Accuracy vs Consistency

Accuracy vs Consistency

Which is better? Accuracy or Consistency?

This is an age old debate when it comes to working with unstructured data tools.

People see one mistake from some text analytics, speech to text, or image recognition output and cry, “See?! Machines just can’t do this.”

But humans can’t either.

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One person isn’t fast enough to read through thousands or millions of items that need “human judgment” to be “accurate.”

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So we invented crowdsourcing – services like Amazon Mechanical Turk and CrowdFlower where you can define a specific task then have an army of human “crowd workers” perform these human judgment types of things.

Crowdsourcing gives you access to 100’s and even 1000’s of workers all at once so this solved some issues of speed, but did it really solve accuracy?

Kevin Cocco of Sproutloop.com commented and presented about a project where they took 120k tweets about weather and had 5 crowd workers classify the sentiment for each one.

Here are the 5 possible answers they could select for each tweet presented:

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Guess what percent of the time all 5 workers chose the same answer for a single tweet?

44Percent

44%

Surprised?

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Consistency

There is a perception that humans are more accurate than machines for some tasks.

The problem is that “accuracy” can be very subjective.

Often times the data set used to train machine algorithms isn’t 100% accurate to begin with.

So if the training data isn’t 100% accurate, how can a model be 100% accurate?

 Accuracy < 100% = FAIL    

If you buy into that equation, or that is your measuring stick for unstructured data tools, chances are you will just give up on using the tools.

What if you change the equation?

 Value > 0% = WIN

Instead of focusing on the mistakes, look at how much value you are getting by using the tool. Look at the speed at which you can process massive amounts of data, look at the consistency of the results.

If you are dealing with a large data set and are trying to refine a model, it is going to be very helpful to run your data through more than once. By using machines you can quickly and easily run all of your tests again as you make refinements.

This is much easier and less expensive than getting an army of crowdworkers to process those 120,000 tweets over and over if you need to add a 6th option or you want to run a different set of 100,000 tweets through for testing or evaluation.

This becomes a huge cost savings when dealing with audio transcription like call center recordings. “Rush” transcription by native language speakers will cost you ~$3 / minute. Speech to text services can give you real-time results for a fraction of the cost.

Do you need 100% Accuracy?

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Ever tried voicemail transcription services? Rarely are they 100% accurate, but when you get that email or text of the voicemail someone just left can you tell what the general message or intent is? Even though every word isn’t 100% perfect?

As humans, we are very good at dealing with noise. Although the veracity of this text is questionable, we’re not worried about that for this illustration. Try reading the passage below:

Aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be at the rghit pclae.

Even though none of the words are spelled correctly, were you able to understand what it said?

According to a research at Cambridge University, it doesn’t matter in what order the letters in a word are, the only important thing is that the first and last letter be at the right place.

You experienced the added value of knowing what that message said without listening to it – maybe you were in a meeting and got the message sooner than you would have if you had to listen to it, or maybe you just saved some time because it is faster to read the message than listening to it.

Another approach is measuring changes over time.

Suppose you are processing some content in real-time and calculating an average sentiment for each item then plotting that score over time:

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When establishing a baseline with unstructured data tools, even if they aren’t 100% accurate, at least they are consistently inaccurate.

Over time you can measure variations from that baseline and derive some good insights even though your absolute classification isn’t 100% accurate.

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When processing unstructured data it is often the outliers that contain the interesting information – those indicate items that may require more immediate attention than others.

80/20 Rule

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Some tasks like medical coding demand as close to 100% accuracy as you can get. But again, different human coders will often disagree on what the correct codes should be for a given medical record. This is due to the complexity of the domain and the subjective nature of some classifications in the medical coding system.

In these situations where you’re not necessarily shooting for 100% automation, you can still get value from unstructured data tools by pre-processing your data and providing suggestions for the humans and data from the record to back up that decision.

You may not achieve 100% accuracy, but you can probably hit 80% accuracy and speed up the overall processing time of each record. This increase in throughput per worker can help lower costs and open up business opportunities that were not viable before using unstructured data tools.

Another way to look at this is that the tools can do 80% of the grunt work while humans clean up the remaining 20%.

Easier to Edit or Create?

Create vs Edit

Which is easier: proofreading a 1000 word article or writing a 1000 word article? In most cases, proofreading is easier because you already have something you are starting with vs trying to create it from scratch.

The same is true with most classification tasks. Starting with something allows the human to focus their efforts on verifying that the information is correct and looking for those inaccuracies vs trying to do everything from scratch.

You do need to be careful to not fall into the trap of always agreeing with the computer. Some trials show a decrease in overall accuracy when humans are presented suggestions vs when they come up with the solution from scratch.

One way to combat this is to send known “gold standard” tasks through with normal jobs to check that the humans are paying attention. If you’re testing for “agreeance laziness” you could send something through with a subtle error to make sure they aren’t always taking the computer’s suggestion.

What’s your application?

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Bottom line, it depends on your application. For monitoring someone’s heartbeat or launching a missile, 100% accuracy is essential. However, for monitoring twitter feeds or mining some data for insights, lower accuracy can be an acceptable trade-off for real-time results in processing that data.

Can you get the general idea even though it’s not 100% accurate? Can you get value from that? Then don’t throw out the tools. Use them for what they are good at so your human experts can focus on where they can have the greatest impact.

Using the Right Tool

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Have you ever tried to cut a board with a hammer? Given enough time and force it can be done but the task is much easier and has a better ending when you use a saw.

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Dealing with unstructured data can sometimes feel like cutting a board with a hammer.

It takes up more space.

