet soup and start wondering if you actually know what you’re talking about.

5. Non-commitments.

Phrases like “I’ll try” or “I’ll see what I can do” make you appear unsure of your own ability to deliver. Either commit or don’t commit; there is no “try.”

6. Riffing.

When you admit ignorance, your credibility may suffer, but not nearly so much as when your improvised answers are revealed as a huge pile of BS.

7. Inappropriate humor.

A little light humor never hurt anyone, but any “joke” that references race, sex, gender, politics or religion is best left unsaid.

8. Repeatedly interrupting.

It makes you look both insecure AND disrespectful when you keep inserting yourself when someone else is speaking. The absolute worst: finishing other people’s sentences.

9. Failure to take responsibility.

Mistakes don’t help your credibility but trying to fix blame elsewhere is far worse. It’s always smarter to ‘fess up than finger-point.

Read more from Inc.com:

The Psychological Price of Entrepreneurship

14 Tactics for Reading People’s Body Language

The One Trait That Guarantees a Good Hire

7 Things You Can Do on Friday to Make Monday Awesome

Sheryl Sandberg and the Hypocrisy of Lean In

TIME Careers & Workplace

11 Surefire Ways to Turn Your Dreams Into Reality

Maria Teijeiro—Getty Images/OJO Images RF

This post is in partnership with Inc., which offers useful advice, resources and insights to entrepreneurs and business owners. The article below was originally published at Inc.com.

By Brent Gleeson

The loftiest goal I ever set in the early stages of my professional career was to become a Navy SEAL. Achieving that milestone gave me a new perspective and set the foundation for the rest of my life. Nothing seemed too far from my grasp.

The first six months of training, called Basis Underwater Demolition/SEAL, is designed to identify those not solely committed to the mission of becoming a Navy SEAL, separate them from the herd, and force them to quit. Unless you quickly identify what you personally need to be successful, you will fail. Here are 11 important tactics I learned during that journey that I use every day in the constant pursuit of personal and professional success.

1. Get the simple things right.

During training, Sunday was always depressing, because you knew the inevitable torture that Monday would bring. Monday was inspection day. To be successful as a SEAL, your attention to detail must be unwavering. So you start with the little things, like making your bed and cleaning the floors. I used to keep my bed impeccably made and sleep on top of the covers with a sleeping bag. If everything wasn’t perfect, you paid for it. And sometimes when it was perfect, you paid anyway. The lesson: If you can’t get the simple things right, you can’t expect to successfully tackle more daunting tasks.

2. Set both realistic and unrealistic goals.

Successful people are relentless goal setters. They break down larger milestones into smaller, more achievable tasks. One of the most unrealistic goals a SEAL candidate can set is completing Hell Week. You don’t sleep for a week. You run countless miles with boats, logs, and backpacks. You swim dozens of miles in the frigid ocean. You run the obstacle course daily and do more pushups and pull-ups than you can count. All while battling second-stage hypothermia, sores, and often fractures. Some students quit just minutes into Hell Week. You can’t allow yourself to imagine what the end will look like. So you make–and achieve–one small goal at a time and pray for the sun to come up the next day. A series of near-term realistic goals will help you get closer to your big audacious ones.

3. Work hard.

This one seems obvious, but many people underestimate the level of effort it takes to be successful and achieve aggressive goals. It astonishes me that some of the guys showing up to SEAL training put no real time or effort into preparation. If you don’t work hard preparing for potential success, you won’t change that behavior when things get really tough.

4. Get others to work with you.

A SEAL training class is broken down into boat crews of seven guys each: three on either side of the boat and a coxswain in the rear steering. During the first phase of training, you take the boats out through the surf and paddle miles up and down the beach every day. I was in a winter class, where the swells can be up to 10 feet or more. It takes every man digging in and paddling hard just to get through the surf zone without getting tossed upside down. When setting goals and pursuing success, you must sometimes lead and get others to paddle with you. You can’t do it all alone. The minute you realize that you don’t know everything and need help along the way, the better off you will be.

5. Don’t make excuses.

Successful people don’t make excuses for failure or shortcomings. They acknowledge their strengths and weaknesses and seek feedback from trusted advisers. The longer you sit around making excuses, the further you will drift from the possibility of achieving your goals.

