TIME Careers & Workplace

15 Exceptional Ways to Kick Your Productivity Way Up

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Here's how you can quickly get on track

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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.

Being productive is a great thing. Not only does it increase your self-confidence and sense of well-being, it can also make you more effective and your company more profitable. The ultimate reward for keeping your focus and being productive is more free time for you. And who doesn’t want more free time?

Everyone hits productivity lows, which is OK as long as they don’t last too long. Here are 15 ways to kick your productivity into high gear.

Don’t know where to begin?

1. The first step is to create a to-do list. When is the best time to create a to-do list? At the end of your workday while everything is still fresh in your mind or Sunday night after (hopefully) a restful weekend. This allows you to shut out work completely once you’re home for the night or weekend and to hit the ground running with your list in hand the next morning. It’s always a good idea to keep some paper handy during your workday to take notes and add things to your to-do list. This allows you to clear your head by getting those thoughts onto paper so you can continue to focus on the task at hand.

2. The next step is to choose one difficult, possibly longer task on your list to complete first. The sense of achievement you experience from checking off that one really hard thing on your list helps set the tone for the easier tasks to follow. They will feel like a walk in the park after you’ve tackled the hard stuff.

When is the best time to be productive?

3. A lot of this depends on who you are as a person. It is often suggested that we get up early and get to work while things are still quiet—less office chatter, fewer interruptions, just peace and solitude. Although this advice is good for some, it’s not good for everyone—we’re not all early birds. You need to dig deep and figure out when you are most productive. Maybe it’s closer to noon when you begin to feel the stirrings of being alive and able to produce. The point here is, don’t push through your to-do list during times when you tend to be the least productive—choose those times when you function at your best. Save easy to-dos for your less productive times of the day.

Hit a wall?

4. Take a walk outside and get some fresh air. Even a five-minute walk can wake you up and make you feel rejuvenated enough to dig back into work.

5. Take time out to clean and organize your desk and perhaps redecorate.Sometimes the clutter, the dust, and the really dirty keyboard can be a distraction. It’s amazing how cleaning your desk and making it an organized, beautiful place to work again can boost your productivity. Consider a new chair or adding some plants or a fish in a small bowl. Research has proved that the simple addition of a plant can increase productivity by 15 percent.

6. Take some time to browse the Web–look up things that are of interest to you.Research has shown that if you take a short break to surf the Web—say five to 15 minutes—you will feel refreshed and ready to throw yourself into work again. You may even find new inspiration and think of a new way to get through the current to-do.

7. Try laughter. Watch a couple of skits from Saturday Night Live or some other comedy show you enjoy, even if for only five minutes. Laughter increases productivity and makes you feel happier too.

8. Stand at your desk, stretch, and try deep breathing for at least five minutes. A good recipe for deep breathing: Inhale through your nose while counting slowly to 7; hold your breath for another slow count to 7; and then slowly exhale through your mouth for a slow count to 7. Go through this process 7 to 10 times. Now pat yourself on the back for completing your first meditation session and because you feel much better and can get back to work.

9. Take a snack break–the high-protein, high-fiber variety. This kind of snack—search the Web for ideas—will give you the brain boost you need for increased productivity. Sugary, high-carb snacks just bog you down and make it more likely that you will want to take a nap instead of work.

10. Stay hydrated. The older you get, the harder it is to sense that you’re thirsty. Dehydration can cause sleepiness, confusion, irritability, and other side effects (another great Web search opportunity). What is the best way to hydrate? Water—keep it handy at all times and keep drinking the stuff. It will help you maintain your focus, stay awake, and keep your productivity on high.

11. If your wall is still up, try taking a nap for up to 20 minutes. Yes, you read that right. Go to your car, a couch, or other place you feel comfortable—and take a nap. Naps as short as 15 minutes can increase alertness, improve your mood, and get your productivity juices flowing again.

Do you multitask?

12. Don’t. Research has shown that multitasking can be a productivity crusher, causing wasted time and more errors. Boost your productivity by focusing on one to-do at a time instead of switching from task to task. Occasionally, you will have to switch tasks if something hot hits your desk. Just make this the exception and not the norm. Better to place that hot item at the top of your to-do list and finish what you were doing first, thereby keeping your productivity from ending with a screeching halt.

If nothing seems to be working

13. Sometimes the problem is constant distractions. Shut off the email ping, put a Do Not Disturb Sign on your office door, or wear some headphones to shut out the noise. Research has shown that each distraction can cause up to a 20-minute delay in productivity. This can really add up, with multiple distractions decreasing productivity significantly.

14. Take a vacation. Not just a long weekend–a real vacation away from it all. If you can, take a couple weeks. Two weeks is optimal for complete recovery from the stresses of work. It’s amazing how real time away from work can give you a whole new perspective and research has shown that even a weeklong vacation increases reaction time and productivity.

15. Last resort. Perhaps you are having trouble with productivity because you simply don’t enjoy what you’re doing anymore. Think about your current work choice—is it still resonating with you? Do you ever feel excited about your work? If the answer is no, it may be time to find a new job or career entirely. If you can find your real passion in life, your productivity will go through the roof without your even trying.

