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6 Reasons Why Your To List Is Useless

Do you have a To Do list?

How useful do you find it?

These are two questions I often ask when I’m training people to be more productive and to use their time well. The answers are usually, “Yes” and “Not very”.

When I look at the To Do lists that people have, I’m not surprised that they’re not very useful. They tend to suffer from the same problems. Here are 6 reasons why your To Do list is probably useless.

  1. It’s far too long. It is literally a list of everything you could possibly do. Every time you think of another task, it goes on the list until that list is so overwhelming your heart sinks when you look at it and it saps all your energy.
  2. It’s not prioritised. That’s why it’s so long. There’s no distinction between tasks which are long-term, medium-term or urgent. It doesn’t help you decide what you should be doing now, then what you should do next – which is the whole point of a To Do list.
  3. The items are too vague and ill-defined. Some examples I’ve seen are – “marketing”, “prepare for presentation”, “product training”. These are potentially huge items which are actually a collection of many smaller tasks. Writing them in this way does not help you see exactly what you need to do. Just breaking them down into their component steps is a task in itself.
  4. You never review and amend it (this is why it’s too long – see Point 1). The list just goes on. Every time you think of a new task, you write it on the list. Some have been there for months. Now and again, you’ll sit down and write a new list, copying items from the old one. It’s like moving house and taking piles of junk you’ve never used from the old attic to put into the new one.
  5. You don’t even look at it anyway. It sits on your desk or on your computer because you were told you should have a To Do list, but you don’t actually use it to guide what you do each day. In fact, you often end up doing things which were never on the list and, occasionally, you’ll then write those things on the list so you can have the satisfaction of crossing them off.
  6. You can’t stick to one thing and get it done. When you do try to do something that’s on the list, you end up getting distracted, bored or interrupted and go off and do something else. You can’t seem to get anything finished.

What’s the answer? To be of any use to you, as To Do list needs to be:

  • Short
  • Specific
  • Prioritised
  • Action – focused

A To Do list should help you decide what you should be doing at any given time. Large tasks need to be broken down into smaller ones and they need to be expressed in terms of actions – start each item with a verb, e.g.

  • “ring the client to discuss payment of the outstanding invoice”
  • “write a brief outline of my presentation”
  • “circulate the agenda for Monday’s meeting and ask for comments”

The items also need to be prioritised – which ones need to be done first? It helps to put a deadline next to them, also a timescale – how long will each one take? That can help you to see when they can be fitted into your planning.

Now pick 3 items which are your priorities and work through these one by one. If you’re interrupted, decide whether it’s more important to deal with the interruption (e.g. a phone call or email) or to get on with what you’re doing.

And delegate as much as possible. Go through your list and see how many things could be done by someone else.

Follow these guidelines and you may find that your To Do list becomes a useful planning tool rather than another waste of your time.

Go On, Be A Perfectionist – And Undermine Your Confidence!

Striving for perfection is often thought of as ‘a good thing’. Surely perfectionists have high standards, they keep themselves and everyone else on their toes? They demand the best, which must raise the bar for everyone’s performance.

Sound good, doesn’t it? We need more of these people.

Actually, no, we don’t.

Perfectionists are a pain.

They’re awful to work for, because they’re never satisfied. However much you do, they’ll always expect more. If they do drive up performance, it comes at a price – for themselves and the people around them. They can put people under intolerable pressure and make them feel constantly inadequate.

In fact, perfectionists can actually be very unproductive. They spend far too long on certain tasks and often never complete them because, of course, they’re never satisfied with the result. They’re constantly tinkering with things. So reports or projects never get finished or, if they do, they take much longer than they should.

The quest for perfection is also a great way to undermine confidence, your own and other people’s, because perfectionism has failure built into it. I’ve worked with a lot of people who have lacked self-confidence and it has often stemmed from their own brand of perfectionism.

People who lack confidence find ways to give themselves a hard time. One way of doing this is to measure themselves against impossible standards and then beat themselves up for falling short. They’re what I call pessimistic perfectionists, always demanding perfection from themselves but never really expecting to achieve it.