6. Don’t underestimate others.

One of the most fascinating things about SEAL training is that out of the couple hundred guys who start a training class, you could never hand pick the 30 or so who will graduate. Rarely is it the Rambo types who make it. Usually they are the first to go. Underestimating people, whether peers or competitors, is one of the worst things you can do. People who go far in life measure others by qualities such as integrity and strength of heart. Empower those around you, and you will be surprised by the outcome.

7. Be willing to fail.

When entering this phase of my life, I knew that statistically, the odds were not in my favor. I also knew that if I didn’t try, I would never forgive myself. I decided that I would rather try and fail than be the guy who says, “I was thinking about trying that.” You simply can’t look at life through a lens of fear. If you take a calculated risk and fail, at the very least you have a valuable learning experience. Get back up. Dust off. And never, ever, be out of the fight.

8. Embrace the repercussions of your actions.

On your path to success, you will make mistakes. One of my early mistakes was slacking off on my pushups after the obstacle course during the first day of the third phase of training. An instructor was looking through the rearview mirror while sitting in the truck. He was counting to see if I did the required 50. I decided to do 30-ish. That mistake earned me a spot with the “cheaters” the following week while at the shooting range. Each day, before we started, during lunch, and between drills, the cheaters would line up and sprint to the top of a nearby mountain in full gear. If you failed to make the cutoff time, you ran it again. It was torture. But the week after, I miraculously cut my four-mile run time by three minutes. Learn from your mistakes and turn the consequences into something positive.

9. Don’t back down.

My favorite passage from the Navy SEAL creed reads: “I will never quit. I persevere and thrive on adversity. My Nation expects me to be physically harder and mentally stronger than my enemies. If knocked down, I will get back up, every time. I will draw on every remaining ounce of strength to protect my teammates and to accomplish our mission. I am never out of the fight.” Enough said.

10. Laugh when you want to cry.

Staying positive seems like an obvious trait for successful people, but it’s easier said than done. Your character is defined by what you do when things get tough. During Hell Week, one of the fun tasks is called “steel pier.” After spending some time in the cold water of San Diego Bay, you strip down to your undershorts and lie down on the freezing metal pier while the instructors spray you with hoses. Your body convulses uncontrollably as it reaches stage-two hypothermia. But the guys who found the strength to laugh (partly because of delirium) during this event were the ones standing proud at graduation. When things get rough and are out of your control, don’t forget to laugh.

11. Make sacrifices.

Success comes with sacrifice. Let selfish ways fall by the wayside, and know that you can’t have your cake and eat it, too. The most successful people in the world have made significant sacrifices along the way. To become a SEAL, you give up comfort, and the discomfort only increases the further you go. But you get used to it, because you know what you are doing is worth it.

The path to success is paved with seemingly insurmountable obstacles, but you can’t lose heart. Stay strong, be humble, and lean on others for support when necessary.

Read more from Inc.com:
How 4 Entrepreneurs Started Up (Really) Young
Firing an Employee–Even a Bad One–Is Hard to Do

TIME Careers & Workplace

3 Dead Simple Ways to Catch a Liar in the Act

3 Dead Simple Ways to Catch a Liar in the Act
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Watch for these tells

This post is in partnership with Inc., which offers useful advice, resources, and insights to entrepreneurs and business owners. The article below was originally published at Inc.com.

Two people want to sell you something. One of them is lying.

The first tells you calmly, “I promise you’re going to love this.”

The second is much more animated. He exclaims: “You’re going to [bleeping] love this. It’s [bleeping] amazing, totally unbelievable, [bleeping] going to blow you away. Everybody loves it. You’re going to love it, too.”

Which one is more likely to be telling the truth? According to researchers cited by Harvard Business School’s Working Knowledge, three verbal cues give bald-faced liars away.

How did the researchers come to this conclusion? They saw what happened when they brought in 104 people to play something called “the ultimatum game.”

The rules are simple: One person is given a secret sum of money. He’s introduced to a second person, and he has to propose to split what he has been given with that second person. The second player, who has no way of knowing for sure how much the first person has been given, can either accept the division as proposed or reject it. If the receiving player rejects the offer, he gets a token sum, but the offering player gets nothing.