TIME Careers & Workplace

Mark Zuckerberg’s 10 Best Quotes Ever

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg delivers a speech in Jakarta on October 13, 2014.
Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg delivers a speech in Jakarta on October 13, 2014. ROMEO GACAD—AFP/Getty Images

The best from the ever-quotable founder of Facebook

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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.

Facebook CEO and founder Mark Zuckerberg is a true pioneer in the realm of technology. Time has named him among the top 100 most influential people in the world, and his personal wealth is currently estimated at more than $34 billion. (A portion of that wealth, he just announced, will be dedicated to combating the Ebola virus.) Zuckerberg famously launched Facebook from his Harvard dorm room in February 2004. Today, the social network has, on average, over 800 million daily users, and was most recently valued at $200 billion, Time reports.

In honor of the wunderkind’s unprecedented success, here are 10 of his best quotes to inspire entrepreneurs in any industry. (We’ll admit, some of them are just as out-of-the-box as Zuckerberg himself.)

1. “In a world that’s changing really quickly, the only strategy that is guaranteed to fail is not taking risks.” —From an October 2011 interview at Y Combinator’s Startup School in Palo Alto, California.

2. “The question isn’t ‘What do we want to know about people?’ It’s, ‘What do people want to tell about themselves?” —From a November 2011 interview with Charlie Rose.

3. “I literally coded Facebook in my dorm room and launched it from my dorm room. I rented a server for $85 a month, and I funded it by putting an ad on the site, and we’ve funded ever since by putting ads on the site.” —In the same Charlie Rose interview, Zuckberg spoke about the social media giant’s humble beginnings.

4. “A squirrel dying in your front yard may be more relevant to your interests right now than people dying in Africa.” —From a speech given to his colleagues at Facebook about relevance, as reported by The New York Times.

5. “Move fast and break things. Unless you are breaking stuff, you are not moving fast enough.” —In an interview with Business Insider’s Henry Blodget, Zuckberg opened up about innovation, management, and more. Recently, however, he announced that Facebook would be changing this motto.

6. “This is a perverse thing, personally, but I would rather be in the cycle where people are underestimating us. It gives us the latitude to go out and make big bets that excite and amaze people.” —The entrepreneur offered his thoughts on dealing with skeptics, in an interview at TechCrunch’s Disrupt SF conference in September 2012, as reported by Forbes.

7. “People can be really smart or have skills that are directly applicable, but if they don’t really believe in it, then they are not going to really work hard.” —From a Stanford University speaker series on hiring the right people, given October 2005.

8. “People don’t care about what someone says about you in a movie–or even what you say, right? They care about what you build.” —From an interview with ABC’s Diane Sawyer in July 2010.

9. “In Silicon Valley, you get this feeling that you have to be out here. But it’s not the only place to be. If I were starting now, I would have stayed in Boston. [Silicon Valley] is a little short-term focused and that bothers me.” —Also from the October 2011 interview at Y Combinator’s Startup School in Palo Alto, California.

10. “The question I ask myself like almost every day is, ‘Am I doing the most important thing I could be doing?’ … Unless I feel like I’m working on the most important problem that I can help with, then I’m not going to feel good about how I’m spending my time. —From Marcia Amidon Lusted’s biography Mark Zuckerberg: Facebook Creator.

Envious of the tech prodigy’s entrepreneurial success? Take his advice, and start breaking something today.

TIME psychology

How Can We Spur Innovation at Work — And in Ourselves?

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Eric Barker writes Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

In order to innovate in a way that is both practical and effective you need to make “little bets.”

What’s a little bet?

A small experiment that tests a theory. It’s just big enough to give you the answer you need but not so big that it wastes too much precious time, money or resources.

Rather than going all-in on the first idea you have and risk losing everything, a little bet allows you to break out of your comfort zone and try something new knowing that if it doesn’t work out you can quickly recover and try something else.

Little Bets

The best book on the subject is the aptly titled Little Bets: How Breakthrough Ideas Emerge from Small Discoveries. Peter Sims explains why it’s such a strong concept:

Little Bets is based on the proposition that we can use a lot of little bets and certain creative methods to identify possibilities and build up to great outcomes. At the core of this experimental approach, little bets are concrete actions taken to discover, test, and develop ideas that are achievable and affordable. They begin as creative possibilities that get iterated and refined over time, and they are particularly valuable when trying to navigate amid uncertainty, create something new, or attend to open-ended problems. When we can’t know what’s going to happen, little bets help us learn about the factors that can’t be understood beforehand. The important thing to remember is that while prodigies are exceptionally rare, anyone can use little bets to unlock creative ideas.

It’s an excellent book but what really struck me was when I saw this same underlying principle popping up again and again in different arenas.

In Business

In Eric Ries’ acclaimed bestseller The Lean Startup he makes it clear that little bets, or “experiments”, are critical to moving a business forward in a safe fashion:

…if you cannot fail, you cannot learn.

