TIME psychology

The Leadership Secret Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg Have In Common

Apple Debuts New Operating System
Steve Jobs in 2010 Justin Sullivan—Getty Images

What You Can Learn About Leadership From Jobs And Zuckerberg

Robert Sutton:

We all have imperfections and surrounding yourself with people who can do things you can’t is really essential. If you just look at Zuckerberg, the guy is very, very focused on the product and is probably not particularly great interpersonally. So on one hand you could say, “Oh, he is a flawed person,” but the smarter thing to notice would be, “Isn’t it impressive that he surrounded himself with people who have offsetting skills?”

…I spoke with one of the members of Jobs’ team who worked with Steve almost 20 years — going back to the NeXT days. He said as Steve got older he knew what he could do and he knew what he couldn’t do. He became very good at learning how to surround himself with people who could both implement his vision and could offset the skills that he didn’t have

What great leaders do is they build a team that enables them to succeed.

The Perfect Team Size

Robert Sutton:

…one of the lessons that comes through from Richard’s research is that when you get a team size over five or six, the performance of your team will start declining quickly. Once you get to seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven people, the percentage of time that people spend on coordination issues and maintaining good interpersonal relationships expands dramatically. That becomes the dominant problem in the group, instead of doing the work itself.

There is some evidence we talk about in the book that if you think somebody is a lousy leader and they are in charge of a big team, try cutting it in half and see if your lousy leader becomes a competent leader.

Team Structure Must Adapt To The Situation

Eric Barker:

In the book you mention a study of World War 2 POW’s that showed survival differences between groups which changed their structure versus those that maintained their prior hierarchy.

Robert Sutton:

God knows how they get these data sets. It was almost every POW held by both Japan and the United States. The question was, did the POW’s put in a strict hierarchical military structure as they always had or did they allow it to be more decentralized? What they found was that in the camps where they changed the structure, allowed decentralization, allowed people to make localized decisions and to have more autonomy and more freedom — that the death rates were considerably lower.

That’s an example of when you have a mindset or set of behaviors that work in one situation, sometimes you have to throw away your tools and do something else. The mindset or perspective you’re using right now, ask yourself if it works in the new situation or for this particular decision.

Great Leaders Focus On The Bad

Robert Sutton:

For a leader to make positive change, the focus needs to be on getting rid of the bad stuff first. When you do that it makes way for goodness to spread…If you don’t get rid of the bad stuff as the first order of business — whether that’s incompetence, stealing, corruption, whatever — then I think that you’re really in trouble.

Getting rid of the bad first was the hallmark of great leaders and we saw that sort of behavior over and over again.

How To Make Better Decisions

Robert Sutton:

To make a decision most people just say “Where do we want to be a year from now? And what stops us from getting there?” Instead, try going “back to the future.” Sometimes they call it a “pre-mortem”. Imagine you already succeeded or you failed.

Imagine it’s 2015 and we failed at rolling out our IT implementation. Just that simple sort of cognitive switch leads people to be much more realistic, and more fine-grained in the analysis of what they need to do.

I use this myself. I say, “Jeff should I go on this trip?” Jeff always says the same thing, “Okay. It’s three months from now. Imagine you’re there, how do you feel?” Instead of thinking how nice it might be, imagine you’re there and sort of looking back from the future. Gary Klein, the psychologist who has been pushing this, he has studies that show people make better decisions when they do this.

Recommended Books

Robert Sutton:

Orbiting the Giant Hairball. It’s one of my favorite books of all time. If you’re trying to be a creative person in a large system, I suggest you read that.

My two dear friends from IDEO, Tom Kelley and his brother David, just had a book come out called Creative Confidence. That’s a great book; just came out.

Creativity Incorporated. It’s by Ed Catmull, who is the President and driving force behind Pixar. He has great advice about how to lead a creative company.

The Most Important Thing To Keep In Mind When You Take A New Job

Eric Barker:

You’ve been teaching MBA students at Stanford for 30 years. What is the best piece of advice you give them?

Robert Sutton:

When you take a job take a long look at the people you’re going to be working with — because the odds are you’re going to become like them, they are not going to become like you. You can’t change them. If it doesn’t fit who you are, it’s not going to work.

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This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

TIME psychology

The #1 Secret Astronauts, Samurai, Navy SEALs, and Psychopaths Can Teach You About Good Decision Making

We all make a lot of bad decisions.

With careers:

More than half of teachers quit their jobs within four years. In fact, one study in Philadelphia schools found that a teacher was almost two times more likely to drop out than a student.

In our jobs:

A study showed that when doctors reckoned themselves “completely certain” about a diagnosis, they were wrong 40% of the time.

And in our personal lives:

…an estimated 61,535 tattoos were reversed in the United States in 2009.

So how can we all make better decisions? When life and death is on the line what methods do the pros consistently rely on?

It’s “arousal control.”

That’s a fancy word for keeping a cool head. Ever been so angry — or so happy — you can’t think straight? Exactly.

In their book, Decisive, Chip and Dan Heath identify short term emotion as one of the primary causes of bad decisions.

Astronauts, samurai, Navy SEALs, and psychopaths. What can you learn from them about staying calm and making good decisions under pressure?

 

150 Miles Above The Earth Is No Place For Panic

It’s the 1960′s and NASA is going to send people to the moon for the first time. A million things could go wrong.

How do you make sure astronauts don’t freak out in the cold darkness of space where there’s no help?

Ryan Holiday, author of The Obstacle is The Way, wrote about the challenges faced by the first moon landing crew:

When America raced to send the first men into space, they trained the astronauts in one skill more than in any other: the art of not panicking.

When people panic, they make mistakes. They override systems. They disregard procedures, ignore rules. They deviate from the plan. They become unresponsive and stop thinking clearly. At 150 miles above Earth in a spaceship smaller than a VW, this is death. Panic is suicide.

You’re NASA. What do you do?

The research shows one of the key ways to fight panic is to have a feeling of control.

Anything that provides a feeling of control will improve performance and help you make better decisions when things go sideways.

And that’s exactly what NASA did. They systematically and repeatedly put the astronauts through everything they’d experience while in space.

This level of familiarity produced a powerful feeling of confidence:

Before the first launch, NASA re-created the fateful day for the astronauts over and over, step by step, hundreds of times — from what they’d have for breakfast to the ride to the airfield. Slowly, in a graded series of “exposures.” the astronauts were introduced to every sight and sound of the experience of their firing into space. They did it so many times that it became as natural and familiar as breathing.

This is why when top bomb disposal experts approach a bomb their blood pressure actually goes down. Control and confidence.

(More on what we can learn from astronauts here.)

Okay, I know what you’re thinking: NASA had a billion dollars, the smartest people in the world and lots of time. I don’t, Eric.

I’m with you. But this same focus on arousal control has worked for almost a thousand years, with far fewer resources. Here’s how.

The Most Important Samurai Training Doesn’t Involve A Sword

What does the baddest samurai to ever carry a katana have to say about warfare? Stay calm:

Both in fighting and in everyday life you should be determined though calm. Meet the situation without tenseness yet not recklessly, your spirit settled yet unbiased.

