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Inside the Psychology of Productivity

You wake up with it in the morning and go to bed thinking about it at night: an ever-crushing load of emails, meetings, conference calls, and tasks that needed to get done yesterday. Family time means reading sales reports in the room where your kids are playing video games. For entrepreneurs, there’s soooo much to get done–85 percent of fast-growth-company CEOs work 10 or more hours a day, according to a recent survey of the Inc. 500. Under such circumstances, personal productivity isn’t just a metric. It’s also a mandate, reported Inc.

Recently, a glut of tools and systems has emerged to help you measure, manage, and maximize what you accomplish. But not all impediments to productivity result from poor organization. Many are psychological. Behavioral economics reveals the wacky ways people think about financial costs and rewards. Similarly, psychologists, business researchers, and even philosophers are illuminating people’s idiosyncratic approaches to getting stuff done.

Productivity, or at least how productive you consider yourself, is surprisingly subjective. As a leader, your most important work–mulling strategy, blue-skying for innovation, imagining the future–may not feel all that productive because it is open-ended and the outcome is uncertain. At the same time, more (subjectively) unimportant work, like clearing out your inbox, can leave you quite satisfied.

Often, there’s an irrational component to whether you think you’ve gotten much done. “If I have 10 things I want to finish in a day and I finish five, I get frustrated because I am not productive,” says Gregory J. Redington, president of Redcom, an engineering and construction company in Westfield, New Jersey. “If I have five tasks and I finish all of them, I feel productive, even if it’s the exact same five. My instinct as an entrepreneur is to plan to do all these things. But I want to believe I’ve won at the end of the day, so I try to put fewer things down.”

Clayton Mobley, co-founder and CEO of Spartan Value Investors, a real-estate investment business in Birmingham, Alabama, admits that the state of his desk has a lot to do with whether he thinks he has accomplished enough on a given day. “There are two piles on the sides of my desk,” he says. “If one of those piles is gone by the end of the day, I feel productive. Even if I just put it in a drawer.”

No matter how you try to trick yourself into feeling more productive, there are just 24 hours in a day, and you almost certainly are not making the most of them. Here’s what you can do about that.

Get to the Root of Your Procrastination

Procrastination is a particular problem for entrepreneurs, who often must tackle work in which they have no experience and no familiar starting point. And of course, when you are responsible for everything, there’s always something else you could be doing. Many consider procrastination a moral failing, a weakness of will. But Timothy Pychyl, a professor of psychology at Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario, calls procrastination an “emotion-centered coping strategy.” He suggests that if you understand what’s motivating (or–more accurately–demotivating) you, you can begin to address it. “Many of these emotions are not conscious,” says Pychyl. “So the first step is to have some awareness of how you are feeling. ‘Why do I keep not wanting to do this?’ ”

The reasons people shrink from particular tasks typically vary with the stage of a project, Pychyl explains. In the inception and planning stages, you procrastinate because you don’t find the work interesting or meaningful. In the action stage, you procrastinate because the project isn’t well structured, which creates uncertainty about how to proceed. Fear of making a poor decision can also be immobilizing. “With uncertainty comes fearfulness,” says Pychyl. “You have to acknowledge that fear.”

Another culprit is perfectionism: People envision outcomes so outstanding that their expectations become more intimidating than inspirational. “It’s like you’re practicing the high jump, and when you set the bar too high, you look at it, and you walk away,” says John Perry, an emeritus professor of philosophy at Stanford. “Perfectionists aren’t people who do something perfectly. Perfectionists are people who fantasize about doing something perfectly.”

At its core, procrastination represents shoddy treatment of the one person who should matter most to you: the future you. Hal Hershfield, a marketing professor at UCLA’s Anderson School of Management, used MRIs to demonstrate that people view their future selves much as they view a stranger. (This is why we smoke, fail to save, and order the red velvet cheesecake at the Cheesecake Factory.) Resolving not to do some odious task today makes procrastinators feel good, says Pychyl. Then they predict they’ll feel just as good tomorrow, which will make the task easier. Of course, the next day they feel worse, which makes the task harder and the stress greater. Homer Simpson summed it up neatly: “That’s a problem for future Homer. Man, I don’t envy that guy.”