He tells the story of how Nick Swinmurn, founder of Zappos, tested his theory that selling shoes on the web would work.

Swinmurn could have started the company, raised venture capital, aligned partners and then found out if it was a terrible idea. Instead he went to local shoe stores and took pictures:

His hypothesis was that customers were ready and willing to buy shoes online. To test it, he began by asking local shoe stores if he could take pictures of their inventory. In exchange for permission to take the pictures, he would post the pictures online and come back to buy the shoes at full price if a customer bought them online.

Zappos began with a tiny, simple product. it was designed to answer one question above all: is there really sufficient demand for a superior online shopping experience for shoes?

And, obviously, it worked.

The Arts

So little bets make sense for formal things like businesses but can they help someone in a more creative arena?

The more creative an artist is the more likely they are to use this method:

Via Little Bets: How Breakthrough Ideas Emerge from Small Discoveries

In a study of thirty-five artists, Getzels and Csikszentmihalyi found that the most creative in their sample were more open to experimentation and to reformulating their ideas for projects than their less creative counterparts.

Howard Gardner studied geniuses like Picasso, Freud and Stravinsky and found a similar pattern of analyzing, testing and feedback:

Via Creating Minds: An Anatomy of Creativity Seen Through the Lives of Freud, Einstein, Picasso, Stravinsky, Eliot, Graham, and Ghandi:

Creative individuals spend a considerable amount of time reflecting on what they are trying to accomplish, whether or not they are achieving success (and, if not, what they might do differently).

Chris Rock makes “little bets” in order to improve his comedy:

Via Little Bets: How Breakthrough Ideas Emerge from Small Discoveries:

For a full routine, Rock tries hundreds (if not thousands) of preliminary ideas, out of which only a handful will make the final cut… By the time Rock reaches a big show— say an HBO special or an appearance on David Letterman— his jokes, opening, transitions, and closing have all been tested and retested rigorously. Developing an hour-long act takes even top comedians from six months to a year.

Everyday Life

What about for normal people with normal lives? It works for the rest of us too.

In Cal Newport’s book So Good They Can’t Ignore You he recommends little bets for someone trying to develop their skills and create a career:

The important thing about little bets is that they’re bite-sized. You try one. It takes a few months at most. It either succeeds or fails, but either way you get important feedback to guide your next steps. This approach stands in contrast to the idea of choosing a bold plan and making one big bet on its success.

As Dan Pink explains in his excellent career guide The Adventures of Johnny Bunko:

There is no plan.

Life is too complicated to be able to predict the future. All-in bets on your career are too risky. You need to make little bets and experiment.

Keep in mind that feedback is critical. If you want to test a theory or master a subject you need solid feedback and you need it fast. This is what the best mentors provide. So have some system in place that will tell you whether or not the little bet is meeting your goal.

Picking a “Little Bet”

Okay, so which bets do you make? How do you use them to get where you want to go?

Peter Sims lays out a straightforward process for coming up with little bets and how to best execute them to learn and get results.

Via Little Bets: How Breakthrough Ideas Emerge from Small Discoveries:

  • Experiment: Learn by doing. Fail quickly to learn fast. Develop experiments and prototypes to gather insights, identify problems, and build up to creative ideas, like Beethoven did in order to discover new musical styles and forms.
  • Play: A playful, improvisational, and humorous atmosphere quiets our inhibitions when ideas are incubating or newly hatched, and prevents creative ideas from being snuffed out or prematurely judged.
  • Immerse: Take time to get out into the world to gather fresh ideas and insights, in order to understand deeper human motivations and desires, and absorb how things work from the ground up.
  • Define: Use insights gathered throughout the process to define specific problems and needs before solving them, just as the Google founders did when they realized that their library search algorithm could address a much larger problem.
  • Reorient: Be flexible in pursuit of larger goals and aspirations, making good use of small wins to make necessary pivots and chart the course to completion.
  • Iterate: Repeat, refine, and test frequently armed with better insights, information, and assumptions as time goes on, as Chris Rock does to perfect his act.

What’s a little bet you can try today?

This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

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TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME advice

A Letter to My 19-Year-Old Self on My 39th Birthday

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Someday you will be 40. None of this matters

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This story originally appeared on xoJane.com.

Dear me,

You know how right now EVERY SINGLE THING seems like IT’S REALLY IMPORTANT? Like, how every small thing and every huge thing needs to be done perfectly all the time right now and there’s no perspective and you can’t waste one single second because right now is your big time and pretty soon you will be old and it’ll all be over?

Yeah, throw all that kind of thinking out the window.

You’re going to turn 20. And you’re going to turn 40. And you’re going to die. People are going to tell you that you need to have a plan, that you have just one chance, that you better not “blow it.” Here’s what they don’t tell you. You only make it when you blow it. Meaning, don’t be afraid to screw up. A lot. But if you can, try to make them screw-ups where you don’t put yourself at risk. Being embarrassed is not a risk. That’s totally recoverable. That will make you stronger. That’s the good kind of risk! You’ll know these situations when you’re in them. Trust your gut. Your gut is golden.