Thus, the person with the money has incentives to make his offer seem reasonable, and also possibly to bluff. As the report further explained:

[E]ach game included two minutes of videotaped conversation in which the receiver could grill the allocator with questions, prior to deciding whether to accept or reject the offer. This provided ample opportunity for the allocator to tell the truth about the money, lie, or try to avoid the subject altogether.

“We wanted to create a situation where people could choose to lie or not lie, and it would happen naturally,” says the study’s lead author, Lyn M. Van Swol, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Watching how the players interacted, Van Swol and her colleagues at the University of Wisconsin and Harvard concluded that players exhibited three easy “tells” when they were lying.

1. Verbosity

The first tell was simply that the liars tended to use a lot more words to make their points than the truth-tellers did.

“Just like Pinocchio’s nose, the number of words grew along with the lie,” says Van Swol. The only caveat here is that people who deceived simply by omitting facts, rather than offering untrue ones, also tended to use fewer words. So don’t consider this tell foolproof.

2. Profanity

It turns out that people who swear more often tend to lie more often, too. In the study, this was even more pronounced after the receiving player challenged them.

“We think this may be due to the fact that it takes a lot of cognitive energy to lie,” Van Swol says. “Using so much of your brain to lie may make it hard to monitor yourself in other areas.”

3. Projection

The final major tell was that liars tended to use third-person pronouns more often (“he,” “she,” and “they”), presumably instead of making offers and justifications in the first person (“me” or “I”).

“This is a way of distancing themselves from and avoiding ownership of the lie,” Van Swol explains. Liars also used more complex sentence structure.

In case you’re wondering about the human-nature part of this experiment, the researchers divulged that 70 percent of the allocators told the truth about how much money they had received.

Read more from Inc.com:
How 4 Entrepreneurs Started Up (Really) Young
Firing an Employee–Even a Bad One–Is Hard to Do

TIME Careers & Workplace

1 Word That Immediately Kills Your Credibility

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Never say it again, if you can help it

This post is in partnership with Inc., which offers useful advice, resources, and insights to entrepreneurs and business owners. The article below was originally published at Inc.com.

I have watched more salespeople and companies pitch their ideas over the years than I care to count. And during thousands of interviews with consumers about how they use different products and services and respond to marketing messages, I have honed the craft of ferreting out telltale signs of lies and omissions.

From that experience, I am going to let you in on a little secret about a word you should stop using immediately.

It is “actually.”

For the experienced listener, “actually” is a dead giveaway of an area that at the least needs to be further investigated, and may point at a deception.

Let me explain. When you use the word “actually” properly, you are comparing two thoughts and providing clarification.

For example:

Question: “Did you go to the store for milk?”

Answer: “Actually, I stopped at a gas station.”

In this example, it is easy to see why someone might use the word . The original question suggested that you went to the store, but you might not think that a gas station is really a store. In your mind, you are comparing and justifying the decision to stop at a gas station rather than a grocery store.

Back to the business setting: Extra words used in a sales presentation or investor pitch are unnecessary. They subconsciously point listeners to question if there’s more unspoken information. The word “actually” serves as a spoken pause, giving the presenter’s brain time to catch up and decide how to resolve the conflict in their mind between the question asked and reality.

A common example of how this plays out in a sales presentation or investor pitch:

Question: “How many customers are using the platform?”

Answer: “We actually have over 100 companies.”

The word “actually” isn’t important to the answer. It’s extra information that makes the listener curious as to why the word was added. An astute investor or customer will follow up with a request to see a customer list or to get a customer referral.

In a customer interview, the customer may use the word as a way to please the person asking the question:

Question: “Do you use this product?”

Answer: “Actually, I have.”

To the experienced listener, this answer actually (get it?) means, “No, I have never used it” or “I used it once and it didn’t do what I expected or needed.” An appropriate follow-up is to ask for a specific example or time that the function was used.

Perfecting your pitch requires attention to what you say and removing anything that distracts them from your primary message. As a listener, keying in on the word “actually” can clue you in to the subconscious and give you a competitive edge.

Read more from Inc.com:
How 4 Entrepreneurs Started Up (Really) Young
Firing an Employee–Even a Bad One–Is Hard to Do

TIME Careers & Workplace

3 Sentences That Can Basically Destroy You

Frustrated businessman sitting at desk with head in hands
Paul Bradbury—Getty Images/OJO Images

When these utterances start to become commonplace around the office, it just might be the beginning of the end.