That same disregard for their future selves often leads people to cram their calendars with appointments. This allows them to take the neurochemical hit of pleasure that comes from scheduling something today–and to suffer the consequences of five back-to-back meetings next month.

Counterintuitively, even work can be a form of procrastination. Scientists in the Netherlands coined the phrase bedtime procrastination to describe the tendency to keep doing things, including work, long after you intended to go to sleep. Entrepreneurs may succumb to this sort of procrastination when it comes to reading to the kids or taking vacations–activities you know are good for you but that, on some subconscious level, seem self-indulgent when compared with work. Here too the present self cheats the future self, as insufficient sleep and leisure affects performance.

Despite its bad rep, procrastination has its apologists. Two years ago, Stanford’s Perry published The Art of Procrastination: A Guide to Effective Dawdling, Lollygagging and Postponing, which posits that procrastination–like cholesterol–is not all bad. He coined the phrase structured procrastination to describe the act of doing things that–while not top priorities–still have value. “I think that’s a pattern of work a lot of very creative people have,” says Perry. “If you went through history and eliminated all the plays that have been written and inventions that have been created by people who were supposed to be doing something else, you might not have much left of your civilization.”

Focus on Progress, Not on To-Dos

To-do lists are daily reminders that you’re not cutting it. Just half of all to-do-list items are completed within a day, and 41 percent are never completed at all, according to data compiled by one productivity-tracking company. That’s a problem, because energized, motivated people are more productive than depressed ones. And what is more demotivating than seeing uncompleted tasks hanging on and on and on like outdated inventory?

To-do lists are problematic for other reasons. For one, they can be mentally gamed. When it comes to the pleasure of getting things done, people are like rats repeatedly pressing a bar because it stimulates their reward centers. Many people who have finished tasks not already on their to-do lists will add those tasks retroactively for the satis­faction of crossing them off. They may even slot previously unscheduled events–after they’ve happened–into their calendars. There’s also a temptation to mentally redefine everything you do as valuable and credit yourself accordingly. Stanford’s Perry describes his own to-do list: “It says: Wake up. That’s worth a check. Get out of bed. That’s worth a check. Make the coffee. That’s a check. Drink the coffee. That’s a check. By the time I’ve had my coffee I’ve done four things and I feel like a real effective human being.”

More practically, the rigid, reductive format of to-do lists is not optimal for the kinds of work done by leaders, says Teresa Amabile, a professor and director of research at Harvard Business School. “The really important things that don’t generally have a specific deadline may be what you should be spending most of your time on,” she says. “I think many of us who have a strong work ethic feel like we are indulging ourselves when we do that more exploratory work, that deep-level learning that may not have an immediate application but, in the grand scheme of things, may be more important than anything else.”

In her book The Progress Principle, Amabile emphasizes progress (moving forward with one’s work) over productivity (getting things done well and efficiently, irrespective of their importance). A sense of making meaningful progress, she found, has much greater positive impact on engagement and motivation. Her latest research–not yet complete–suggests that the simple act of looking back on progress also positively affects your sense of accomplishment and how competent and effective you feel at work. For the new study, Amabile signed up people to work for two weeks. Some kept diaries in which they recorded at least three sentences a day about how much they had done. Those subjects who were able to review their entries were more satisfied with the progress they had made and in their own abilities.

The positive feelings derived from reflecting on accomplishments, in turn, improve productivity. Francesca Gino, also an HBS professor, asked some employees at an Indian company to spend 15 minutes at the end of each day writing about what had gone well. The group that took time to reflect had a performance level 23 percent higher than that of employees who spent those last 15 minutes simply working. If reviewing incomplete to-do lists brings us down, it appears compiling have-done lists bestows a sense of satisfaction and enhances performance.