See, you only have one asset in this life that doesn’t ever change, and that’s you.

I know, I know, it sounds dumb and obvious, but it’s actually the best piece of advice you’ll ever get. Let me try to explain: You see, the biggest trap people fall into is continuously chasing stuff rather than realizing that they have everything they need inside them the whole time. It’s so tempting to look outside yourself all the time for salvation but that’s just an illusion. Sure, get a degree. Have a boyfriend. Take that wild call to adventure. But the one constant you’ll have through all these experiences is you.

Value you. Treasure you. Love you. Even when you screws up. You are the best advocate you will ever have.

“That’s not enough. I need all this other stuff,” you may be saying. Yeah that’s just your mind screwing around with you. All of your imperfection and your curiosity and your desire to explore and try these different things — that’s what makes you you! So don’t you see? You’re perfect already. There’s no need to “someday” your life. Someday is right now. You don’t need to wait to enjoy your life. You don’t need to wait to enjoy your journey. You don’t need to wait to go after what others may make fun of you for. What is your dream? How do you imagine your perfect life? What makes you feel good about you? How can you bring more of that into your life?

You can enjoy yourself; you can enjoy this journey. That’s one of the best secrets of all time. Think about all the knowledge and the experiences and the love and the excitement you have in your heart. That’s what matters. Not the “A” grade or the big job or internship or the hot guy or boyfriend who shows the world all your status.

Because that’s all that really is, you know: status.

It’s so easy to get wrapped up in it. Sometimes it seems like the primary engine that drives society. Status is your grades. Status is who you’re taking to the fall formal. Status is what your parents brag about when they talk about you. Status is that nagging feeling that leads you to compare yourself to others around you, even when you were feeling pretty good about yourself.

Status is dumb. Status is empty and dead. Status is a cold bed partner.

The only thing that matters at the end of the day is how much you love — your self, your friends, your family, your life, your passions. There is no status in love. That’s one of the things that makes it so pure and beautiful and real and powerful. It’s wonderful to be ambitious, but it’s also easy to get priorities all screwed up when ambition and status start out to blunt out your true self. Then you stop listening to your gut and love stops being a priority and pretty soon, nothing is good enough. You find fault in everything. Gratitude falls away, and why is this good thing happening to this other person? And pick, pick, pick, pick, nothing is right. Everything could be better. Misery.

You will find no greater power in life than finding the power in peace of mind. It can be hard to find, but here are a few ways I’ve been able to find it myself: meditating, actively wishing other people and myself well, thinking of all the things I’m grateful for, doing kind deeds for someone else, taking one thing at a time, focusing on what I like, not expecting perfection.

Oh, and having fun. God, having fun is important. When I was entering my 30s, at one point I wrote this message on a Post-It note that’s how desperate I was to remember it, every moment, every day. I scrawled those words and put the Post-It on my desk. It had those two words on it: “HAVE FUN.” But you know what? It helped. Because life is filled with stresses left and right and above and below. If you have that nagging, urgent thing in you where you want to do a good job, then it’s easy to hear all these different demanding voices and let all of this culminate into one overpowering, deafening message: “Feel stress. Feel stress.”

But here’s a little secret. You actually do better work and are more efficient and productive and all those other good successful things WHEN you are happy. How does this translate? It means when something goes wrong, you don’t need to pile on yourself and catastrophize. You can be in the moment and laugh at the crappiness of everything that is unfolding around you.

That’s probably the biggest secret that I’ve discovered. You can get through almost anything with three things: friends, authenticity and again, love. It’s this magical concoction that allows you to not be alone in the dark with the harder things in life. Bringing your demons and your nightmares and your fears and your anxieties and your hardships out into the light takes away the scariness. It dissipates the power. And you have friends and potential new friends all around you, every moment, every day. There are so many people looking for love in this world, and the more you give it to yourself, the more will come your way.

Also: this may be kind of superficial, but: Wear a hat. You’ll thank me later.

Mandy Stadtmiller is Editor-at-Large at xoJane.com.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Careers & Workplace

4 Biggest Myths About Being a Great Leader

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A lot of people who think they understand leadership have fallen for some common myths and misconceptions

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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.

Whether it’s the cause of business-school orthodoxy, or maybe it’s the odd directions of media attention or maybe it’s just a quirk of the popular imagination, there are so many myths that people believe about leaders and leadership.

The truth is leadership is a privilege—maybe even a calling. It’s something that has to be earned and learned over time.

Make sure you’re not building your own leadership on any of these commonly held myths and read on to uncover the truth:

1. The myth of entrepreneurial leadership

It’s easy to assume that all entrepreneurs are leaders, but just because someone has a great and timely idea and can organize and operate a business, the truth is they aren’t necessarily a leader. Even if you’re a world-class winner as an entrepreneur, you may find it hard to get people to see you as a leader within your organization. (This is a huge factor in the failure of so many start-ups.) You may need to work on your communication skills or expand your focus to include motivating the people on your team and helping them develop their own skills.