This post is in partnership with Inc., which offers useful advice, resources, and insights to entrepreneurs and business owners. The article below was originally published at Inc.com.

If you hear any of these three sentences at work more than once or twice, you can be certain that your company is heading down a dead-end path:

1. “We’ve always done it this way.”

If there’s anything true in the business world, it’s that what worked in the past isn’t going to work in the future. Clinging to what’s “tried and true” leads to pursuing wooden-headed strategies long after it’s clear that those strategies aren’t working.

A perfect example of this is Microsoft’s belief in the concept of “Windows Everywhere.” The company keeps trying to launch tablets and phones with Windows on them, even thoughthe market has repeatedly made it clear that nobody wants the darn things.

In smaller companies, “we’ve always done it this way” manifests itself in an unwillingness to build process and structure as the company grows. A freewheeling approach to doing business works inside startups but is toxic inside a larger firm.

The Cure: “What worked in the past won’t work in the future.”

2. “But that can’t be true!”

Human beings have an innate tendency towards what psychologists call “confirmation bias.” This consists of sorting incoming information as being true/untrue and relevant/irrelevant based on how well that data fits with previously-held opinions.

Here’s an example from my own experience. Back in the 1980s, I gave a presentation to the C-level executives in a minicomputer firm which showed that PC sales were growing exponentially while minicomputer sales were flat. Even though the data came from SEC filings, the executives simply refused to believe that the data was true.

Similarly, entrepreneurs often believe so strongly in their company and product that they miss trends that are changing their industry and making their “vision” no longer valid.

The Cure: “Let’s not throw good money after bad.”

3. “We’ll make it happen… somehow.”

While there’s value in thinking positively, expecting something miraculous to happen sets you up to fail. Success in business is about assessing reality and taking appropriate action. It’s not about waiting for the magic fairy of profitability to fly in the window.

This type of wishful thinking results, for instance, in sales forecasts that crutch on winning huge amounts of business in the last two weeks of the fourth quarter. Which ain’t gonna happen.

Similarly, it turns up in implementations plans that walk backwards from an unrealistic release date. Healthcare.gov is a perfect example, but I’ve seen the same thing in small organizations, when managers grossly underestimate the amount of time and work it takes to create a truly great product.

The Cure: “Don’t hope and pray. Plan then act.”

Read more from Inc.com:
How 4 Entrepreneurs Started Up (Really) Young
Firing an Employee–Even a Bad One–Is Hard to Do

TIME Careers & Workplace

7 Ways You’re Annoying Absolutely Everybody

Recognize these behaviors?

This post is in partnership with Inc., which offers useful advice, resources, and insights to entrepreneurs and business owners. The article below was originally published at Inc.com.

You know the type… there’s one in every office. Maybe he listens to his music at near concert-level volume. Or she abuses the “CC” button on emails.

But when was the last time you stopped to wonder if you’re the annoying employee in the office?

If you do any of the following things, you, my friend, may be the one your co-workers try hard to avoid:

1. You pass off work.
I’m not talking about delegation here–that’s different. I’m talking about routinely sloughing off tasks to employees that you just don’t want to do. Need someone to pitch in on something while you’re away from the office? Find a way to return the offer so employees know you care about pulling your weight.

2. You insist on tweaking things to perfection–yourself.
If you’re the person who constantly refuses to see eye-to-eye with your team on whether or not a product is finished, expect disgruntled employees. You’re likely wasting time and money trying to reach your own unattainable standard. Why not try to set a new standard? Make 80 percent the new 100 percent. Stop chasing perfection and begin focusing on getting projects and tasks to the point where they’re good enough.

3. You often shout commands.
There’s a big difference between delegating tasks and ordering others around. Establish more pleasant and effective interactions by asking your employees for their input on given situations or projects. This allows them to come up with their own solution, rather than forcing them to simply swallow yours.

4. You’re avoidant.
Are you MIA at company cocktail hour or other staff events? Bad idea. You’re missing out on informal ways to chat up your employees and learn more about their ideas. While being friends with your employees isn’t necessary (or maybe even all that desirable), putting effort into strengthening working relationships almost always pays off.