Like astronauts, samurai knew the power of a feeling of control through training. But they had another trick up their sleeve.

Emotional preparation. Ryan Holiday explains:

This is why Musashi and most martial arts practitioners focus on mental training as much as on physical training. Both are equally important — and require equally vigorous exercise and practice.

What did they do? Specifically, they thought about death. A lot. (No, I’m not recommending you get all emo. Stay with me.)

Thinking about the worst (and in their case it was having your head separated from your body) can help you be calm and rational.

The Stoics did it, the samurai did it, and every time you say “What’s the worst that could happen?” you do it too — whether you know it or not.

(More on samurai methods for calm here.)

So these methods may have worked 1000 years ago, they may have worked in the 1960′s… but isn’t the world different in the 21st century?

No. No, it’s not. And the elite Navy SEALs are proof.

What’s Special About Special Forces

Go without food or sleep for days. Jump out of a plane at 35,000 feet. Trade gunfire with Al Qaeda in the mountains of Afghanistan while outnumbered.

This is not what Navy SEALs call a nightmare. It’s what they call “Thursday.”

Kevin Dutton and his friend, Andy (a former SAS soldier — the British equivalent of a SEAL) had their vital signs monitored during a study.

Both were similar under normal circumstances. But what happened when they were exposed to stimuli that screamed “DANGER! TIME TO PANIC!”?

Dutton’s brain went wild with fear. But his friend Andy’s response was very, very different:

His pulse rate begins to slow. His GSR begins to drop. And his EEG to quickly and dramatically attenuate. In fact, by the time the show is over, all three of Andy’s physiological output measures are pooling below his baseline. Nick [the researcher] has seen nothing like it. “It’s almost as if he was gearing himself up for the challenge,” he says. “And then, when the challenge eventually presented itself, his brain suddenly responded by injecting liquid nitrogen into his veins. Suddenly implemented a blanket neural cull of all surplus feral emotion. Suddenly locked down into a hypnotically deep Code Red of extreme and ruthless focus.” He shakes his head, nonplussed. “If I hadn’t recorded those readings myself, I’m not sure I would have believed them,” he continues. “Okay, I’ve never tested Special Forces before. And maybe you’d expect a slight attenuation in response. But this guy was in total and utter control of the situation. So tuned in, it looked like he’d completely tuned out.”

Elite military units vet for the toughest characters. And they go through punishing training. But what silly little thing makes a huge difference?

Breathing. Yeah, breathing.

Teaching recruits to monitor their breathing helped increase Navy SEAL passing rates from 25 to 33 percent.

Research shows meditation-style breathing can make you courageous, increase your attention span, and even boost happiness,

(More on the other three things that improved the performance of Navy SEALshere.)

At this point you might feel like emotions are a total liability. Like effective decision making means you have to be the Terminator 24/7.

Nope. Let’s learn about how to balance cold rationality with the power of emotion. Let’s look at psychopaths.

What You Can Learn From Stone Cold Killers

What does it mean to be a psychopath? Often it means a congenital lack of empathy.

So psychopaths aren’t raving and wild-eyed. Actually, in many ways they’re overly rational.

When researchers make people play a betting game, who acts logically and isn’t swayed by irrational (but common) fears?

Yup, psychopaths:

“This may be the first study,” comments George Loewenstein, professor of economics and psychology at Carnegie Mellon, “that documents a situation in which people with brain damage make better financial decisions than normal people.”

You may want your stockbroker to be a psychopath. Seriously:

“The most successful stockbrokers might plausibly be termed ‘functional psychopaths’— individuals who on the one hand are either more adept at controlling their emotions or who, on the other, do not experience them to the same degree of intensity as others.”

(More on which professions have the most psychopaths here.)

Oh, and I guess I should also mention some psychopaths, um, murder people…

So being extremely rational often leads to better decisions — but without some empathy it can also lead to some very bad things.

This might seem confusing. How do you know just how rational to be?

For Best Results, Add Empathy

There’s a reason why they give it the name “arousal control.” You’re not trying to kill your emotions, you just want a leash on them.

You don’t want to be incapable of empathy. In fact, empathy, when controlled, can be an enormous positive when trying to make good decisions.

We always think of doctors as very rational. But research shows doctors who feel empathy make better decisions.

Wharton professor and author of Give and Take, Adam Grant explains:

There is a great study of radiologists by Turner and colleagues showing that when radiologists just saw a photo of the patient whose x-ray they were about to scan, they empathized more with the person, seeing that person as more of a human being as opposed to just an x-ray. As a result, they wrote longer reports, and they had greater diagnostic accuracy, significantly.

At this point you may be saying: Okay, okay, I’ve kept my cool — but what do I do now?

What’s fascinating is that same empathy also leads us to the next step of great decision making: think about others.

The best, simplest method for making better decisions once you have a clear head is called “taking the outside perspective.”

What’s that mean? Ask yourself, “What advice would I give my best friend in this situation?

Duke professor and author of Predictably Irrational, Dan Ariely explains:

If I had to give advice across many aspects of life, I would ask people to take what’s called “the outside perspective.” And the outside perspective is easily thought about: “What would you do if you made the recommendation for another person?” And I find that often when we’re recommending something to another person, we don’t think about our current state and we don’t think about our current emotions.

So where does all this lead us?

Next Stop: Wisdom

The five step process for making better decisions:

  1. Maintain a feeling of control over your situation.
  2. Emotional preparation. Consider how things could be worse.
  3. Monitor your breathing.
  4. Controlled empathy.
  5. Ask “What advice would I give my best friend in this situation?”

Can this style of decision making, over time, lead us to being not just smarter but wiser?

Actually, it may be the only system that can. We usually associate wisdomwith knowledge, experience or smarts. But what does the research say?

Yeah, those things are all important — but we underestimate how muchwisdom is about understanding feelings:

In his valedictory work on wisdom, Baltes attributed the acquisition of wisdom to a variety of factors—general intelligence and education, early exposure to meaningful mentors, cultural influences, and the lifelong accumulation of experience, which is the centerpiece of developmental psychology. But he, too,acknowledged the central importance of emotional intelligence, noting that “there is good reason to assume that people capable of effectively regulating emotional states associated with dilemmas of life by cognitive rather than affective-dysfunctional modes might have a better chance of being considered wise or scoring high on wisdom tasks.”

We’re not robots.

We’re fundamentally emotional creatures and forgetting that fact is a huge mistake.

We place so much emphasis on logic and yet the best decisions come from understanding our emotions and considering what is best for others.

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This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

TIME psychology

How to Overcome Regret and Seize the Day — Scientifically

What hurts more than those pangs of regret? It’s one of the worst feelings in the world, right?

But I’ve got a surprise for you — regret can be a good thing. In fact, sometimes you enjoy it. Sound crazy?

When researchers asked people to score the upside of many different emotions, regret actually beat out pride.

Via Mastering the Art of Quitting: Why It Matters in Life, Love, and Work:

Both regret and disappointment, however, scored much more favorably than anger, guilt, or sadness, surpassing even pride, a positive emotion— showing that individuals do see a value in regret.