The power of reflection is the premise behind iDoneThis, a startup that inspires people to accomplish more every day by providing a mechanism to report what they have done. (Zappos, Uber, Reddit, and other companies have used the product, chiefly to improve the performance of teams.) “If you are working on one thing all day, it is very easy to remember what you did and give yourself credit for it,” says CEO and co-founder Walter Chen. “But if you did 20 things and one is have a conversation with your kid and one is put out a fire, it’s often hard to remember those things.” Pausing to reflect is an opportunity to remember those accomplishments and to recognize their value. “Giving yourself credit helps you feel productive,” says Chen, affirming, “That actually makes you more productive.”

Bottom line: To-do lists are useful for organizing and prioritizing work. But you should also maintain a “have done” list–or at least reflect on your accomplishments for a few minutes at the end of each day–to keep yourself motivated.

Beware of Time Thieves

Ownership is a management buzzword that, sadly, is rarely applied to people’s time. Workplace culture often requires that you sacrifice time for others, whether that means acting as a mentor or maintaining an open-door policy. The benefit to others’ productivity often comes at a cost to your own.

Most people have just two really productive hours a day, says Dan Ariely, a professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke and co-founder of Timeful, a time management app. (See “Four Great Productivity Apps,” page 45.) Those two hours might be sufficient if they belonged entirely to you. But even the boss can’t schedule every meeting so that it falls outside his or her optimal nose-to-grindstone stretch. And in flatter organizations, more people have roughly the same claims on the company’s collective time resource. “The biggest change in the calendar from paper days to computer days is that, because we now have shared calendars, people can kidnap our time,” says Ariely. “It’s really kind of a shocking idea.”

Still, most people would rather work alongside others than not, because humans are social creatures. When others ask for your time, saying yes feels good and is easy. Saying no feels bad and is hard. “All of us want to be nice, and all of us want to be team players,” says Kory Kogon, global productivity practice leader at Franklin Covey and co-author of The 5 Choices: The Path to Extraordinary Productivity. At one typical company that Kogon advised, “the COO said to me, ‘We are a nice organization, so nobody knows how to say no,’ ” she recalls. “Of course he does say no. But he doesn’t feel like he is saying no enough.”

Greg McKeown, author of Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, recommends extreme selectivity as a check on your desire to always be accommodating. McKeown likes to ask people to imagine they have no to-do list, no inbox, no schedule of appointments. “If you didn’t have any of that, and you could do one thing right now that would help get you to the next level of contribution, what would you do?” he asks. “Maybe all the stuff you’re doing should be questioned. Start from zero every day. What would be essential?” People require space and clarity to identify what matters, McKeown explains, and what matters should dictate what you say yes to. “You can say, ‘I would love to do that, but I am already doing this,’ ” he says. “And that is completely true and understandable, because you are.”

On the face of it, McKeown’s advice seems at odds with that of Adam Grant, the Wharton professor whose best-selling book Give and Take has made generosity a hot topic in corporate corridors. Grant argues that helping others with no expectation of return can increase energy and well-being and, consequently, productivity. But, like McKeown, Grant advocates selectivity: saying yes only in instances when distraction is minimal and the benefit to others outweighs the cost to self. McKeown calls this practice disciplined generosity.

Bottom line: Although it feels good to say yes, be disciplined about the time you give to others. Employees and partners need your help, but mostly they need you to concentrate on what matters.

Be In-the-Moment With Everything You Do

Every businessperson knows that you have to distinguish, in the words of Dwight Eisenhower, between the “important” and the “urgent.” But demands on your time don’t come with labels indicating their level of priority. The important, the urgent, and the trivial rush past in a blur. When Franklin Covey recently surveyed 350,000 people worldwide, respondents confessed to spending 40 percent of their time on things that are unimportant or downright irrelevant. But many don’t know exactly how they are wasting their time, says Franklin Covey’s Kogon.

Perhaps it’s not surprising people are so confused. McKeown observes that when the word priority entered the English language in the 1400s, there was no plural form. Today, you moan about being distracted by everything you could be doing. But there are also more things you arguably should be doing, such as developing your talent pipeline or studying the competition. Those things cry out to you, like voracious baby birds. Your mind is not quiet. The noise hurts.