It usually all gets stuck into some blob column in a database or in one giant folder on a drive.

There are some structured attributes like date and size. Maybe if you’re lucky you might even know where it came from and what might be in it.

But for the most part, unstructured data is largely neglected. Sentenced to sit in storage forever, never again to see the light of day.

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Why pay to keep data around if you’re not going to do anything with it?

“I might need it.”

True, you might need it in the future. But will you be able to find it when you need it?

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More importantly, is there something you could do right now to make that data more useful AND easier to find when you need it?

Using the right tools for the job is essential when dealing with unstructured data. I like to think of it in terms of 3 main areas:

  1. Text
  2. Images
  3. Audio

Text

Text is deceiving because you may think you have added some structure, but does the structure have any meaning?

For example, think of an email. It has some structured elements like to, from, subject, and time sent. We use these structured elements of email to organize and often search our email.

But what about the text?

You could simply group the text by words. That would give you something that highlights things like of, an, the, a, and other words that occur most frequently.

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The problem is the most frequently occurring words don’t really have any meaning by themselves.

You could try limiting what you look at by only using words longer than a certain length or come up with a list of words to ignore.

The data may appear to be a little cleaner but these approaches are more like using a hammer to cut the board than using a saw.

Text that has been structured into sentences and paragraphs has meaning. The meaning is dictated by the language of the text. Written language is used to communicate ideas and information from one human brain to another.

When we start looking at the linguistic elements of the text (nouns, verbs, etc.), it becomes easier to add structure that also captures meaning.

Good text analytics software is worth its weight in gold (how do you weigh software?) when it comes to adding structure to your text. It can help you find main ideas, entities, categories, and sentiment. All of these elements help capture the true meaning of the text and not just the words by themselves.

Images

Image recognition has been a difficult problem for decades. Over the past several years advances in this field have become almost commonplace.

Image search is one example. Need to find a picture of a pumpkin in a red wagon? No problem.

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Some of these images match because they have textual metadata that tells the search engine information like “pumpkin” and “red wagon” is in the image.

The problem with that method is that someone had to tag the image, and those tags aren’t always 100% correct. Kind of like youtube thumbnails. The thumbnail image isn’t necessarily a frame from the video, it may be something just to get your attention.

Looking at an image and recognizing colors, shapes, and objects is one of those problems that a 2-year-old could do better than a computer for quite some time.

However, this technology has finally gotten out of the toddler phase and is walking on two feet. Check out some examples from Amazon’s Rekognition service:

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In addition to objects in the picture, facial recognition and matching have become much more robust to the point that they can provide a percentage of match between faces in photos. They also provide facial analysis to show things like age range and sentiment.

You can scale out to process thousands or even millions of images in a short period of time so applying this to historical data is entirely feasible. These metrics come with a confidence level so you can decide what information to save and what to throw out.

Audio

There are a couple of approaches to audio. Search for known patterns in the audio or convert the audio to text then apply text analytics tools.

Phonetic search uses the wave patterns in the sound to match with known patterns of pre-defined words you are looking for and can tell you with some confidence level what is a match. This allows you to monitor for known points of information then tag your audio with those data points.

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Professionally produced songs are a relatively easy sound match because they are exactly the same. A small wave pattern from a song will uniquely match up with that song and only that song due to the wide variety of sounds that could exist even between 2 live versions of the same artist.

Conversations, on the other hand, are entirely different. How many ways do people pronounce the word “tomato” or “mountain”? Accents, emotion, and personality all affect the actual wave pattern of the words people speak.

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Speech to text has been another hard problem to solve. It uses the same idea of sound matching but then converts the audio into words, each with a certain confidence level. One advantage of converting the audio to text is that you can use your same text analytics tools to process the text instead of setting up a totally different analytics path.

Good speech to text software can also capture some items unique to the audio and provide metadata such as gender and age of the speaker, sentiment of the speaker, and if it was a conversation when people were talking at the same time and when they were listening to one person.

Video

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What about video?

Well, if you think about it, video is just a bunch of images that change rapidly (usually 30 times / second) with accompanying audio.

So you can separate the audio and deal with it as audio, then take a sample of images from the video (maybe 1-2 per second) and analyze those using image recognition.

300 hours of new video is uploaded to YouTube each minute! It is not humanly possible to keep up with that kind of data without using the right tools.

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What Unstructured Data are you holding on to? Which of these tools could help you add more structure and get more value from that data?

There’s Gold in that thar Data

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You may have heard the phrase “Data is the new oil” but like oil, data must be refined before it can really be useful.

Numeric data is easy to refine – you can add it, sort it, average it, and look for trends.

But what about text? How do you add words?

This + That = ?

80-90% of the data in most organizations is Unstructured Data such as emails, text messages, open-ended comments from customers, reports, health records, images, and audio/video files to name a few.

Unstructured data tools help refine your data into something you can process easier and faster. It can help answer questions like:

Who is talking?

What are they talking about?

How do they feel about it? (sentiment – positive, neutral, negative)

This information can then help you monitor your operations more effectively, build predictive models, perform tasks faster, and deal with data that would otherwise be too big to handle manually.

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Text analytics is specialized software for unstructured data. It uses linguistic tools to extract meaning and the important pieces from your data as structured pieces which you can then use like numbers.

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Speech to text converts your audio to text so you can run it through text analytics.

Some examples include:

  • Voice of customer – process open-ended comments in real time to address customer issues right away instead of once / quarter.

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  • Call center – 100% monitoring of calls to allow available management resources to focus in on the most important issues instead of monitoring 1-2% of calls at random.
  • Manual review tasks – skilled review like medical coding which is difficult to completely automate could be sped up by first processing textual records with unstructured data tools.