Why? Even though it’s very unpleasant, we see value in regret. We can learn from it.

But can’t we learn without the godawful nagging pain? That’s the real question. And the answer is we can.

But we need to understand how regret works before we can beat it. Let’s get some answers.

 

What Do We Regret The Most?

Regrets about education, career, romance, and parenting top the list.

Via Mastering the Art of Quitting: Why It Matters in Life, Love, and Work:

The six biggest regrets fell into the following domains, in descending order: education, career, romance, parenting, self-improvement, and leisure. (If you’re curious, the next six were finance, family, health, friends, spirituality, and community.) It’s a bit surprising that education was the number one regret, but the authors argue this point: “Opportunity breeds regret. Feelings of dissatisfaction and disappointment are strongest where the chances for corrective reaction are clearest.”

overcome-regret

Not too surprising, but what can we really learn here? What do these things have in common that causes that terrible gnawing?

The research shows we consistently regret missed opportunity.

Education, career, relationships… our errors in these domains loom so large because of all the possibilities that might have changed our lives.

A second thing the research confirms is that the old saw is true:you’re more likely to regret the things you didn’t do.

Via Stumbling on Happiness:

Indeed, in the long run, people of every age and in every walk of life seem to regret not having done things much more than they regret things they did, which is why the most popular regrets include not going to college, not grasping profitable business opportunities, and not spending enough time with family and friends.

And it’s amazing how consistently these two principles prove out.

Of the top five most common career regrets, four are due to inaction and all five are related to missed opportunity.

Why we regret missed opportunities is pretty obvious. We love having options and hate when they go away.

But why are the things we don’t do so much more painful over time than the things that we actually follow through with?

There’s a reason…

 

You Have A Psychological Immune System

Your brain doesn’t want you overwhelmed with regret 24/7. So it conspires to help you. What does it do?

It rationalizes. We humans are rationalizing machines.

So when you do something stupid, you feel bad but part of your brain immediately starts digging for silver livings:

  • I should have left that terrible job sooner… but staying there I really learned a lot about myself.
  • The marriage didn’t work out… but otherwise I wouldn’t have had these beautiful kids.

We all do it and it helps us get by. But what happens when you don’t do something stupid? When you don’t do anything at all?

It’s hard to learn from experience when there is no experience. It’s harder to generate silver linings for things you never did.

Harvard happiness expert Dan Gilbert explains:

But why do people regret inactions more than actions? One reason is that the psychological immune system has a more difficult time manufacturing positive and credible views of inactions than of actions… when our inaction causes us to reject a marriage proposal from someone who later becomes a movie star, we can’t console ourselves by thinking of all the things we learned from the experience because… well, there wasn’t one.

And later on in life it’s often harder to remember why we didn’t do things than why we did do them.

Often we were just scared. But years later that irrational fear fades and we kick ourselves for not taking risks.

Via Mastering the Art of Quitting: Why It Matters in Life, Love, and Work:

For one thing, regrettable inactions are much harder to reframe because, in retrospect, it usually seems eminently clear that the reasons you had for not doing whatever it was…don’t seem to hold water over time…

So most regrettable things we follow through with will be rationalized away by our helpful brains.

But when we have failed to act, how do we deal with that ache just won’t go away?

 

How To Overcome Regret

The research says you should ask yourself two questions.

1) Ask yourself, “What can I learn from this?”

Regret has a purpose. It’s like the oil light on the dashboard of your life, telling you something needs to be fixed.

Studies back this up — regret is more intense when it’s something that we can do something about.

Researchers call regret an “upward counterfactual.” That’s a fancy term meaning we’re comparing the way things are against a better alternative.

And, in moderation, this is a good thing.

Via Mastering the Art of Quitting: Why It Matters in Life, Love, and Work:

Counterfactual thinking opens the door to modifying future behavior by focusing on a revision of the past.

Contrast what happened with what you wanted and formulate a lesson about how to do things differently next time.

2) Ask yourself, “How could it have been worse?”

An “upward counterfactual” is great for learning but over time it’s what creates that nagging ache of regret.

How do we kill the pain now that we’ve learned our lesson?

This is where we need what researchers call a “downward counterfactual.” Ask “How could things have been worse?”

Research shows this kills the negative feelings associated with regret. Turn disappointment into gratitude.

Take “I can’t believe I crashed my car. I’m so stupid.” and turn it into “I’m so lucky I didn’t die in the accident. How wonderful!”

The combination of these questions is a great one-two punch:

  1. We all know people who immediately ask the second without the first. They feel better but don’t learn a thing and repeat their mistakes.
  2. And we’re all guilty of merely asking the first question without the second — just beating yourself up over what you should have done.

That said, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure — how can we stop making new regrets?

And the answer to this can actually be a lot of fun.

 

How To Avoid Regret In The Future

We’ve learned a bunch of stuff:

  1. Our brains rationalize most of the things we do wrong.
  2. Regret over the things we follow through with is rarely as bad as we anticipate and we get over it faster than we think.
  3. But we can feel terrible pain for years over things that we don’t do.

Check out the chart below by researcher Thomas Gilovich.

The pain over inaction is more common in nearly every category compared to failures of action:

overcome-regret

And what happens when you ask the older generation what their life experience has told them about regret? They consistently respond:

Say “yes” to opportunity.

What’s all this add up to? Nike has it right, folks. The answer is often:

JUST DO IT

If it’s not going to get you killed, arrested, maimed or divorced,consider doing that thing. Be a little more bold.

Your future self will thank you… or just rationalize it away.

What else do older folks regret most? So much time wasted on pointless worrying.

Spend less time on your fears and more time thinking about what it is you dowant to do in your life.

Candy Chang explains in her wonderful TED talk.

Fancy science aside, this adds up to something far more important – it helps you get more fun out of life. Saying “yes” leads to happiness.

Guilt over doing stupid things fades, while research shows regret over missed fun is much more problematic down the line.

The cliches are worth paying attention to: Seize the day. Take the bull by the horns.

If you don’t — and trust me on this one — you’ll regret it.

Join 45K+ readers. Get a free weekly update via email here.

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This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

TIME psychology

6 Things the Most Productive People Do Every Day

Ever feel like you’re just not getting enough done?

Know how many days per week you’re actually productive?

About 3:

People work an average of 45 hours a week; they consider about 17 of those hours to be unproductive (U.S.: 45 hours a week; 16 hours are considered unproductive).

We could all be accomplishing a lot more — but then again, none of us wants to be a workaholic either.

It’d be great to get tons done and have work/life balance. But how do we do that? I decided to get some answers.

And who better to ask than Tim Ferriss, author of the international bestseller, The 4-Hour Workweek?

(Tim’s blog is here and his podcast is here.)

Below are six tips Tim offered, the science behind why they work, and insight from the most productive people around.

1) Manage Your Mood

Most productivity systems act like we’re robots – they forget the enormous power of feelings.

If you start the day calm it’s easy to get the right things done and focus.