Mindfulness–which sounds new age-y but doesn’t have to be–is increasingly held up as a way to improve both performance and decision making. Scott Eblin, author of Overworked and Overwhelmed: The Mindfulness Alternative, defines mindfulness as awareness plus intention. “If you are aware of what you are thinking and feeling and what is going on around you, then you can manage the gap between that and your actions,” he says. Mindful people don’t ignore noise and distractions–that’s impossible. But they exert discipline to control what Buddhists call their restless and unsettled “monkey minds.” “You have to be aware of all the mental chatter,” says Eblin. “That’s the first step toward quieting it.”

Mindfulness is particularly effective at thwarting that bane of productivity, the fallacy of sunk costs. The more time, thought, and energy you expend going down a road, the harder it is to change course when the destination looks dicey. New research from Insead and the Wharton School shows that subjects who meditated were much more likely to abandon a lost-cause project than those who did not. Cutting bait fast is critical, because lost causes waste time and, Eblin says, “because regret kills productivity.” He recommends avoiding regret by having individuals and teams subject their failures to after-action reviews, like those conducted by the military. “That way it becomes, what did I learn from this?” says Eblin. “You reframe it as retraining. And retraining, of course, is productive.”

Another advantage of mindfulness is that it concentrates attention on the qualitative, rather than quantitative, aspects of work–why am I doing this? instead of how much of this am I doing? “To me, productivity is the wrong focus,” says Wharton’s Grant. What you want is to be maximizing quality or usefulness. “I think a lot of people accept the goal of being productive,” says Grant. “And that’s counterproductive.”

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Second Acts and the Aging Entrepreneur

Mick Jagger famously said in his younger days that he would rather be dead than sing Satisfaction at 45, according to Inc. Well, now he’s 75 and he is still singing Satisfaction. Publicly.

Contrary to what F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in The Last Tycoon (“There are no second acts in American lives.”), there are turning out to be many second acts for entrepreneurs. And surprisingly, these second acts are increasingly among people over 55. There are actually more companies founded by codgers than by kids these days.

Note this recent quote from The Kiplinger Report: “One growing sector in the U.S. job market: Baby boomer entrepreneurs. By 2020, those at or near retirement will launch 25 percent of businesses.” According to the Kauffman Foundation, people 55-65 started 23.4 percent of companies in 2012 (the latest year it reported.)

For example, Moneynews reports that the average age of 500 recent applicants for a Florida entrepreneurship program funded by the U.S. Labor Department was 51. The article quotes Andrew Duffell, CEO of Research Park at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, who says older entrepreneurs are increasingly moving to Florida, not for retirement, but specifically to form businesses. Duffell says that his park includes a technology business incubator to assist startup companies and over 30 percent are run by people over 50.

Furthermore, unequivocally there is ageism out there that limits traditional employment for many women and men over 50. (In this regard, human resource strategy needs to catch up with new realities in the job market. More on this next week.) Much of this ageism is misbegotten and stupid, but it also may be why older entrepreneurship is growing.

There was a great article in The New York Times in 2013 titled “Why Innovators Get Better With Age.” It notes research by Benjamin Jones of Northwestern University that concludes that “a 55-year-old and even a 65-year-old have significantly more innovation potential than a 25-year-old.” The article goes on to state, “If an organization wants innovation to flourish, the conversation needs to change from severance packages to retention bonuses. Instead of managing the average age downward, companies should be managing it upward.”

There is a great deal going against small business and entrepreneurship these days. Much of what militates against robust business formation in the U.S. is obvious enough, i.e., unnecessary government regulation, onerous taxation, Obamacare, etc. I was alarmed to hear Jim Clifton, CEO of the Gallup Organization, citing figures from the U.S. Census Bureau that there were only 400,000 startups last year and over 470,000 company closures. Ugh! That trend needs to change not only for the health of the institution of entrepreneurship, but for the health of the world economy itself.