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  • Legal and compliance – detect and correct issues in email and other company communications right away instead of finding the problems during a court case.
  • Chatbots – handle more simple questions and collect intake information in a natural, conversational format allowing human agents to focus on more complex issues.

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  • Social media, news feeds and other data sources – monitor real time and get a digestible summary of the content and sentiment across all of that data. Can be used in applications such as competitive analysis or setting up predictive models.
  • Images – use image recognition software to classify, compare, and search images. Like your own “google image search” for your image data. Speed up reporting of issues by taking a picture and processing it vs writing a report, detect maintenance issues, and audit access to buildings to name a few.

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Unstructured data tools can help you get value out of data that is otherwise sitting idle in storage, increase the productivity of your manual data processing, build predictive models and use data in ways that are just not possible by hand.

How much are you paying to store data? Are you getting anything out of it?

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Please contact me to discuss your business and your data. I can identify specific areas where refining the data with unstructured data tools can increase your productivity, reduce risk, and unlock insights that may otherwise stay buried forever.

Cleaning the Fridge

Have you ever second-guessed the expiration date of something that has been in your fridge for a while then instantly regretted it when that distinct smell of expired food hit your nose?

Or maybe there’s that mystery container in the work fridge that has turned every color of the rainbow over the past 2 months but no one is willing to touch it to throw it out?

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Don’t let your skills become outdated at your job.

The world around us is constantly innovating and changing.

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What are you doing to keep your skills up to date? Sometimes we can lose sight of what is going on in our industry in the day to day grind of getting things done.

If you ever find yourself telling a new co-worker, “That’s how we do things around here,” pause a minute and ask yourself, “Why? Is this really the best way?”

How will you know if you’re not keeping up in your industry?

Conferences

Industry conferences are one of my favorite ways to stay up to date in my field. I like conferences that include a mix of real world users, vendors, and academics.

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The real world users provide a concrete example of the pros and cons of the new approach they have implemented. You can often ask questions of your own about their experience and learn from their mistakes.

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Vendors can help paint a picture of new possibilities with their products that are just coming out or are soon to be released. I find this a great way to get new ideas flowing and look at how I do things in a different way.

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Academics help show what is on the horizon. Often the research is in a very controlled environment but this gives a preview of what new products and services could be developing over the next few years.

The most valuable part of conferences is the people. Connecting with different people goes a long way in keeping you up to date on what is going on and also gives you resources to turn to when you have questions.

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Never Eat Alone by Keith Ferrazzi has a few chapters everyone should read before attending their next conference. It is from a marketer’s perspective so some things may not apply to you but I really like his tips on what to avoid at conferences.

For example, hanging out with the first person you meet for the entire conference and not meeting anyone new or just being a business card dispenser without actually getting to know people.

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What to Attend?

Ask around. Find people you look up to in your industry and find out what they attend.

What vendors do you use at your job? Often they host or sponsor different conferences that would be relevant to you.

What topics interest you and could add value to your organization? Search around for conferences on those topics.

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Some conferences are big productions complete with expos, meals, and huge venues. Others are organized by a single person or smaller organization. You may also have local conferences or user groups that meet in the evenings and hold local events.

Getting There

So how do you get your company to send you to a conference?

Start with the easiest thing – Ask.

Remember that you’re not just asking to attend a conference. Presenting it that way seems like an expense.

Provide some context around how the information, training, and connections at the conference will add value to your organization.

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Maybe there is a new development that could save time or money for your company and this conference will help you get up to speed in that area as well as provide important connections.

Maybe there are training sessions around particular technologies and tools that would otherwise take much longer or be less effective outside of the conference.

Show your employer how they will benefit by sending you to this conference in terms of what value is this going to add to the company? What is their expected return on investment for this?

Keep in mind that they are both investing your time away from work as well as the conference admission and possibly airfare, lodging, and meals. That can all add up to a pretty hefty price tag.

Be Creative

If you don’t get the green light right away that’s ok. Here are a few ideas to make the ask a little smaller and increase your chance of getting a yes. You may need to use a combination of these things.

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  • Offer to do a presentation or provide a written summary of the conference to your organization. This way you are providing the information you received to multiple people.
  • Make it fit in a different budget. Often training budgets are smaller than marketing, sales, and recruiting. Find out how you can do some extra activities on the trip or just present it differently to have the expense come from a larger budget.

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  • Get a discount for the conference. Early registration or multiple registrations are usually discounted.
  • Ask the conference organizer for a discount. Sometimes they will just give you one, other times you can get a discount in exchange for helping with some aspects of the conference while you are there.
  • Ask a sponsor for a pass. Sponsors usually get a number of free or discounted tickets to use, and they aren’t always able to use them. This works particularly well if a sponsor is a vendor you use and already have a contact person.

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  • Speak at the conference. Speakers often get free or discounted registration. Again, contact the organizer well in advance and find out what topics they are looking and where your experience could fit in.
  • Work remotely while at the conference. This can be tricky but maybe you can do some work during travel time and in the evenings/downtime. Plan for half time or less because what is the point of attending a conference if you’re buried in your work the whole time?

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  • Pay for your own meals/lodging/travel. Offer to cover one of these then add more if needed. Even if you end up covering all three it could cost much less than the conference admission.
  • Use vacation time to travel to/from the conference. You may have 2 travel days that can be seen as “unproductive”. Use vacation for those to eliminate that concern.
  • Use vacation time for the entire conference. It shows your willingness to sacrifice to attend although this isn’t always my first choice because I like vacation time to totally unplug from work.