But when we wake up and the fray is already upon us — phone ringing, emails coming in, fire alarms going off — you spend the whole day reacting.

This means you’re not in the driver’s seat working on your priorities, you’re responding to what gets thrown at you, important or not.

Here’s Tim:

I try to have the first 80 to 90 minutes of my day vary as little as possible. I think that a routine is necessary to feel in control and non-reactive, which reduces anxiety. It therefore also makes you more productive.

Research shows how you start the day has an enormous effect on productivity and you procrastinate more when you’re in a bad mood.

Studies demonstrate happiness increases productivity and makes you more successful.

As Shawn Achor describes in his book The Happiness Advantage:

…doctors put in a positive mood before making a diagnosis show almost three times more intelligence and creativity than doctors in a neutral state, and they make accurate diagnoses 19 percent faster. Optimistic salespeople outsell their pessimistic counterparts by 56 percent. Students primed to feel happy before taking math achievement tests far outperform their neutral peers. It turns out that our brains are literally hardwired to perform at their best not when they are negative or even neutral, but when they are positive.

So think a little less about managing the work and a little more about managing your moods.

(For more on how to be happier, go here.)

So what’s the first step to managing your mood after you wake up?

2) Don’t Check Email In The Morning

To some people this is utter heresy. Many can’t imagine not waking up and immediately checking email or social media feeds.

I’ve interviewed a number of very productive people and nobody said, “Spend more time with email.”

Why is checking email in the morning a cardinal sin? You’re setting yourself up to react.

An email comes in and suddenly you’re giving your best hours to someone else’s goals, not yours.

You’re not planning your day and prioritizing, you’re letting your objectives be hijacked by whoever randomly decides to enter your inbox.

Here’s Tim:

…whenever possible, do not check email for the first hour or two of the day. It’s difficult for some people to imagine. “How can I do that? I need to check email to get the information I need to work on my most important one or two to-dos?”

You would be surprised how often that is not the case. You might need to get into your email to finish 100% of your most important to-dos. But can you get 80 or 90% done before you go into Gmail and have your rat brain explode with freak-out, dopamine excitement and cortisol panic? Yes.

Research shows email:

  1. Stresses you out.
  2. Can turn you into a jerk.
  3. Can be more addictive than alcohol and tobacco.
  4. And checking email frequently is the equivalent of dropping your IQ 10 points.

Is this really how you want to start your day?

(For more on how to avoid the email trap and spend time wisely go here.)

Great, so you know what not to do. But a bigger question looms: what should you be doing?

3) Before You Try To Do It Faster, Ask Whether It Should Be Done At All

Everyone asks, “Why is it so impossible to get everything done?” But the answer is stunningly easy:

You’re doing too many things.

Want to be more productive? Don’t ask how to make something more efficient until after you’ve asked “Do I need to do this at all?”

Here’s Tim:

Doing something well does not make it important. I think this is one of the most common problems with a lot of time-management or productivity advice; they focus on how to do things quickly. The vast majority of things that people do quickly should not be done at all.

It’s funny that we complain we have so little time and then we prioritize like time is endless. Instead, do what is important… and not much else.

But is this true in the real world?

Research shows CEOs don’t get more done by blindly working more hours, they get more done when they follow careful plans:

Preliminary analysis from CEOs in India found that a firm’s sales increased as the CEO worked more hours. But more intriguingly, the correlation between CEO time use and output was driven entirely by hours spent in planned activities. Planning doesn’t have to mean that the hours are spent in meetings, though meetings with employees were correlated with higher sales; it’s just that CEO time is a limited and valuable resource, and planning how it should be allocated increases the chances that it’s spent in productive ways.

(For more ways to save time go here.)

Okay, you’ve cleared the decks. Your head is serene, you’ve gotten the email monkey off your back and you know what you need to do.

Now we have to face one of the biggest problems of the modern era: how do you sit still and focus?

4) Focus Is Nothing More Than Eliminating Distractions

Ed Hallowell, former professor at Harvard Medical School and bestselling author of Driven to Distraction, says we have “culturally generated ADD.”

Has modern life permanently damaged our attention spans?

No. What you do have is more tantalizing, easily accessible, shiny things available to you 24/7 than any human being has ever had.

The answer is to lock yourself somewhere to make all the flashing, buzzing distractions go away.

Here’s Tim:

Focus is a function, first and foremost, of limiting the number of options you give yourself for procrastinating… I think that focus is thought of as this magical ability. It’s not a magical ability. It’s put yourself in a padded room, with the problem that you need to work on, and shut the door. That’s it. The degree to which you can replicate that, and systematize it, is the extent to which you will have focus.

What’s the best way to sum up the research? How about this: Distractions make you stupid.

And a flood of studies show that the easiest and most powerful way to change your behavior is to change your environment.

Top CEOs are interrupted every 20 minutes. How do they get anything done?

By working from home in the morning for 90 minutes where no one can bother them:

They found that not one of the twelve executives was ever able to work uninterruptedly more than twenty minutes at a time—at least not in the office. Only at home was there some chance of concentration. And the only one of the twelve who did not make important, long-range decisions “off the cuff,” and sandwiched in between unimportant but long telephone calls and “crisis” problems, was the executive who worked at home every morning for an hour and a half before coming to the office.

(For more on how to stop procrastinating go here.)

I know what some of you are thinking: I have other responsibilities. Meetings. My boss needs me. My spouse calls. I can’t just hide.

This is why you need a system.

5) Have A Personal System

I’ve spoken to a lot of insanely productive people. You know what none of them said?

“I don’t know how I get stuff done. I just wing it and hope for the best.”

Not one. Your routines can be formal and scientific or personal and idiosyncratic — but either way, productive people have a routine.

Here’s Tim:

Defining routines and systems is more effective than relying on self-discipline. I think self-discipline is overrated.

Allowing yourself the option to do what you have not decided to do is disempowering and asking for failure. I encourage people to develop routines so that their decision-making is only applied to the most creative aspects of their work, or wherever their unique talent happens to lie.

Great systems work because they make things automatic, and don’t tax your very limited supply of willpower.

What do we see when we systematically study the great geniuses of all time? Almost all had personal routines that worked for them.

(“Give and Take” author Adam Grant consistently writes in the mornings while Tim always writes at night.)

How do you start to develop your own personal system? Apply some “80/20″ thinking:

  1. What handful of activities are responsible for the disproportionate number of your successes?
  2. What handful of activities absolutely crater your productivity?
  3. Rearrange your schedule to do more of #1 and to eliminate #2 as much as possible.

(For more on the routines geniuses use to be productive click here.)

So you’re all set to wake up tomorrow with a system and not be “reactive.” How do you make sure you follow through on this tomorrow? It’s simple.

6) Define Your Goals The Night Before

Wake up knowing what is important before the day’s pseudo-emergencies come barging into your life and your inbox screams new commands.

Here’s Tim:

Define your one or two most important to-dos before dinner, the day before.

Bestselling author Dan Pink gives similar advice:

Establish a closing ritual. Know when to stop working. Try to end each work day the same way, too. Straighten up your desk. Back up your computer. Make a list of what you need to do tomorrow.