Perhaps 60 really is the new 40. With growing longevity and health consciousness, all of us are going to be productive longer. Perhaps much longer. I cannot imagine myself or most entrepreneurial colleagues embracing a twilight of idleness. More likely, passionate entrepreneurs share the sentiments of Dylan Thomas who said,

Do not go gentle into that good night
Old age should burn and rave at close of day
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Amen, Brother Dylan.

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The 3 Traits Of Amazing Team Members

I’ve worked with a lot of different kinds of people since I started my company. While no two people are the same, there are a couple of traits that have made some irreplaceable. As you grow your company, you’re going to make great hires and bad ones. What you will notice is that the best people you hire will have some combination of the traits below. These are the team members you never want to let go. Through good and bad times, these are the qualities that define a great team member. While sometimes the traits below are undervalued, they are in large part what separate a great team from an average one, according to Inc.

1. They do whatever needs to be done for the company

When people come to a startup from a corporate environment, learning to wear a variety of hats can be a struggle. The amount of change that a new company goes through as it progresses is incredible. One minute there are two people, and the next you have an entire team and office. Through these stages, the members of your organization who are unable to adjust will fizzle out. For instance, in the early stages of our company we used to ask our developers to help on sales calls. We needed as much help as we could get, and at the time we needed everyone on the front lines selling.

Initially, there were people who just weren’t comfortable doing this. These people eventually left the company or were asked to leave. True loyalty is always tested when we must do what we are scared to do for the betterment of the whole.

What was interesting is that the ones who stepped up to the challenge have continued to become the most valuable members of our team. As the leader, you’ll be so thankful to have these kinds of go-getters in your startup. In a new venture, you have to make quick decisions and get the whole team on board. Waiting too long is a recipe for a slow death. And because of that, there are many times when you have to ask an employee to do something without having time to explain why. The best team members will listen and do the job that needs to be done. The mediocre will make excuses and hold you back.

2. They are always looking to improve personally and professionally

Great players are never complacent with their skill sets. Whenever I talk to potential hires, I always ask what they want to improve on. The best answers I get are ones that include activities outside of their job. Answers like becoming a better rock climber, finding more time to read, or learning to cook are great examples.

The outlook we have on our personal lives has a direct correlation on how we treat our work as well. The exceptional people whom I’ve worked with all found a way to incorporate self-growth in their daily lives. Because of their obsession to improve, they have never acted like they knew everything or put others down. Instead, their drive to improve made them among the best catalysts of a great company culture.

3. They are ridiculously consistent

Most people we come across are motivated in spurts. A perfect example of this is the New Year’s resolution. At first, everyone is motivated and excited. Two weeks later, they go back to where they started. The people who I’ve most been able to count on in my team are the ones who execute the same small tasks everyday to perfection. A couple of examples: making sure you get all your emails answered and keeping your calendar up to date.

While this seems like a small and easy task to focus on, a leader who knows a team member will always be on top of communication is a huge plus. You don’t have to micromanage them, and it’s much easier to give their trust. I can tell you I’d rather have someone who’s consistent with the small tasks than someone who’s an all-star for one week.

Greatness isn’t built through one heroic moment, or trying to be a master in everything. It’s created through executing the tasks that most consider boring, and then mastering them.

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3 Questions to Ask When Considering an Unemployed Candidate

As the economy continues to improve, more small businesses are hiring, reports Entrepreneur. However, there is still a large pool of candidates who have been unemployed for months or even years. The question becomes, should employers consider candidates who are currently unemployed less desirable than those who have a job and are seeking greener pastures?

Employers should hire the person who will create the most value for their organization. To do anything else would be to destroy shareholder value. Theoretically, a candidate’s current employment status shouldn’t impact his or her ability to create value for a new employer. With that said, hiring is an inexact science. Therefore, hiring managers will look for any clue as to a prospective employee’s future performance.

One line of thinking is that a perspective employee who has a job is desirable, at least to one employer. A prospective employee who was laid off is not a desirable employee, at least to one employer. Based on this thinking, some hiring managers tend to favor prospective employees who have a job. Such thinking is overly simplistic.