Other Options

Conferences aren’t the only source of information.

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Online training from reliable sources is a great way to stay up to date.

Certifications in your field are another way to demonstrate your competence and stay informed with the latest information.

Industry newsletters and journals can be helpful as well.

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The important thing is to avoid becoming “siloed” in your job and lose touch with what is happening in the world around you.

How are you staying up to date in your industry?

Watch what you Send

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We spend a lot of time with email. Especially at work.

Email can be a great way to collaborate with people in different places and at different times but it can also be annoying, a waste of time, and even get you into trouble.

Knowing what to watch out for as you send and receive emails can save you a lot of hassle at your job. Emails that fall into these pitfalls usually have multiple violations.

If you can catch yourself from doing even one of these you can usually catch others you may have missed and save a lot of time, embarrassment, and even your job.

#1 – Wall o Words

Keep in mind that a lot of email is read on mobile devices, especially phones. If your email doesn’t have any white space on a single screen, you need to rethink your message.

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When you greet people with a wall of words that’s the quickest way to have them hit “next”. You’re not writing prose for a short story here. You are communicating action items, reports, and ideas to other people.

Start with a 5 second summary of what action you are trying to get the person to take. If you are providing information, have a few bullet points or a small graphic that summarize what is in the email. THEN go into detail, or add an attachment with all of the long explanations.

#2 – Reply to all

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Noooooooooooo! This one should go without saying yet it still happens. Learn the difference between the “Reply” and “Reply To All” buttons in whatever email program you are using both mobile and desktop. 99% of the time “Reply” is the right choice – only respond to the person who sent the email.

In those rare 1% cases where “reply to all” is the right choice, carefully look at the list of people and decide if all of them REALLY need to know what you’re about to say.

If you find yourself on the receiving end of a “reply to all” DO NOT “reply to all” saying “remove me from this list” or whatever clever pun you’d like to share. Entire company email systems have been brought to a crawl from exploding “reply to all” messages.

It’s kind of like when you get added to an unwelcome group text. If you just ignore it, it will die on its own.

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If you really feel strongly that you need to say something, just “reply” to the ONE person who sent it. I’m sure they already know their blunder so usually no need to rub salt in the wound, but if someone is a repeat offender they may need some education about what button to push next time.

#3 – Appropriate Audience

I was on a team who actually looked forward to emails from a certain individual because he gave so much detail about where he was going to be if he wasn’t in the office. We would get everything from narratives about broken swamp coolers and what aisle of Home Depot he would be on to detailed information about his upcoming medical visit.

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That level of detail is fine for your manager, but the entire building doesn’t really need to know. Be careful about using distribution lists without checking who is actually on the list. You are usually better off making your own list of people who really need to know where you are if you’re not in the office. Everyone else can just wait until you get back or talk to your manager.

Also, go easy on the cc and bcc. I’ve found that if I’m trying to solve a problem it goes a lot faster when it’s just between me and one other person. The minute you start adding additional people (especially managers) things start to slow down and important details for solving the problem are left out because no one wants to look bad in front of others, especially their manager.

If you are not having much success getting a response then you may cc someone’s manager on the email, but use that with discretion. A lot of times it’s more effective to just pick up the phone and call the person if it’s really that urgent.

#4 – Gigantic image

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Sometimes images are huge. File size huge. This makes it slow to download. It takes up space.

Scale images down before you add them as attachments or put them in docs / pdfs. Some of the biggest offenders I’ve seen are people making a flyer for the whole company that ends up being a 5 MB file when it could have been 1% of that size.

If it has to be that big of a file, put the file in a single location and send a link to it. Your system administrator will thank you.

#5 – Personal items

If you read your work email agreement there’s usually something in there about how all communication on company equipment or through company accounts may be monitored and is company property.

This is for real. Many companies are required to keep email archives around for years and they can do pretty much whatever they want with the messages.

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Get a personal account for personal stuff. Period. If your work account gets hacked due to personal activity, that’s not a meeting I would want to be in.

If you leave the company your account is locked out and usually your manager has access to the account for a while. Do you really want them reading your personal correspondence? No matter how hard you try to let everyone know you’re no longer with the company, someone will send something to that old email. Much better if you’re the one keeping an eye on things during the transition than someone else.

#6 – Too much information

No one needs to know the details of your Dr. appointment. MAYBE your manager, but most of the time it is fine to just say you have an appointment and you are unavailable.

Done.

If you need to provide some sort of justification for the absence then that would be to one person, not to an entire list of people who really don’t want to hear about that weird thing growing on your back.

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#7 – Forwarder

When you forward a message to someone new be aware of the whole conversation that is in that email. Cut out all of the extra information that the person you are bringing into the conversation does not need to know or should not know at all.

I’ve seen some pretty embarrassing comments that went back and forth between two people all of a sudden get paraded in front of dozens or even hundreds of people thanks to a forward.

#8 – Black hole

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If someone is waiting on you for something urgent a simple “On it” reply can ease their mind so at least they know the message was received and you are working on it.

It can be tempting to wait to communicate until after you have fixed a problem so you can just report the good news, but it is much better to first let them know you are aware of the problem and are working on it.

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#9 – Making a Mountain of Molehill

Sometimes you may get an oddball request about some minor thing. I once saw an email (sent to waaay to many people – remember multiple violations?) about something that was broken on the company website. It was a pretty simple fix so the person could have just said, “Ok, thanks. We’ll get that updated today.” End of story.

INSTEAD they chose to go into this giant explanation about how they were re-doing a bunch of stuff and it was going to take 6 months to address the issue.