Research says you’re more likely to follow through if you’re specificand if you write your goals down.

Studies show this has a secondary benefit: writing down what you need to do tomorrow relieves anxiety and helps you enjoy your evening.

(For more information on setting and achieving goals click here.)

So how does this all come together?

Sum Up

Here are Tim’s 6 tips:

  1. Manage Your Mood
  2. Don’t Check Email in The Morning
  3. Before You Try To Do It Faster, Ask Whether It Should Be Done At All
  4. Focus Is Nothing More Than Eliminating Distractions
  5. Have A Personal System
  6. Define Your Goals The Night Before

The word “productivity” sounds like we’re talking about machines. But the irony is that much of being truly good with time is about feelings.

How should you strive to feel when working? Busy, but not rushed. Research shows this is when people are happiest.

I couldn’t have written this without the help of Tim Ferriss and Adam Grant. Both volunteered their very valuable time.

Was that a waste on their part? They definitely won’t get those minutes back.

Helping others takes time but research shows it makes us feel like we have more time. And it makes us happier.

Once you are more productive, you’ll have a lot more hours to fill. So why not use them to make others and yourself happier?

(I’ll be sending out more tips from Tim Ferriss in my weekly email so make sure to sign up.)

Join 45K+ readers. Get a free weekly update via email here.

Related posts:

How To Achieve Work-Life Balance In 5 Steps

Too Busy? 7 Ways To Increase Leisure Time, According To Science

8 Things The World’s Most Successful People All Have In Common

This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

TIME Careers & Workplace

10 Simple Ways to Make People Like You More

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AFROG DESIGN UNIT—Getty Images/Flickr Select


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 atInc.com.

Have you noticed there are people who always seem to be more likable?

In a recent episode of the new ABC drama Mind Games, one of the characters mentions an interesting personality trait that defines the most popular people: they more readily admit their weaknesses rather than waiting for them to be revealed over time. The show is about using cunning tricks to manipulate others and ensure a positive outcome, so it’s a bit ridiculous, but there’s truth in the observation.

In the office, it’s possible to exhibit traits that help you to be more likable. In my years as a corporate manager and developing my writing career, I’ve noticed when people appear more likable and I’ve tried to develop these traits myself. Here’s a few to cultivate.

1. Ask questions.
I’ve noticed people who ask questions are often well-liked. It’s human nature to be helpful and we all have a great desire to share what we know. When someone appears to need our help, we tend to like them more because we like being the one who provides the answers.

2. Talk more, not less.
A friend of mine is a small business owner and he is extremely well liked. One of his strongest traits is that he tends to talk constantly. You never have to guess what he’s thinking. He’s not blunt or rude, but he explains things in detail. (Being an introvert, I need to develop this trait more in myself–and use texting and e-mail a little less often.)

3. Give your time…gratis.
A no-strings-attached approach to helping others also makes you more likable. Think of the person you like the most–usually, it’s someone who will help you with the copier machine or is willing to read through your business proposal in a pinch. Of course, those who help just to be liked always reveal a manipulative trait, so make sure you’re genuine.

4. Listen better.
I mentioned how talkers tend to be more likable, and that’s true. Sometimes, over-communicating puts people at ease. But it’s also important to pause once in a while and listen. Good communicators take a breath once in a while! Likable people are always listeners who are curious to (genuinely) learn new things. The best communicators talk and talk–and then listen for a response. That makes them an office favorite.

5. Really and truly care.
How do you develop the personality trait of caring? It can be difficult, especially in an age of social media where everyone is dangerously close to being a narcissist. Caring is an act of setting aside your own interests and ambitions for a while and helping others. It requires effort. You have to consciously decide you are going to care about someone else. When you do, and you are genuine about it, you’ll find that more people will like you.

6. Admit it, you don’t know everything.
We all know how important it is to steer clear of the office know-it-all. Why is that? Part of the reason is we know that person won’t ask for our help, and we like to be helpful. More importantly, those who have all of the answers are usually pushing their own agenda. In their conceited attitude, they exhibit a sense of pride that’s not attractive to anyone.

7. Go for the laugh, every time.
It’s hard to hate a jokester or someone who has a carefree approach to life. Usually, the most-liked people are those that can fill a room with laughter. It might not be in your nature to joke around, and that’s okay. Just make sure you are ready to see the humor in something. Be someone who can laugh easily and smile often. You’ll win people over.

8. Lighten up.
I will admit to struggling with this one. I’m a serious person with serious concerns! (Most of the time.) But it’s better to see the big picture in life. Really serious people are essentially acting selfish because they focus too much on their personal issues. Highly likable people at work are those who can set aside their concerns and go with the flow. They’re selfless.

9. Don’t be pushy.
Here’s an interesting one–and difficult trait to master. I went on a road trip with someone a few years ago, and I remember how he told me he doesn’t have highly distinct tastes. What does that really mean? For starters, he’s not that selfish and won’t push his preferences–he’ll go to lunch at any restaurant and listen to any form of music. He’s flexible. That makes him likable because he will adjust to the situation.

10. Admit your weaknesses.
That character on the show Mind Games is right: Admitting weaknesses makes you more likable. People figure them out on their own anyway. Of course, it’s important not to act like a victim or share your problems with everyone you meet. At work, it’s okay to go into a meeting and lead with the challenges you face. People are more likely to suggest a few solutions, come to your aid, and even pat you on the back.

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

TIME Mental Health/Psychology

4 Ways to Stop Procrastinating

Ways to Stop Procrastinating
Merve Karahan—Getty Images

Choices are never easy, especially when it comes to life’s big ones. Phoebe, 39, came to see me one day, distraught after learning from a doctor that she might not be able to conceive. “How long have you been trying?” I asked. “On and off for eight months,” she told me. Even though she had always wanted a baby and had been married for seven years, she confessed that she’d had a lot of trouble committing to getting pregnant. She didn’t understand why; in fact, she’d had a similar problem deciding whether or not to marry her (very) long-term boyfriend, to the point that she almost lost him.

Of course, getting married and starting a family aren’t decisions you enter into lightly, but Phoebe had a major case of life procrastination. That’s what I call voluntarily putting off something you truly want to do, despite knowing that you’ll probably be worse off because of the delay.

People tend to think of procrastination in terms of concrete to-dos—waiting until the last minute to turn in a work report, say, or paying bills late. But it can also take hold when making life decisions both small and large, from Should I join a gym? to Do I ask for a raise? These missed opportunities can damage your career or relationship and also give you a nagging, frustrating feeling that you’re stuck in a rut of your own making.

Health.com: 12 Ways We Sabotage Our Mental Health

Research shows that about 20 percent of adults are chronic procrastinators, but many more of us occasionally put off until tomorrow what we need—and even want—to do today. Yet for the most part, we don’t realize that it’s happening or that, in the process, we’re undermining our own happiness. Procrastinators tend to be far more stressed than those who don’t have this habit; they get sick more often, too. If you can suck it up and act, however, you’ll find your day-to-day a lot more pleasant and rewarding: Your mind will be released from all that ruminating and second-guessing, paving the way for other opportunities. After all, life is richest when filled with milestones and accomplishments—not with regrets of what you should’ve and would’ve done, if only.