When considering a prospective employee who is unemployed, ask these three questions:

1. Why was the candidate’s prior employment terminated?

A bookkeeper who was fired because he or she was found to have embezzled is not likely a good candidate for a job in accounting. A bookkeeper who lost his or her job because the company made a decision to consolidate the function in another state is a very different thing. A candidate who was dismissed for poor performance may not be as strong a candidate as one whose previous employer closed its doors due to lack of sales.

Ask unemployed candidates why his or her last job ended. If the candidate becomes your top choice for the job, verify his or her response by speaking to his or her former supervisor.

2. How long has the candidate been unemployed?

A candidate who lost his or her position two weeks ago is very different from one who has been unemployed for three years. For the long-term unemployed, why has it been so long between jobs?

The economy matters. Higher unemployment rates may justify longer periods of unemployment. Also, it is an unfortunate fact that older candidates have a much tougher time finding employment than younger candidates. Long-term unemployment can be, but isn’t necessarily a sign of lack of ambition. If a prospective employee has been unemployed for a lengthy period, prospective employers should make sure they understand why.

3. What has the prospective employee been doing since losing his or her job?

A prospective employee who has used his or her period of unemployment to accomplish something meaningful is a stronger candidate than one who has spent most of his or her time applying to jobs online.

Has the prospective employee upgraded his or her skills? Has he or she accepted temporary work to bring in some cash while continuing to look for work? Has he or she spent time cultivating their network and learning about new industries?

The more industrious a prospective employee has been during their period of unemployment, the more likely he or she is to be industrious in his or her next job.

If you are a hiring manager, rather than dismissing unemployed candidates out of hand, consider these three questions. If you are unemployed, make sure you are prepared to give truthful and impressive answers to these questions.

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10 Tips for Leadership When You’re Not the Boss

When founders and CEOs look to hire and promote managers, they want people who exhibit leadership. But, how can you exhibit leadership if you’re stuck in individual contributor roles? No one reports to you and you’re not even a project manager, reports Inc.

Good news is, leader isn’t a title, it’s a group of characteristics and you can gain them, even if you’re not the boss. Here are 10 ideas.

1. Communicate Clearly

Leaders don’t grumble behind closed doors when things don’t go their way. They don’t say yes when they should have said no. They say what they mean and do so in a way that people understand. This is not advocating rudeness, but it is advocating dropping passive-aggressive behavior.

2. Learn Flexibility

There’s rarely a “right” way to do something. If you are going to insist that things be done a certain way, you’re headed down the micro-manager path and that’s not what leadership is about. Ask yourself, “is this the wrong way to do it, or is it just a different way?”

3. Don’t Be A Doormat

Leaders stand up for themselves, politely. Jerks stand up for themselves rudely. If somebody interrupts you in a meeting, simply say, “I’m sorry, can I finish?” If your slimy co-worker tries to dump her work on you, say, “That won’t be possible.” Does this mean you never do a favor? Absolutely not. You do do favors, but you do so because you are nice or because it benefits you and the company, not because you can’t say no.

4. Help Others

Leaders bring others along with them, and share credit for work well done. Leaders don’t look for opportunities to step on others, but rather look for opportunities to help others succeed. Remember, a leader is someone who demonstrates desirable characteristics.

5. Take Responsibility For Your Mistakes

We all make mistakes. Own your mistakes. When someone points out an error don’t start throwing blame simply say, “Thanks for letting me know. Let me fix that.” Additionally, when things start going south, ask for help rather than panicking and trying to fix everything on your own. That usually makes it worse.

6. Listen To Others’ Ideas

You may be bursting with ideas and can’t wait until it’s your turn on the stage, but take time to listen to others. Other people have great ideas as well and a true leader acknowledges that good things can come from many sources. Don’t cut people off. Do solicit ideas. You may be surprised at what you learn.

7. Take Risks

Lots of times people think leaders have led charmed lives where everything went well. This is rarely the case. Failure is an integral part of success. When you can acknowledge that the risks are real but the potential payoff is enough to counteract that, you’re demonstrating leadership. If you jump blindly, that’s stupid. But if you evaluate the situation and take the risk anyway, that’s leadership.