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Yeah, that landed them on the wrong radar and they won a weekly progress meeting with a not-so-pleasant executive to resolve the issue.

First, replying back to just the one person could have saved some heartache here.

Second, this wasn’t the time or place to parade their giant 6-month plan. There was a simple problem that only required a simple solution. Do the simple solution and be on your way.

#10 – Return receipt

Are you going to do anything different knowing whether someone opened an email or not? At the end of the day, probably not. Maybe you’ll invent some story about how that person is such a jerk because they have opened the email but not done anything yet.

You have better things to do at work than worry whether someone opened your message or not. If they haven’t responded for a while, chances are they didn’t open it or it was too hard to read or just not a priority.

Again, pick up the phone and have a conversation if it’s really urgent, otherwise, don’t worry about it.

#11 – Vacation responder

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Make sure you turn it off when you get back. These are questionable because your immediate team should know that you’re gone, and anyone who may need to contact you can probably wait.

Some programs allow you to only send the response to people within your organization to prevent some random spammer finding out that you’re out of town for 2 weeks.

Also, no need to brag about that cool cruise you are taking or that you are skydiving. A simple response is fine.

“I will be out of the office until <date>. Please contact <other person> if you need assistance.”

#12 – Duh

Don’t forward dumb stuff. Just don’t. Whether it’s a pyramid scheme or a questionable image, of just time-wasting nonsense.

If you get something questionable report it to your IT security department or simply trash it WITHOUT opening it.

The worst thing you could do with a suspicious email is to forward it to the whole company saying, “Did anyone else get this? It looks weird.”

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Sound unreal? I’ve seen it happen. That person was the hacker’s best friend – they just provided 1000’s of more chances for someone to open their virus.

That could earn you a one-way walk out the front door.

What other email pitfalls do you avoid? Share in the comments below.

How can you concentrate with all that noise?

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I never understood how people could study while listening to music.

Sure, I listened to music while doing physical tasks like exercising or yard work, but as the youngest in my family, by the time I had to do any serious studying the house was pretty quiet and in college I usually went to the library or computer lab which were also pretty quiet places.

Then I got a job in an office.

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There was extra noise from teams “next door” (even though there were no doors), people always seemed to be dropping by to ask a question of someone nearby, and since they were so close it was difficult not to listen in on conversations and lose my train of thought.

For some tasks, this isn’t much of a problem, but when you’re trying to really concentrate on a complex problem, it can totally throw a wrench into your productivity.

One guy on our team brought in his music collection so we could all connect to his machine and listen to tunes while we worked. I thought it was worth a try since the alternative office noise wasn’t really helping and I found that listening to music actually helped me concentrate.

One problem is that even with a large music library, you go through a lot of songs in a workweek. Starts to get a little repetitive.

About a year later Pandora came out and it was like Christmas!

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Pandora lets you pick a song or artist to “seed” a station. It then selects songs similar to those and plays them on your station. As you go you can “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” songs and it will learn what you like for that station and keep introducing new music as well as replay songs you have given the thumbs up.

Pandora was nice because you never knew what song would be next! Pandora introduced me to artists I had never even heard of but really liked their music. I still use some of the stations I built up during that time.

It can be a little bit of a distraction, though – looking at the screen to see who the artist is you may not have heard of then googling them, giving a song the thumbs up or skipping something you don’t want to listen all the way through. We’re talking just a few seconds, but there is a slight distraction factor.

Pandora was my go-to noise filter until about a year ago someone introduced me to Simply Noise

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It’s a noise generator – you’ve probably heard of white noise but they also have pink noise, brown noise, it can fade in and out, and they even have rainstorm sounds!

This has worked a lot better for me because it’s enough to block out what’s going on around me yet it’s pretty constant – I don’t have to deal with transitions, giving a thumbs up or thumbs down, etc. I even used it in a busy waiting room with some stock Apple earbuds and I was in my own world within seconds.

Headphones

Even if you don’t want to listen to anything, headphones can be a visual queue to someone else that you are concentrating on your work. They may think twice before interrupting your train of thought for something trivial.

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These are my “Princess Leia” headphones as they were affectionately dubbed by some co-workers. They block out some sound on their own and you can definitely tell when I am wearing them!

Using headphones can work well with the Pomodoro Technique

Headphones on = in the middle of some work, leave me alone

Headphones off = taking a break, come talk to me

Earplugs

Let’s not forget good old fashioned earplugs.

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Silence is golden.

Book a Meeting

Sometimes headphones aren’t enough. Sometimes you have to physically go somewhere other than your desk to get some work done.

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If you have a laptop, book a conference room for a “meeting” with yourself then go get stuff done. I knew a team lead who would do this a few times a week for 1-2 hours just to finish some tasks since their normal day was filled with questions and interruptions.

Their secret didn’t last long so if someone really needed to talk to them they could start walking around checking conference rooms (this was a big office building with 6 floors) but it was an effective way to filter out most of the interruptions that could wait an hour or two until they returned to their desk.

Make an Appointment

Have an “Appointment” outside of the office where you leave. People have Doctor appointments, Dentist appointments, repair appointments, so why not a get things done appointment?

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For me, this has sometimes been in the middle of the night since that was a time I knew no one would be sending messages or trying to get a hold of me and I could focus on finishing my tasks. Making an appointment for yourself is a way to put this uninterrupted time during normal working hours.

Education

Meetings can be one of the biggest productivity killers out there, especially if you are doing more creative work vs. administrative work.

Managers tend to think of the day in 30 or 60-minute slots while makers tend to think in terms of half or whole days.