5. You lack professionalism.
The idea of what is and isn’t casual varies from workplace to workplace, but there are a few behaviors that should be deemed unacceptable across the board. For instance: gossiping, sharing too much personal information, and not using your manners–just to name a few. Just because you’re the boss doesn’t give you license to do any of the above.

6. You enjoy raining on the parade.
Your negativity may be getting in the way of your employees’ happiness. Positivity and optimism aren’t realistic every day, but consistently exuding negativity will bring your colleagues down.

7. You regularly waste time at meetings.
Meetings are the No. 1 productivity killer. You of all be shouldn’t be the person who is constantly straying from the presentation, asking unnecessary questions, and circling back on points. This doesn’t just waste your employees’ time, it also wastes your own. Keep it concise and relevant.

What’s the most annoying office habit you’ve experienced?

Read more from Inc.com:
How 4 Entrepreneurs Started Up (Really) Young
Firing an Employee–Even a Bad One–Is Hard to Do


4 Money Mistakes That Will Totally Ruin You

Jay Myrdal—Getty Images

Not your usual advice

This post is in partnership with Inc., which offers useful advice, resources, and insights to entrepreneurs and business owners. The article below was originally published at Inc.com.You’ve heard the advice before: Diversify, make time work for you, and embrace stocks. For most folks, those are the core pillars of any investment strategy. For business owners, that’s true only up to a point. You are different and need to invest accordingly.That assumes, ahem, that you’re investing at all–and haven’t fallen for the old misconception that your company is the only investment you will ever need. Says Jeffrey Levine of Alkon & Levine, a Newton, Massachusetts, accounting firm specializing in small business: “I want entrepreneurs to know that the odds that their company will become a huge success–enough to meet all their financial needs through retirement–are against them.So it’s important to put something aside on a regular basis.” In other words: Build your company as if it will last forever, but invest your personal wealth as if everything will collapse tomorrow. We talked with experts such as Levine and Allan Roth, of Wealth Logic, an investment-advisory firm in Colorado Springs, Colorado, about the other mistakes business owners make.

Here are some ways not to be your own financial enemy.

1. Be a conservative. You already believe that you aren’t like regular wage earners–and when it comes to investing, you’re not. Your salaried peers, even at the same age, are going to be more aggressive in their investments. “There is no single magic metric for entrepreneurs,” Roth says. “Adages like ‘Subtract your age from 100 and that’s the percentage of your portfolio that should be in stocks’ just don’t apply. It’s highly situational.”

That said, Roth suggests that entrepreneurs who have substantial assets invested in their companies should favor more conservative options. Moshe Milevsky, author of Are You a Stock or a Bond?, says launching a company is like investing in an über-growth stock: When it comes to your portfolio, you should be a little more bond-centric as a hedge against your risky line of business.

2. Save something. Please. It’s almost a cliche in the small-business community: You take every last dime in your pocket or every last dime from your friends and family and plunk it right into your business until death do you part. But as you can see from the chart (right), the return on that investment is far from a sure thing. Simply put, sinking your every last cent into your company isn’t a good idea.

In fact, treating your business as your sole investment is the ultimate “antidiversification” strategy. Says Levine: “To me, it always makes sense to save for a rainy day…build your business and your portfolio.”

3. Startups have their own tax privileges. Especially in the startup years, you may have tax-savings options that employees don’t. Here’s one sometimes overlooked move that has helped owners who are booking losses. Wealth Logic’s Roth suggests a Roth IRA conversion strategy. Normally, when converting from a traditional IRA to a Roth IRA (no relation), investors pay tax. But an owner suffering a loss can often make the conversion tax free–by offsetting losses from the business against income from the conversion. Bottom line: You move tax-deferred IRA funds to a tax-free Roth IRA without paying taxes, or by paying only a low marginal rate.

4. Don’t fall in love with your own expertise. “One common mistake that entrepreneurs make when investing,” says Roth, “is to invest too heavily in the industry that their business is in. They feel that because they know that sector so well, they stand a better chance of success.” Far from guaranteed.

Sure, you might get lucky, and your sector could leave the S&P in the dust. But keep in mind that such outperformance can also reverse. Remember those banks a few short years ago or tech in 2000?

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