8. Remember To Network

Networking isn’t just about finding jobs, it’s about connecting with people. As you learn how to interact with people, you’ll learn which interactions are effective and which are ineffective. As you help others with their career, you’re demonstrating your ability to lead and guide.

9. Develop A Thick Skin

Illegal and immoral discrimination happens. Accept that it does now and just determine not to let terrible people get you down. The business world is not the university and the HR department are not counselors. If someone treats you poorly, don’t immediately jump to the conclusion that it was based on some immutable characteristic. Instead, evaluate if what they said or did was justified. If it was, change your behavior. If it wasn’t, don’t let it bother you. Now, in an egregious situation, absolutely report it, but let most things roll off your back.

10. Don’t Ask For Special Treatment

All that stuff you learned about being inherently special? False. You’re not. I’m not. No one is. So stop asking for special treatment and exceptions to rules. Now, can you become special by working harder and smarter than everyone else. You’ll get special treatment when you deserve it. That isn’t to say you can’t ask for a raise or a promotion or extra behavior. That’s not special treatment–that’s something you earn by being awesome.

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8 Essential Security Strategies for Small Businesses in 2015

In the past year a bevy of big-time companies like Sony, Target and Home Depot were hit with data breaches. Amid the chaos, it might be easy to overlook the fact small businesses are just as vulnerable if not more so than their large-cap counterparts, reported Fox Business.

Larger companies typically have stronger security measures in place to ward off intruders, but independent businesses often can’t afford these expensive protections. Either way, small businesses still have access to a vast trove of client information, which makes them ripe for hacks.

In fact, Hartford Steam Boiler (HSB) recently found more than half of all small- and mid-sized enterprises have been hacked at some point, and 72% of those affected by breaches were unable to restore the stolen data.

Fred Touchette, senior security analyst at AppRiver, which specializes in SMB security, has pinpointed eight essential strategies small businesses should implement to strengthen their data defenses.

1. Always Run Anti-Virus and Firewalls

“Firewalls are important as they typically act as the first line of defense against network attacks, while anti-virus solutions serve as a strong last line of defense,” Touchette says.

2. Update All Devices with the Latest Patches

“Attackers and researchers continually find vulnerabilities in software, and a patch, or hot fix, is designed to correct those security flaws,” Touchette explains. “And if unpatched software is left on a device, it makes it easier for an attacker to leverage them. The same rule applies to all software.”

3. Always Use Complex Passwords and Mix It Up

“Make sure your password is lengthy and has a healthy mix of symbols, characters, lowercase and uppercase letters,” he says, adding that using the same password across multiple sites and devices gives the attacker “immediate access” to everything. Therefore, “by utilizing different passwords for every account, the user is limiting the effectiveness of an attack to a single compromise.”

4. Protect Your Personal Information

“Remember, do not advertise sensitive information online,” Touchette warns. “Tighten your security settings on social media” by limiting the personal information (birth dates, addresses) you provide. “This information can be used to fuel custom attacks or [help decode] account security questions,” he says.

5. Be Mindful of Your Digital Foot Print

And be careful what you post online. Touchette says it’s best not to “post anything online that you wouldn’t want everyone in the world to see. Really.”

6. Only Visit Trusted Sites

“There are roughly 252 million registered domains and a large portion of those domains are malicious. Some are quite obvious while other, legitimate sites can be compromised to host malware within its pages,” he says. Sticking to well-known, established sites, the security expert adds, increases “the odds of staying safe online.”

7. Think Twice Before Opening Attachments

“This is a very, very common method for attackers to use — delivering malware straight to your inbox, which is both convenient and highly effective,” Touchette explains. “Do not click on an unsolicited link or open an attachment unless you know it is reputable.”

8. Review Financial Accounts Regularly for Suspicious Activity

“By monitoring accounts on a regular basis, you raise your chances of catching an attack before it causes too much damage … and possibly even catch the attacker,” he says.

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