2. The myth of management as leadership

Another widespread myth is that leadership is equated with management. They’re actually two widely different (if interrelated) pursuits.

If you’re a manager, you’re focused on maintaining systems, processes, and best practices. But if you’re a leader, you’ll find that much of your time is spent working to influence people. They’re both important roles, but honestly they’re not the same thing.

3. The myth of trailblazer as leadership

Just because you’re standing in front of the crowd, you’re not necessarily the leader.
In fact, it may be a bad sign.

The best leaders take their place alongside their people, helping propel them forward to a shared mission and vision. They may even be behind them, watching their backs. There’s not a lot of apparent ego in the mix.

4. The myth of position as leadership

The No. 1 top myth about leadership is the idea that leadership resides in certain positions: If you’re a at the top, you’re a leader. If at the bottom, there’s no room for leadership.

In reality, the truth is, leadership has absolutely nothing to do with position, and you don’t have to look very far to find examples of leadership (good and bad) at every level. The warehouse worker organizing a holiday charity drive for her fellow employees? That’s a leader. The CEO who pockets a bonus, then heads off for a vacation so she’s not around when the salary freeze is announced? Not so much.

So the next time you see something typically labeled leadership, slow down and take a closer look.

1. True leadership is about influence, nothing more and nothing less.
2. True leadership cannot be awarded, appointed or assigned.
3. True leadership can never be mandated, only earned.

And the best proof is not the leader’s personal success but the success of those who follow.

TIME relationships

Why You Need to Talk About Your Partner’s Credit Card Debt

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This article originally appeared on Refinery29.com.

The modern dating scene is tough — we know that all too well. Finding a great partner feels like hitting the jackpot, so you might be tempted to overlook certain serious red flags in the name of love. But, what if you’re ready to take the next step with your partner and discover that he or she is deep in credit card debt? This is an issue you definitely shouldn’t dismiss — money is one of the main reasons couples fight. Failing to address your partner’s debt before you move in together or get married could cause heartache down the road. So, should you move forward or hit pause? Here’s how to decide.

Consider The Why
Discuss your financial situations. It’s important to get to the bottom of why he or she is dealing with debt. Asking specific questions about how the balance was incurred will give you a better sense of your beloved’s overall level of financial responsibility.For instance, did your partner face a major emergency that they didn’t have the cash to cover? In this case, the debt can be chalked up to an expensive, one-time event. It doesn’t indicate a pattern of irresponsible financial behavior. But, if your partner carries credit card debt due to reckless spending, you should give this some thought. If you budget carefully and live within your means, you might have a hard time coupling up with someone who doesn’t share your values.

(MORE: Why I Don’t Feel Guilty About My Credit Card Debt Anymore)

Consider The How
Next step? Consider how your significant other is dealing with the shortfall to decide if the relationship is worth pursuing. Even if a mountain of credit card debt is the result of frivolous spending, your partner may have realized the blunder. If your mate is taking steps to pay off the balance — moving to a smaller apartment, going out less, taking on an extra job — count these as good signs. Everyone makes mistakes, and working hard to correct a financial misstep means your partner is trying to get on the right track.However, if he or she seems unconcerned about the debt and isn’t making an effort to pay it off, you should take a step back. Credit card debt is a serious financial burden, and your partner should be treating it as such. Ignoring a lingering balance could signal a lack of judgment when it comes to money.

(MORE: Do You Really Need A Credit Card?)

In The End, It All Depends — But Tips Help
Money is a highly personal and emotional topic, so only you can decide if your partner’s credit card debt is a deal-breaker. The important thing is to discuss the issue before taking a major step in your relationship, and keep the lines of communication open. This will help you assess the direction of your partnership and keep you informed about how your mate’s financial situation is evolving.If you want to help improve your partner’s credit card habits, consider sharing these tips: Keep a budget and track your spending — this will keep you from spending more than you can afford to pay off. Pay your bill in full by its due date — you’ll stay out of debt and keep your credit score healthy. Never use more than 30% of your available credit — this will help you achieve and maintain good credit. Read your monthly statement carefully — you’ll be able to spot fraud if it occurs.

The Takeaway
Understanding why your partner is in credit card debt and how he or she is dealing with it is an important step to take before getting serious. Consider it one more stepping stone on the road to finding “the one.”

(MORE: How to Keep Your Finances Safe After a Breakup)

TIME Careers & Workplace

5 Habits That Will Actually Change Your Life for the Better

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Do these five things, and watch your mindset change

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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.

Why do most people fail to stick to something challenging, like losing weight or getting in better shape? They don’t start small. They immediately go all in.

They change everything, which pretty soon results in not changing anything.

Why going all in never works

The temptation to go all in is understandable. Take losing weight. Losing weight is hard. So we decide the only way to succeed is to adopt a complicated, comprehensive program of diet and exercise that requires significant changes.

And within a day or two at most that comprehensive program starts to feel oppressive. Sticking with every single change starts to feel impossible.