Paul Graham wrote an excellent article on this topic – it’s a quick 5-minute read and he makes some good points about the cost of meetings and how makers and managers can better understand how to most effectively work with each other.

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With all of these strategies, you may think I’m advocating that we all work in a cave. I am not. There is simply a balance between being always available and collaborative vs. being focused and productive on individual tasks.

Some questions are urgent and require face to face contact and justify interrupting a person’s current focus. But many questions can wait – send an email, let them answer later on in between focused work sessions, or catch up around the water cooler. Instant messaging is also convenient but doesn’t always require an instant response.

What strategies do you use to get things done in noisy office spaces with constant interruptions?

Share in the comments below.

How a Tomato helped me get more done

Sometimes I have a hard time starting a task.

I’ll check email, get a drink, get a snack, start cleaning my desk–all things that are NOT the task at hand.

Once I get into “the zone” I can be very productive, but getting there can be a challenge.

What if there was a shortcut to get yourself started on a task, finish it quicker, and feel more rested afterward?

Let me introduce you to the Pomodoro Technique developed by Francesco Cirillo.

Pomodoro is Italian for tomato, inspired by a kitchen timer shaped like a tomato.

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If you are serious about wasting less time and finishing more things I highly recommend you take 30 mins to read his original publication about the Pomodoro Technique. It’s an easy read and you will get a much better understanding of the details of the technique.

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Some objectives of the technique are:

1. Observe and find out how much effort an activity requires

2. Cut down on interruptions both internal (yourself) and external (other people)

3. Estimate effort for activities

4. Make the Pomodoro more effective

5. Set up a Timetable

Most of what you see people write about when they talk about the Pomodoro Technique only focuses on #1 and #2 on the list of 5 objectives. Items 3-5 are also very powerful for increasing your overall productivity.

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Basic Steps:

1. Decide on 2-3 tasks for the day that you think will take between 30 mins and 3 hours each. If you think a task will take more than 3 hours then you should break it up into smaller tasks.

2. Set a timer for 25 mins

3. Focus in on a task for the entire 25 minutes. The timer should count down and be visible to you and others that may try to interrupt you. Watching it count down also creates a sort of “game” – can you finish before the clock runs out?

4. Write down interruptions that come up during the 25 minutes (respond to text, answer phone, check email, watch cat video, order lunch – all of the things that are NOT the task at hand) and WAIT TO DO THEM – don’t let it interrupt your work on the current task for more than the few seconds it takes to write it down.

If something interrupts your focus from the task for more than a few seconds then go back to step 2. An interrupted Pomodoro doesn’t count and you start the timer over.

This could mean you have some days when you don’t finish a single Pomodoro because they were all interrupted. That’s ok.

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5. At the end of 25 minutes when the timer goes off STOP WORKING. Just stop. If it’s not done you’ll work on it another 25 minutes after your break (next step)

6. Take a 5 min break. 25 mins focused work + 5 mins break = 1 Pomodoro. Or if you get sick of explaining what “Pomodoro” means just call it a tomato.

7. After every 4 Pomodoros take a 30 min break

Practicing the Pomodoro Technique has helped me focus and finish things in less time than when I try to “just plow through it”. There are also physical benefits from standing up from your keyboard every 25 mins and giving your eyes a break.

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During the 30 min break, I like to walk around outside and get some fresh air.

Often while I’m walking or when I get back from a break I’ll get an answer to a problem that I may have been looking at for a while.

Your brain is smart. Let it do its job by turning off your conscious effort on a task so your subconscious can kick in and do some heavy lifting.

This is especially important for creative tasks.

I also like how it combats procrastination (internal distractions). When I sit down, instead of checking all of my email accounts, arranging my icons, closing unused browser tabs, etc. I just start my timer and get to work on the first item for the day.

I know that 25 minutes later I’ll get 5 minutes to goof off. 5 minutes that I’m required to goof off and tend to all of those distractions.

If I’m really fried, I’ll schedule an entire Pomodoro to goof off. This ends up taking less time than if I watch “just one more” funny video.

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 I cannot boast that I waste nothing, but I can at least tell you what I am wasting, and the cause and manner of the loss

-Seneca

For external distractions, if someone comes up to me in the middle of a Pomodoro I’ll just ask, “Can it wait 10 minutes?” (or however long is left in my Pomodoro). I make it a point to follow up with them before my next Pomodoro if it truly is urgent, or I just put it in my “maintenance” Pomodoro toward the end of the day.

When you respond to people they will tend to respect the tomato more. Especially when you are getting things done faster because of it.

You can download apps to help you track tasks and have a countdown timer. I like Be Focused by Xwavesoft.

Be Focused

Some project planning/task tracking apps have it built in like Kanban Flow– they have integrated a Pomodoro timer with their task board. You can even tie a Pomodoro to a task on your board which helps track how long it actually took.

You can also use good old fashioned pen and paper.

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The point is sometimes you are your own biggest distraction. This is one way to get around that so you can get more done without necessarily spending a lot of extra time doing it.

Give the Pomodoro Technique a try and comment below with your experience or any questions that come up.

If Tomorrow was the last day at your job…

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How would you feel?

Panic? Relief?

What would you walk away with besides a box?

Experience.

You always take your experience with you. The question is how much are you taking advantage of the experiences available to you right now?

Think about where you want to be. Are you already at your ideal job or is there something else that would get you more excited to jump out of bed in the morning?

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What is the gap between where you are now and where you want to be? Sometimes the gap is experience. Maybe there’s a new technology you want to work with, but you don’t have any experience in that area. What can you do?

Meet your neighbor

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For starters, look around at what you have available right now at your job. We often overlook what is right in front of us without realizing it.