So why would a woman push off a marriage or baby she really wants? Why would someone stay in a job she no longer likes? It’s not that they’re lazy or overly laid-back. Life procrastinators may dread failure. They may have a fear of success, an urge to be defiant, a perfectionist streak or a need to take risks—all of which can get in the way when trying to make a decision. Take my diagnostic quiz to see if you are a life procrastinator, then keep reading to discover what’s driving your indecision and find real-world solutions that will finally set you free.

‘I don’t want to fail’

If you’re so afraid of being bad (or, worse, just OK) at something that you’d rather not try it at all, here’s a news flash: You’re a perfectionist. Perhaps you hardly ever work out because you’d feel terrible if you killed yourself at the gym but couldn’t lose the last 10 pounds or hone that six-pack. Carrying this to the extreme, you may also believe that you are only lovable and worthwhile if your performance at everything is nothing less than outstanding.

Health.com: 19 Natural Remedies for Anxiety

Try this: The next time you’re hemming and hawing over something you could crash and burn at, take a page from Sheryl Sandberg and tell yourself, Done is better than perfect. Chances are, no one will notice if the results aren’t up to your exacting standards; they’ll just be impressed that you got results, period.

‘I’m afraid of being successful’

On the flip side, some of us become paralyzed by imagining that if we excel, we will be expected to keep performing at that level. Or we freak out that the achievement would change our lives in unpredictable and uncontrollable ways. Concerns you may have: If I ask for that promotion and get it, who’s going to help out with the kids if I have to put in more hours at the office? Are my work friends going to stop inviting me to lunch?

Try this: Accept uncertainty. The reality is that any choice you make (even if you decide to keep things status quo) will have upsides and downsides. Imagining the potential negatives (My friend at work will be so jealous) and telling yourself that it will work out (She’ll deal, or else I’ll find a new confidant) can help you stop obsessing and start doing. Worried that you’ll be less available for your loved ones? That’s a classic fear of success. Keep in mind that if and when you accept a new position or job, you can set boundaries at the outset. Thing is, you can’t do that unless you apply first.

Health.com: 15 Everyday Habits to Boost Your Libido

‘I don’t want to be told what to do’

You aim—fine, you need—to be in charge. You probably grew up with an authoritarian parent who was very controlling. Unfortunately, now you’re asserting yourself by delaying things that must be addressed, like making basic updates to your circa-1950s kitchen. Your story is: “Hey! No one can order me around!”—even though no one really is—”I’ll do it on my terms!” Which may be never.

Try this: When you find yourself resisting a change, ask yourself how you’re really feeling at heart. Indecision often masks anxiety, sadness or anger. Perhaps your parents were always fighting about money, so even though you have the cash to renovate, you feel stressed-out about spending it. Figuring out which emotion is stopping you from acting can make a decision clearer because it becomes more obvious that the conflict over taking action is coming from you. In other words, you are fighting only yourself.

‘I get a rush out of doing things last-minute’

Some put-offers aren’t anxious at all: They thrive on the excitement of scrambling to hit deadlines, often because they find the daily grind boring—and boredom terrifying. A thrill seeker who wants to go on some fantasy vacation, such as a boat cruise in the Galapagos, may delay purchasing tickets but keep checking to see how many spots are left until, finally, she is forced to commit because the trip is almost booked.

Health.com: 25 Surprising Ways Stress Affects Your Health

Try this: If you’re always telling yourself that you’re at your best when under pressure, prove it (in a small, innocuous way). Do a task—like tossing in a load of laundry or completing your expenses at work—at the last minute, as usual. Then one day perform that same chore ahead of schedule. You’ll most likely notice that your overall routine seems a little saner and that you have more free time on your hands when you knock stuff off early. Even better: You’ll have a full underwear drawer—and a cool trip to look forward to.

This article originally appeared on Health.com.

TIME Careers & Workplace

11 Surefire Ways to Turn Your Dreams Into Reality

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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

This Is What’s Actually Making You Horribly Unproductive

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Ron Bambridge—Getty Images/OJO Images RF

Talk about a silver lining: New research shows that crummy weather actually makes you more productive at work. Unfortunately, this means now that the long winter much of the country endured is finally over, your motivation could vanish faster than giant snow piles in a big-box store parking lot.

If you think gloomy weather saps your motivation, you’re not alone; more than 80% of people surveyed by researchers thought so. But the authors of this new study found out the opposite is actually true: Good weather makes us want to go do fun things, and thinking about what we’d rather be doing distracts us from what we should be doing. Career and workplace experts have some suggestions for how to keep “spring fever” from infecting your job performance on nice days.

Work on less detail-oriented projects. Bad weather drives people to focus more on the task at hand, which improves performance, but nice weather disrupts that focus. “Cognitive distractions led to higher error rates,” says Jooa Julia Lee, a Ph.D. candidate at Harvard University and the lead author of the study, “Rainmakers: Why Bad Weather Means Good Productivity.” “Individuals may wish to avoid working on a task in which errors would be costly when they have task-unrelated priorities,” she says. If you can’t avoid it, double-check your work to make sure

Do creative or collaborative work instead. Lee and her co-authors found that nice weather can benefit creative thinking. Another winner: Projects that require working with others. “Weather-induced positive moods may improve workers’ productivity on tasks that require creativity, as well as affective interpersonal skills such as empathy and emotional intelligence,” she writes.

Ask for flexible hours. See if your boss will let you work longer Monday through Thursday so you can take some time for yourself and leave early on Fridays, or ask about other flexible schedule options you can implement in nice weather. Even if this isn’t possible, take advantage of your lunch breaks and spend them outside on pleasant days, says Peter Friedes, co-founder, Managing People Better, LLC.

Don’t fight it. “A key factor of staying focused and productive is to acknowledge when you aren’t, due to spring fever or anything else,” consultant Bernadette Boas tells Monster.com’s MonsterWorking blog. Just like going on an overly restrictive diet can lead to a junk food binge, denying the siren song of a warm, sunny day can backfire. “If you fight it, it will only consume you, then sabotage your efforts,” Boas says. She suggests picking a few items on your to-do list and rewarding yourself with a brief break outside after you’ve completed them.

TIME Careers & Workplace

20 More Incorrectly Used Words That Can Make You Look Horrible

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A.L. Christensen / Getty Images / Flickr Open

Easy to get wrong. And easy to get right


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.

My recent post, 30 Incorrectly Used Words That Can Make You Look Horrible, sparked a flurry of emails requesting more examples.

So here they are. While there are hundreds of incorrectly used words, I’ve picked words commonly used in business settings.

Here we go:

1. Anticipate

“We anticipate earnings will increase by $1 per share.”

No you don’t. To anticipate means to look ahead and prepare. So you can anticipate increased sales, but only if you are also making preparations to handle that increase in sales; for example, “We added staffing in anticipation of increased sales.”