So we start slipping.

First we slip in small ways, like when we’re running behind one morning and don’t have time to cook egg whites so we gobble a couple of doughnuts in the car. Or our kid has a school event so we can’t fit in our evening jog. Or we need to bring work home so we don’t have time to stop at the gym.

And soon nothing has changed. We’re back where we started. Well, not quite where started–now we also feel bad about ourselves for failing to stick with something we committed to doing.

Sound familiar?

Most comprehensive weight-loss programs work. Most comprehensive fitness programs work. The problem doesn’t lie with the programs–the problem lies in the fact those programs require such major changes to our daily activities and lifestyles. It’s impossible to make every change overnight. So when you miss a workout or screw up a meal it starts to feel like you’re failing completely.

And soon our comprehensive program is in tatters and we think, “If I can’t do it all, there’s no sense doing any of it.”

So we quit.

Here’s a better approach. Don’t immediately go all in. Don’t waste your time adopting the latest trendy diet or the current fitness fad. No matter how incredible the program, go all in and you’re incredibly unlikely to stick with it.

Instead, just start with making a few simple changes to your day. You’ll lose a little weight, feel a little better, and then find it a lot easier to incorporate a few more healthy habits into your routine.

Building slowly over time will help you create a new lifestyle–in a relatively painless way–that you will be able to stick with.

So for now just make these five changes:

1. Drink a glass of water before every meal.

Everyone needs to drink more water. That’s a given. Plus when you drink a glass of water before you eat you’ll already feel a little more full and won’t be as tempted to eat past the point of hunger.

2. Eat one really healthy meal.

Pick one meal. Just one. Then change what you eat. If it’s lunch, eat one portion of protein that fits in the palm of your hand, a vegetable or fruit, and four or five almonds.

I know that’s not a lot of food, but it’s healthier than what you’re eating now and, just as important, it lets you take small steps toward better controlling your portions at every meal.

Other examples: Pack a can of tuna and two apples. Or bring a skinless chicken breast and some cucumbers. Just make sure you prepare it ahead of time–that way you won’t have to decide to eat healthy. You just will.

3. Use your lunch to be active.

It doesn’t take 30 minutes or an hour to eat. So make your lunch break productive.

Go for a walk. (Better yet, find a walking buddy or do like LinkedIn’s Jeff Weiner and have walking meetings.) Or stretch. Or do some push-ups or sit-ups.

It doesn’t matter what you do as long as you do something. You’ll burn a few calories, burn off some stress, and feel better when you climb back into the work saddle.

And you’ll start to make fitness a part of your daily lifestyle without having to add to your already busy schedule.

4. Eat one meal-replacement bar.

OK, so most protein bars taste like flavored sawdust. But most are also nutritious and low in calories, and they make it easy to stave off the midafternoon hunger pangs you’ll inevitably feel after having eaten, say, a light lunch.

Don’t get too hung up on nutritional values; just pick a bar that includes 10 or 15 grams of protein (think protein bar, not energy bar) and you’ll be fine.

Eating a midmorning or midafternoon meal replacement bar doesn’t just bridge the gap between meals; it’s an easy way to get in the habit of eating smaller meals more frequently, another habit you’ll eventually want to adopt.

And, finally, a bonus habit to toss in once a week:

5. Have fun completing a physical challenge.

It would be great if you could consistently hit the gym four to five days a week, but if you’re starting from zero instantly transforming yourself into a gym rat isn’t realistic.

Instead, once a week pick something challenging to do. Take a really long walk. Take a long bike ride. Take a testing hike.

Just make sure you pick an accomplishment, not a yardstick. Don’t decide to walk six miles on a treadmill; that’s a yardstick. Walk the six miles to a friend’s house. Don’t ride 20 miles on an exercise bike; ride to a café, grab a snack, and then ride back home.

The activity should be based on an accomplishment; it’s a whole lot more fun to say, “I hiked to the top of Bear Mountain,” than it is to say, “I walked five miles on the treadmill at an 8 percent incline.” Accomplishments are fun; it’s like they’re things you decided to do. Yardsticks are boring; it’s like they’re things you had to do.

Every time you complete a weekly challenge you will have burned calories, improved your fitness level, and reminded yourself are still capable of doing some really cool things.

Once you accept you are still capable of doing cool things–no matter how much you’ve let yourself go physically, it’s true–you’ll find all the motivation you need to make a few other positive changes.

And one day you’ll realize you actually have gone all in … and you didn’t even notice.

TIME psychology

What Makes Something Funny? Can Humor Improve Our Lives?

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Eric Barker writes Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

Ever notice that we take our comedians seriously and we think our politicians are liars? Is something wrong there?

Chris Rock, Louis C.K., and Patton Oswalt not only make you laugh but they usually have you nodding your head thinking, “Yeah, life is like that.” Meanwhile, you take everything an elected official says with a grain of salt.

Research is finally starting to catch up to what you’ve known for a long time.

Why do you find things funny?

Humor is the brain rewarding us for finding errors and inconsistencies in our thinking.