Suppose you want to work with “Big Data” and you’ve heard of things like Hadoop but you have no idea beyond that.

Is there anyone who works with Big Data at your company?

Could you get to know people on that team – maybe grab some lunch together or have some water cooler conversations to learn more?

Absolutely.

People are the best source of experience and information. You have the best access to the people in your own company. Look around your company. The expert you need to learn from could be sitting just a couple of floors away.

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Speak up

Talking to your manager about your interests or to the manager of the team where you’d like to be can also get the ball rolling for you.

People won’t know what you want unless you speak up and say something.

There could be a need right now on that team you’d like to work on but if you never express interest then the chances of you moving are slim to none.

I talked to one person who got a promotion simply because he told people he wanted one.

If you feel like you could add more value in a different area of your company that is more in line with your talents and interests, start by letting people know who are in a position to help make that happen for you.

Make it a goal

Using goals can work to your advantage as well. Set a quarterly or yearly goal to do something in an area that you want to move toward or with a particular technology you’d like to work with.

Depending on your company this could allow you to schedule part of your time each week to work in that area so you’re actually getting paid to get experience that helps you go where you want to go. You might shadow someone who could become your mentor in that area, or discover a small project you could do on your own.

When a goal involves your interests and is moving you in the direction you want to go, it is much easier to invest some of your own time working toward that goal. Your extra effort benefits the company but it also benefits you in 2 ways.

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First, you are putting in extra effort which gets noticed. Bonus for you is that it is much more interesting than just putting in extra time to keep your seat warm.

Second, you are starting to associate yourself with the thing you want to do. As you produce results in that area or even just gain experience, you are moving closer to where you want to be.

Training

Does your company have a subscription to online training courses or online libraries? This can be a great way to get organized, quality information for free.

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Some companies will pay for you to take certification exams, books and courses to prepare for exams, or other training classes, events, and conferences.

Find out what is available at your company and start taking advantage of those resources to get the experience you need.

These programs are often underutilized, so if they don’t offer something you need, talk to the person over training at your company and they may be able to help. I’ve seen some companies who had a budget but didn’t know what to spend it on because no one was making requests.

More than a paycheck

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You’re not just getting paid to do a job. You’re gaining experience.

Take advantage of the opportunities you have to gain experience where you are right now.

Take advantage of the opportunity you have to network with the people you work with.

Know what resources your company offers and take advantage of them. Seriously, these often go underutilized so speak up and ask for what you want because you will probably get it.

These efforts will help you get the best experience you can where you are at right now and prepare you for the next step.

Because sometimes it’s not just a step.

It’s a jump.

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If your next meeting was to say you are no longer with the company, what experience do you wish you would have taken advantage of? Who would you have spent more time with to gain experience? Comment below then go do it!

The Other Magic Word

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“Please” is the first thing that comes to mind when I hear the phrase “magic word”. However, when it comes to getting more out of your current job you’re going to need the other magic word:

Goal

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No, not gooooaaaallll but goal, as in

Do something by date for benefit

Goals are your key to a bigger raise and bonus.

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They can also be a key to working on what you want at your job.

First, for your raise or bonus. When you approach your manager with something that you want (like a certain dollar amount for a raise or bonus) you’ve started the process of setting up an exchange.

The part you need to find out is what you can do that would justify receiving what you want.

By having this conversation beforehand you are being proactive instead of just waiting to see what is going to happen. You are also going to find out what is really of value to your company or organization.

Something that increases revenue, saves time or money, or gets a project done can all be good candidates for goals.

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For example, say you want a $5000 raise but the average is usually $2000. You need to find out what you can do that would justify that extra amount. If you’ve done your homework you may already have a good idea, but if not that’s ok – you will find out by asking.

Some managers only have the ability to operate within the budget they are given. They may not have that much wiggle room to actually change things for you.

Decision Makers

To set up this kind of goal you need to talk to a decision maker. A decision maker is someone who has the ability to change things for you. For some companies this may be your direct manager. For others it may be one or two levels above your manager. Sometimes it is the CEO or business owner.

The point is, if you are willing to provide more value to the company than is expected, most business owners are going to be happy to reward you for effort that goes above and beyond what is average or expected for your position and that is going to result in more value for them than they are paying you in exchange.

You may find out in that conversation that there are opportunities you were not aware of that would make it worth it for the company to give you what you want.

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Now, I’m not advocating that you spend all of your time at work. Quite the opposite. I am talking about getting very clear on how you produce value for the company so you can focus in on those things that are of the most value and eliminate or at least reduce those things that are less valuable.

Provide the most value possible while you’re working, receive a fair exchange for that value, then enjoy your life outside of work.

It’s not always about money

Goals are a great way to get above average raises and bonuses, but did you know they can also help you work on what you want?

Some companies really put a lot of emphasis on goals. So much in fact that if something is “one of your goals” it actually helps get things approved that may not otherwise get the green light.

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For example, say you want to learn more about cloud computing. Your current assignment may not do a lot of cloud computing but you think it could add value.

You can create a goal around getting a certain certification, working with a group in your company that does cloud computing, or even completing an extra project that would add value using cloud computing.

The fact that you have set this as your goal can help when it comes time to get approval to attend that cloud computing conference, sign up for a training course, or set some time aside in your schedule to work with that other team.

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You have given a reason for these activities (your goal) and you have justified it with the desired result from completing that goal.

It really is a magic word.

More magic words

A goal by itself may not be enough to get the approvals you need. You may need one more magic word to get what you want.

Company spending can be a mystery sometimes. How can a company spend $100,000 on something that ends up collecting dust in a corner yet resist investing $5000 in a training to increase an employee’s skills?