If you’re estimating or wishful guessing, use estimate or expect instead. Or, if you live where I live, use “reckon.” It’s good enough for Clint.

2. Arbitrate

Arbitrate appears in many contracts. An arbitrator is like a judge; she hears evidence, reviews documents, etc, and then makes a decision. That’s different from mediate: a mediator doesn’t make decisions but tries to help two opposing parties work out their differences and reach a compromise or settlement.

So if you agree to enter mediation in the event of a dispute, you and the other party will try to hash out your problem the help of a neutral party. And if you can’t reach an agreement that usually means your next step will be to go to court.

If you agree to arbitration a neutral party will make a decision that you will have to live with. Normally there are no next steps. (Except maybe disappointment.)

3. Behalf

The problem with behalf isn’t the word itself; it’s the word that comes before.

A person who acts on your behalf is acting as a kind of representative, like a lawyer or accountant or agent. On behalf of denotes a formal or professional relationship. A person who acts in your behalf is acting as a supporter or friend, so the relationship is assumed to be less formal.

“The customer needed an answer so Jenny spoke on your behalf,” means that Jenny stood in for you and (hopefully) represented your position. “The customer was upset with how you treated her and Jenny spoke in your behalf,” means Jenny took up for you and your clearly deficient customer service skills.

4. Bottleneck

A bottleneck is a point of constraint or limitation, like a machine in an assembly line that runs slower than the preceding equipment.

That means a bottleneck can’t grow. A bottleneck can’t get bigger. A bottleneck can’t expand. A bottleneck can cripple productivity, but it can’t spread to overwhelm your shop floor.

5. Can

Can is used to indicate what is possible. May is used to indicate what is permissible. I can offer kickbacks to certain vendors, but unless I’m ethically challenged I may not.

Telling your staff, “You can not offer refunds without authorization,” sounds great but is incorrect. They certainly can even though they shouldn’t.

6. Collusion

Many people use collusion as a fancy way to imply cooperation or collaboration. Collusion does mean to cooperate or work together–but towards a result that is deceitful, fraudulent, or even illegal.

That’s why you probably never want to refer to yourself as colluding in, well, anything.

7. Defective

A machine that doesn’t work properly is defective. A process that doesn’t achieve a desired result is defective. When a machine doesn’t work properly because it’s missing a key component, it’s deficient, just like a process with a gap is deficient.

So feel free to say, “His skills are deficient,” when an employee is lacking specific skills (because you’re focusing on the missing skill and not the employee), but leave defective to discussions of inanimate objects.

Even if an employee doesn’t work properly, in context it sounds pretty harsh.

8. Germane

Germane is the same as relevant. Each shows that something applies.

But don’t mistake germane (or relevant) with material. A material point helps make a position or argument complete; it’s essential. A point germane to the discussion may be interesting, and even worth saying… but it’s not essential.

Think of it this way. In meetings we often get bored when people raise germane points/ they’re (mildly) interesting but often unnecessary. We listen when people raise material points–because those points matter.

9. Invariably

This word gets tossed in to indicate frequency: “Invariably, Johnny misses deadlines,” is only correct if Johnny always, always, always misses deadlines, because invariably means in every case or occasion.

Unless Johnny messes up each and every time, without fail, use frequently, or usually, or even almost always. And then think about his long-term employment status.

10. Irregardless

Here’s a word that appears in many dictionaries simply because it’s used so often.

Irregardless is used to mean without regard to or without respect to… which is what regardless means. In theory the “ir” part, which typically means “not,” joined up with “regardless,” which means without regard to, makes irregardless mean “not without regard to,” or more simply, “with regard to.”

Which is clearly not what you mean.

So save yourself one syllable or two keystrokes and just say “regardless.”

11. Libel

Don’t like what people say about you?

Like slander, libel refers to making a false statement that is harmful to a person’s reputation. The difference lies in how that statement is expressed: slanderous remarks are spoken while libelous remarks are written and published (which means defamatory tweets could be considered libelous, not slanderous.)

Keep in mind what makes a statement libelous or slanderous is its inaccuracy, not its harshness. No matter how nasty a tweet, if it’s factually correct it cannot. Truth is an absolute defense to defamation–you might wish a customer hadn’t said something derogatory about your business, but if what that customer said is true… you have no legal recourse.

12. Literally

Literally is frequently used (all too often by teenagers I know) to add emphasis. The problem is literally means “actually, without exaggeration,” so, “That customer was literally foaming at the mouth,” cannot be true without the involvement of rabies or inaccurately applied Scrubbing Bubbles.

The only time using literally makes sense is when you need to indicate what is normally a figurative expression is, this time, truly the case. Saying, “He literally died when he saw the invoice,” only works if the customer did, in fact, pass away moments after seeing the bill.

13. Majority

Majority is another emphasis word used to sound authoritative and awesome: “The majority of our customers are satisfied with our service,” makes it sound like you’re doing great, right? Nope–since majority is defined as “the greater number,” all you have said is that 51% of your customers are satisfied… which means 49% are not so thrilled.

Majority can get you in trouble when accuracy is really important. “The majority of our investors support our plans to pivot,” sounds like almost all of them are behind you… when in fact nearly half might not be. “The majority of our shipments deliver on time,” sounds like you’re the king of meeting deadlines… when in fact you could be missing delivery dates on what a prospective customer would find to be a depressingly regular basis.

Here’s a better approach. Use statistics or facts. Or just say “most” or “nearly all.” Then you won’t have to worry about giving the wrong impression.

14. New

Thank advertisers for the over-use and frequent redundancy of this word. “Acme Inc. announces breakthrough new product.” By definition aren’t all breakthroughs new? “Acme Inc. sets new sales records.” By definition aren’t all records new? “Acme Inc. creates new social media sharing platform.” By definition aren’t all creations new?

“New” might sound impressive, but since it can also sound like hyperbolic advertising copy, it may cause readers to tune out what is really important about your message.

15. Obsolete

Obsolete means no longer produced, used, or needed. But since lots of things are out of date but still usable–think flip phones–they are obsolescent, not obsolete. Obsolete is the end point; obsolescent is the journey towards.

16. Percent

The difference in percent and percentage point could leave you feeling cheated. Say you’re negotiating a loan with a listed interest rate of 6% and the lender says he’ll reduce the rate by 1%. Strictly speaking that means he’ll reduce the interest by 1% of 6%, or .06%. That means your new interest rate is 5.94%. Yippee.

Percent refers to a relative increase or reduction, while percentage point refers to the actual change in rate. If you want a 5% loan instead of a 6% loan, you’re hoping for a reduction of 1 percentage point.

Most of the time the difference isn’t a big deal. If you see a new report saying interest rates rose 1%, you can safely assume it means 1 percentage point. But if you’re signing a contract or agreement… make sure you know the difference in meaning–and approve of the difference.

17. Successfully

Here’s the king of redundant words, often used to add a little extra oomph: “We successfullylaunched our new product.” Wait: in order to have launched, you have to have beensuccessful. (Otherwise you unsuccessfully launched.)