Via The Boston Globe‘s review of Inside Jokes: Using Humor to Reverse-Engineer the Mind:

Hurley and his coauthors begin from the idea that our brains make sense of our daily lives via a never ending series of assumptions, based on sparse, incomplete information. All these best guesses simplify our world, give us critical insights into the minds of others, and streamline our decisions. But mistakes are inevitable, and even a small faulty assumption can open the door to bigger and costlier mistakes.

Enter mirth, a little pulse of reward the brain gives itself for seeking out and correcting our mistaken assumptions. A sense of humor is the lure that keeps our brains alert for the gaps between our quick-fire assumptions and reality.

This is why you think good comedians are also telling the truth about life. They’re pointing out the inconsistencies and craziness, the errors we take for granted until they’re pointed out.

You know the old saying “it’s funny because it’s true”? It’s correct. We laugh more when we feel the jokes are true. The more error correction, the bigger the reward.

Chris Rock’s humor about how men and women relate is so accurate it’s been written up in scientific papers. Tina Fey’s Palin imitation changed how people voted.

All forms of play are about learning.

Via Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul:

Play creates new neural connections and tests them. It creates an arena for social interaction and learning. It creates a low-risk format for finding and developing innate skills and talents.

Most animals stop playing and learning once they reach adulthood. Humans are unique in that they have the capacity to play all their lives. Why? Nature designed us to be lifelong learners:

We are designed to be lifelong players, built to benefit from play at any age. The human animal is shaped by evolution to be the most flexible of all animals: as we play we continue to change and adapt into old age.

So making laughs and guffaws sounds a lot more impressive now, huh? It probably doesn’t surprise you too much to hear that funny people are smarter than average. Students who are playful do better in school:

Playfulness was associated with better academic performance (i.e., better grades in an exam). Also, students who described themselves as playful were more likely to do the extra reading that went beyond what was needed to pass the exam. This can be seen as first evidence of a positive relation between playfulness in adults and academic achievement.

Why do women always cite “sense of humor” as something they find attractive in a man? Because humor is a hard-to-fake sign of intelligence. (In fact, you can predict how many women a man has slept with by how funny he is.)

Humor can improve your life

Humor isn’t just an entertaining distraction. It improves many facets of life and we’d be better off with more of it.

Couples who reminisce about shared laughter are happier. In his book Just Kidding: Using Humor Effectively Louis Franzini presents research that salespeople who use humor close more deals.

A fun workplace was more attractive to prospective employees than compensation or opportunities for promotion. Researchers believe that humor can help teams bond, as well as increase the quantity and quality of communication while building trust.

Via Little Bets: How Breakthrough Ideas Emerge from Small Discoveries:

A host of studies indicates that humor creates positive group effects. Many focus on how humor can increase cohesiveness and act as a lubricant to facilitate more efficient communications, like Bob Petersen’s story team. Researchers have developed a general view that effective humor can increase the quantity and quality of group communications. One reason for that is that humor has also been demonstrated to increase trust.

Humor improves our mood because it makes us think, which interrupts negative emotions. (Jokes can actually mentally disarm us because the brainpower required to process the laughs can take away from critical thinking during an argument.)
People who use humor to cope with stress are healthier.

Via Richard Wiseman’s excellent book 59 Seconds: Change Your Life in Under a Minute:

People who spontaneously use humor to cope with stress have especially healthy immune systems, are 40 percent less likely to suffer a heart attack or stroke, experience less pain during dental surgery and live four and a half years longer than average…On the basis of the results, the researchers recommended that people laugh for at least fifteen minutes each day.

What’s interesting — and something we often forget as adults – is it seems we all may need fun in our lives:

Via Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul:

But when play is denied over the long term, our mood darkens. We lose our sense of optimism and we become anhedonic, or incapable of feeling sustained pleasure… There is laboratory evidence that there is a play deficit much like the well-documented sleep deficit.

This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

Join 25K+ readers. Get a free weekly update via email here.

You want to laugh? Here are a few of my favorite bits of “error correction” (all NSFW):

-Louis C.K. on turning 40 and children.

-Patton Oswalt on why AA meetings are better than Weight Watchers meetings.

-Eddie Izzard on World War 2.

-Lewis Black on America and milk.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Careers & Workplace

8 Questions You Have to Ask During a Job Interview

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Don't be afraid to grill hiring managers. Chances are, they're hoping you will

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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.

Earlier this month, I was interviewing a prospective designer for my company. The candidate asked, “Who does wireframing for your app, the product team or the design team?” A simple question. But it kicked off a great discussion about our processes and how he could contribute to the team.

I remember thinking, “Hey, we are already working together…” This candidate is now an employee and a good fit for our company. His simple question opened the doors for us to have a genuine conversation about each other’s motivations, needs, passions, and work philosophies. In my 20-plus years in the recruitment industry, I am still surprised by how rare this crucial conversation is in a job interview.