Budget

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Training budgets are typically small. Like 1 person from each team can go to a conference once a year small. This may not be ideal but fortunately, there is a way around it.

Just change the name of what you’re doing from a “training” activity to a “marketing” or “sales” activity. Those budgets are usually a lot bigger than the training budget.

Often times there are opportunities to do some extra activities at a conference or training to help the sales or marketing departments of your company yet still allow you to attend and get the training information you want. By doing more than just “attend the training” you open up doors and turn what would have been a “no” into a “yes”

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Bonus Tip: Airfare is usually most expensive on Mondays and Fridays since that’s when a lot of business travelers leave and come home. Some companies will let you adjust your travel to stay over the weekend (lower airfare) then let you use the savings toward your extra lodging. This is a great way to combine some time off with your travel.

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What magic words have you found work well at your job? How about those that didn’t work? Share in the comments below.

Sincerely,

Craig Golightly

No one cares more than you

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Who cares about your raise or bonus?

You.

No one else cares more than you.

So why would you leave it in someone else’s hands?

Sure, your manager fills out a review or evaluation for you and gives feedback, but do you think that is the only thing they have to do? It’s usually on TOP of everything else they already have to do.

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Put yourself in their shoes. You have 5, 10, maybe even 20+ of these reviews to fill out. You can’t say exactly the same thing on each one, but are you really going to take hours to walk through the year in your mind when it’s already 11:30 pm and you’re tired and have to be up at 6 am tomorrow?

It’s time for you to do your manager’s job. Well, maybe not their whole job, but the review part of their job. They’re going to love you for it.

And you’re going to get a better outcome than leaving it to chance.

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Feedback

Remember when you found out how things work at your company? Does your company do some form of “peer reviews”? Many companies have a way for employees to give feedback about their peers. However, it’s not always required so managers often have a tough time gathering material for these.

A friend of mine got passed up for a promotion because his “peer review” was not outstanding.

It was from someone not on his team who he barely worked with – not exactly the person you want to give feedback.

That is where getting your own testimonials comes into play. You can choose who you ask, and you don’t even have to use all of the testimonials you get! You can pick the best ones to send to your manager.

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Now you’re in the driver’s seat.

Goals

Did you set any goals? Or did you go for average and just accept what was passed down?

The average tendency is to not think about it. So company leadership spends the first 3 months of the year coming up with “goals” for everyone that you may not even find out about until the year is half over. Even then, they usually aren’t anything that you can personally take action on.

You need to set goals that you have control over and that add value to the company.

You know your job better than anyone else and you know how you can make the biggest positive impact on your organization.

No one else can really set an actionable goal for you because they don’t know everything about you or about your job.

Most companies have quarterly goals, so set a few goals of your own for each quarter. This gives you something to remind your manager how awesome you are throughout the year.

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Pick multiple goals. That way if something beyond your control prevents one from being achieved, you still have 2-3 others you can check off as complete.

Don’t stress out too much if you’re not sure you can finish all of the goals. Better to try and fail then never try at all applies here. You’re stepping up to make a custom plan and be accountable for that plan. Missing a goal every once in awhile shows that you’re not just sandbagging and that you’re not a robot.

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What are you already working on? Make a goal around it. It just has to be a little above average to stand out.

What do you want to work on? Make a goal around it. The fact that it is “one of your goals” can open up doors for you that might otherwise stay closed.

What is everyone else avoiding that needs to be done? Make a goal around it. (as long as it adds value to the company) Often those things are visible in a good way and they set you apart as someone who can run up the hill and accomplish hard things.

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Here is a formula you can use:

Complete (item) by (date) for (benefit / value to company)

If you’re doing quarterly goals, the date is just the end of the quarter so you can leave it out. That saves you time by not having to predict the future to an exact date.

You can still use dates for some of your goals if you want, just don’t spend too much time figuring out an exact date for every single goal.

Delivery

You should send your manager an update at the end of each quarter or a few weeks earlier if your own review corresponds with the end of the quarter. Remember, they need the information before they start preparing your review.

Include a summary of highlight items for the quarter, your goals, when / how the goals were accomplished, and the testimonials you have gathered.

Depending on the format of your company, if they use self-assessment software to gather information, be sure to answer all of the questions thoroughly.

You’ve now given your manager a treasure trove of good information they can use for your review.

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You’re welcome.

When you read your review, don’t be surprised if you find some direct cut and paste from the information you provided.

Imagine your manager on the 10th review, and, what’s this? They actually filled stuff out? And they have goals? And feedback from other people? Pinch me, I must be dreaming!

You’ve just freed up your manager’s brain to think about more important things.

Like how much of a raise or how big of a bonus to give you.

The Ask

Since your manager now has all sorts of free time and you have their full attention, this is a great time to provide some suggestions.

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A suggested range for your raise or bonus.

Base it on the typical average at your company or in your industry plus the extra value you created through accomplishing your goals. Remember, above average raises and bonuses need to be justified by above average results.

You may not get 100% of what you ask for on your first attempt, especially if you are a little late in the game providing the information to your manager. Budgets may have already been set. Checks may already be in the mail.

No problem. Use this opportunity to find out the timing around your review and bonus cycle and when your manager needs this information to influence the outcome.

This isn’t an overnight get-rich-quick scheme. You are setting up a repeatable system that you can use every single year to get above average results.

Maybe you get $500 more than you would have not trying anything. Maybe you get $5000.

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That’s worth a lot when you multiply it out over your entire career.

Are you in? What are you going to do to better prepare for your next review?

Sincerely,

Craig Golightly