If you create, or develop, or implement, just say you did. We know you were successful. Otherwise you wouldn’t tell us.

18. Total

Total is another word used redundantly to add emphasis. “We were totally surprised by last month’s sales,” sounds more significant than, “We were surprised by last month’s sales,” but a surprise is either unexpected or it’s not. (I suppose you could be a little surprised, but that’s like being a little pregnant.)

The same is true when total is used to refer to a number. Why say, “A total of 32 customers purchased extended warranties,” when, “32 customers purchased extended warranties,” will do?

And one last point: make sure you get the verb tense right. “A total of six months was spent developing the app,” is wrong because “a total of” refers to all six months, which is plural, which requires “were.” (As in, “A total of six months were spent developing the app.”)

If you refer to “the total of,” use “was,” as in, “The total of employee benefit costs was $10 million last year,” because in that case you are referring to the actual total and not all the different costs that make up the total.

In short: The total of gets a “was.” A total of gets a “were.”

Or you could just say, “Employee benefits cost $10 million last year.” Doesn’t sound as dramatic, but does sound better.

19. Waiver

When you sign a waiver you give up the right to make a claim. When you waver you aren’t signing it yet because you’re hesitant.

So hey, feel free to waver to sign that waiver. Your instincts just might be correct.

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

30 Incorrectly Used Words That Can Make You Look Horrible

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Image Source—Getty Images/Image Source

Easy to get wrong. And easy to get right


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.

While I like to think I know a little about business writing, I often fall into a few word traps. For example, who and whom. I rarely use whom when I should. Even when spell check suggests whom, I think it sounds pretentious. So I don’t use it.

And I’m sure some people then think, “What a bozo.”

And that’s a problem, because just like that one misspelled word that gets a résumé tossed into the “nope” pile, using one wrong word can negatively impact your entire message.

Fair or unfair, it happens.

So let’s make sure it doesn’t:

Adverse and averse

Adverse means harmful or unfavorable; “Adverse market conditions caused the IPO to be poorly subscribed.” Averse means dislike or opposition; “I was averse to paying $18 a share for a company that generates no revenue.”

But you can feel free to have an aversion to adverse conditions.

Affect and effect

Verbs first. Affect means to influence; “Impatient investors affected our roll-out date.” Effect means to accomplish something; “The board effected a sweeping policy change.” How you use effect or affect can be tricky. For example, a board can affect changes by influencing them, or can effect changes by implementing them. Use effect if you’re making it happen, and affect if you’re having an impact on something someone else is trying to make happen.

As for nouns, effect is almost always correct; “Once he was fired he was given 20 minutes to gather his personal effects.” Affect refers to emotional states so unless you’re a psychologist, you’re probably not using it.

Compliment and complement

Compliment is to say something nice. Complement is to add to, enhance, improve, complete or bring close to perfection. So, I can compliment your staff and their service, but if you have no current openings, you have a full complement of staff. And your new app may complement your website.

For which I may decide to compliment you.

Criteria and criterion

“We made the decision based on one overriding criteria,” sounds pretty impressive but is wrong.

Remember: one criterion, two or more criteria. Although you could always use reason or factors and not worry about getting it wrong.

Discreet and discrete

Discreet means careful, cautious, showing good judgment; “We made discreet inquiries to determine whether the founder was interested in selling her company.”

Discrete means individual, separate or distinct; “We analyzed data from a number of discrete market segments to determine overall pricing levels.” And if you get confused, remember you don’t use “discreetion” to work through sensitive issues; you exercise discretion.

Elicit and illicit

Elicit means to draw out or coax. Think of elicit as the mildest form of extract or, even worse, extort. So if one lucky survey respondent will win a trip to the Bahamas, the prize is designed to elicit responses.

Illicit means illegal or unlawful. I suppose you could “illicit” a response at gunpoint … but best not.

Farther and further

Farther involves a physical distance; “Florida is farther from New York than Tennessee.” Further involves a figurative distance; “We can take our business plan no further.” So, as we say in the South, “I don’t trust you any farther than I can throw you.” Or, “I ain’t gonna trust you no further.”

(Seriously. I’ve uttered both of those sentences. More than once.)

Imply and infer

The speaker or writer implies. The listener or reader infers. Imply means to suggest, while infer means to deduce (whether correctly or not). So, I might imply you’re going to receive a raise. You might infer that a pay increase is imminent. (But not eminent, unless the raise will be prominent and distinguished.)

Insure and ensure

This one’s easy. Insure refers to insurance. Ensure means to make sure. So if you promise an order will ship on time, ensure it actually happens. Unless, of course, you plan to arrange for compensation if the package is damaged or lost — then feel free to insure away.

Number and amount

I goof these up all the time. Use number when you can count what you refer to; “The number of subscribers who opted out increased last month.” Amount refers to a quantity of something you can’t count; “The amount of alcohol consumed at our last company picnic was staggering.”

Of course, it can still be confusing: “I can’t believe the number of beers I drank,” is correct, but so is, “I can’t believe the amount of beer I drank.” The difference is I can count beers, but beer, especially if I was way too drunk to keep track, is an uncountable total — so amount is the correct usage.

Precede and proceed

Precede means to come before. Proceed means to begin or continue. Where it gets confusing is when an “ing” comes into play. “The proceeding announcement was brought to you by …” sounds fine, but preceding is correct since the announcement came before.

If it helps, think precedence: anything that takes precedence is more important and therefore comes first.

Principal and principle

A principle is a fundamental; “We’ve created a culture where we all share certain principles.” Principal means primary or of first importance; “Our startup’s principal is located in NYC.” (Sometimes you’ll also see the plural, principals, used to refer to executives or (relatively) co-equals at the top of a particular food chain.)

Principal can also refer to the most important item in a particular set; “Our principal account makes up 60% of our gross revenues.”

Principal can also refer to money, normally the original sum that was borrowed, but can be extended to refer to the amount you owe — hence principal and interest.

If you’re referring to laws, rules, guidelines, ethics, etc., use principle. If you’re referring to the CEO or the president (or the individual in charge of the high school), use principal. And now for those dreaded apostrophes:

It’s and its

It’s is the contraction of it is. That means it’s doesn’t own anything. If your dog is neutered (that way we make the dog, however much against his will, gender-neutral) you don’t say, “It’s collar is blue.” You say, “Its collar is blue.” Here’s an easy test to apply: Whenever you use an apostrophe, un-contract the word to see how it sounds. In this case, turn it’s into it is. “It’s sunny,” becomes, “It is sunny.” Sounds good to me.

They’re and their

Same with these; they’re is the contraction for they are. Again, the apostrophe doesn’t own anything. We’re going to their house, and I sure hope they’re home.

Who’s and whose

“Whose password hasn’t been changed in six months?” is correct. “Who is [the un-contracted version of who's] password hasn’t been changed in six months?” sounds silly.

You’re and your

One more. You’re is the contraction for you are. Your means you own it; the apostrophe in you’re doesn’t own anything. For a long time a local nonprofit had a huge sign that said “You’re Community Place.”

Hmm. “You Are Community Place”?

Probably not.

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

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