There’s no doubt candidates who ask questions have a better chance at landing their dream job. Here are eight of the best questions I’ve heard from candidates:

1. What role will I fill?

When it comes to an employee’s role in a business’s strategy, the job title explains only so much. You are filling a void on the living, breathing team. Is this company hoping for an ideas person, a mentor to other employees, a creative force, a rule follower, a rule breaker? Get to the specifics of “who” your position is supposed to be.

2. Why does this role matter to the growth of the company?

Use this question to explore the expected level of engagement. Are you more comfortable being in a low- or a high-impact role? Do you want to be in a role that is universally respected within the company or are you OK being the undercover hero?

3. Who would my colleagues be?

The best interviews include three to four team members. If that is not the case in your interview, use this question to gain insight into team dynamics and personalities. These are the people you will spend every day with, so they need to pass what Tom Gimbel calls “the airplane test“—someone you would enjoy sitting next to on a long flight.

4. What would I be doing that makes your job easier?

This question has two benefits—you will find out who is going to lean on you the heaviest and what you will need to do to keep the other teammates happy. The answers to this question will be the immediate problems each team member is hoping you will solve.

5. What are additional important skills I will need to do this job well?

What are the soft skills needed for this particular job? Find out if the company needs someone who is also a self-starter or works well in teams. This is also an excellent time to bring up any additional skills you have that are appropriate for position.

6. How does the company measure success?

Identifying how your progress in this position will be measured will give you a better idea of whether or not you will be successful. Get specifics on what your deliverables will be per project. Ask about common work habits of people who have had this position in the past whom the company considered successful.

7. What would you expect from me this month, in three months, and in a year?

Chances are that your employer has a trajectory for your role in mind. Find out what you will need to deliver in the next coming months. Ask yourself if this pace feels doable for the way you work.

8. What is your mission?

This is one of the most important questions you can ask. Research shows that employees are most happy when their goals align with those of their employers. Get philosophical here and find out why you are both here in this room and if you want the same things.

Repeat your questions for each hiring manager you meet, because you will get different responses from different people. As a CEO, I am often the last person in the round of interviews. It happens time and time again that I will say, “Do you have any questions for me?” and get a polite “No, I got a lot of my questions answered.”

I didn’t get my questions answered though. Keep the conversation going. If you want to work for my company, you have to ask for it.

TIME Careers & Workplace

Hate Mornings? 6 Small Changes That Will Fix Everything

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Here are quick remedies to the biggest obstacle to having a perfect day

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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.

The first few minutes of your morning are the most important of your day and can set the tone for positivity and productivity. Ideally, you have an app or clock that taps into your natural circadian rhythm and wakes you during your “best time” within a certain window. Getting jarred out of a deep REM slumber to the sound of a blaring alarm clock sets you up for a negative day brimming with fatigue and crankiness.

But getting the right alarm clock is only part of the battle.

Here are six ways to start your morning better while kicking bad habits that destroy good sleep hygiene.

1. Give yourself at least 15 minutes of no screen time

Besides turning off an alarm that might be on your phone, resist the urge to check your email or social media. It sets you up for a day of being enslaved to technology, and your morning time should be reserved just for you. This might mean disabling notifications on your home screen so you’re not tempted by that Facebook update or mounting emails.

2. Swap out the coffee for lemon water

Lukewarm water with a fresh lemon squeezed into it has numerous benefits–but you need to drink it first thing in the morning. It starts your metabolism, which burns fat while sustaining muscle, cleanses your mouth and throat, and gives you a boost of energy. Then wait at least 30 minutes before brushing your teeth, drinking, or eating. This might be a toughie for caffeine addicts, but you can manage 30 minutes and it’s a great way to reduce the need for a coffee fix.

3. Sit up correctly

There are many “bad ways” to get out of bed, but only one best way, if your body allows for it: Roll over onto your right side, then push yourself up into a sitting position before standing with a straight back (no hunching). It’s the gentlest way to get up, takes the pressure off your heart and back, and is a great, easy ritual to start your morning right.

4. Set and affirm your goals for the day

While stretching in bed or prepping your lemon water, set some feasible goals for the day, but limit them to three. This might include packing your lunch instead of eating out to save money, committing to that noon yoga class, or scheduling the doctor’s appointment you’ve been putting off.

5. Stretch

It seems so obvious, and yet so many people ignore it. You can do this in bed, using a simple stretched-out-legs-and-arms-overhead movement. You can indulge in a supine twist on a padded floor, or you can practice whatever feels right for as little or as long as you like. Your body’s just been booted down for hours–you can’t expect it to be warmed up, energized, and raring to go right away.

6. Meditate

Don’t skip over this one just because it sounds boring or like you don’t have time for it. Meditation is only as strict, long, short, boring, or annoying as you make it. A “successful” meditation in an entire lifetime might be only a few seconds. However, sitting in a comfortable position and focusing on clearing your mind–even if it’s for less than a minute–can help your mental clarity and spiritual well-being and set the stage for the day.

You probably already know which morning habits aren’t serving you, so why keep doing them? Instead, focus on what really makes your mornings better and prioritize them.

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