They only have two standards to judge their own performance – ‘perfect’ or ‘rubbish’. They often think they’ve done something really badly just because they haven’t done it perfectly. Then they keep telling themselves how ‘rubbish’ they are because they can’t achieve the perfection they’re looking for.

Shall I tell you who does achieve perfection? No-one.

That’s right. Shocking, isn’t it? No-one is perfect. No-one gets it absolutely right every time.

In fact, here’s another shocking fact. Perfection doesn’t exist.

Recognising that perfection doesn’t exist doesn’t mean you have to accept mediocrity. You can aim for excellence. You can set yourself high standards and always try to improve your performance in anything you do.

But have a measure of realism. If you’re new to something, you’re not going to be World Champion at your first attempt. If you have to speak in public, for example, and it’s not something you do very often, then don’t judge your efforts by comparing yourself with a professional speaker.  Set some realistic goals and try to make a fair assessment of your performance afterwards.

Look for what you did well and build on that. Accept if something could have been better and plan to improve that next time.

But judging yourself against some idea of perfection is a recipe for constant failure, constant disappointment and constant lack of self-belief.

The Trouble With Targets – People Will Meet Them!

A while ago, I had to go to the A & E Department in my local hospital. Nothing too serious, I had a very painful knee and my doctor was concerned that it might be infected so he sent me along to have it checked out.

Unfortunately, my wife and I have had a lot of experience with A & E Departments in recent years so we weren’t looking forward to it. We expected a long wait – and we got one.

To cut a very long story short, I was there for 4 hours, until midnight in fact. Then a nurse came over to me and said, “Can you come with me, we need to admit you.”

In other words, I was going to have to stay the night in hospital.

I asked why this was, since no-one had actually seen me, so no-one could have decided that it was serious enough to justify staying in hospital.

She said, “It’s what we have to do now. There’s a limit of 4 hours for anyone waiting in A & E and, if you haven’t been seen in that time, we have to admit you.”

Apparently, one of the targets that hospitals had been set to determine whether they were providing a good service was that no-one should wait in A & E for more than 4 hours. So it seems that this hospital’s answer was to admit people once the 4 hours were up. That way, no-one could have a longer wait.

The result was that I had to go onto a ward and find a spare bed. Around 1.30am a consultant came and looked at my knee and took some blood. Half an hour later, he came back, said it wasn’t infected and told me I could go home in the morning with some painkillers.

So I took up a hospital bed I didn’t need, endured a sleepless night on the ward and left the hospital at about 6.00 the next morning.

This is a good example of what happens when people are given targets which they have to meet, especially if the consequences of not meeting them are serious. They will find a way to meet the target, even if that means doing things which don’t seem to make any sense.

The same thing happens in workplaces. When I was a Tax Consultant, I had to account for every minute of my time and allocate it either to a client number or to “non-billable” time. We were given targets of non-billable time, a maximum we were allowed, and we were in trouble if we didn’t meet them.

The result, in some cases, was that people were very tempted to exaggerate the time it took to carry out certain tasks so that their timesheets looked better and they reached their target for billable hours.

This is the problem – if you set someone a target and their pay, their promotion, or even their job depends on meeting that target, they’ll find a way to meet it. Because that will be their priority. But that may mean ignoring other important areas or distorting their behaviour just to meet the target.

There’s an obsession with targets in some areas, particularly public services – hospitals, schools, the Civil Service – but also in the private sector. It’s part of the flawed idea that “what can be measured can be managed”. The thinking is that, if you can’t measure something by statistics, you can’t be sure it’s happening and you can’t control it.

So things like patient care, quality of teaching and customer service are reduced to a numerical level so that targets can be set and performance measured. Hospitals and schools, for example, can be compared through league tables based on these results, how they perform against the targets set.

There may also be some idea that targets are motivating, they give people something to aim for. What is sometimes behind this is a view that, if you don’t set targets for people, they won’t try. They won’t do something for its own sake, or because they have a commitment to quality, they’ll only do it because someone is measuring their performance on a scale of some sort.

As you may have gathered, I’m not a great fan of these sort of targets. I think they often backfire and organisations need to be very careful about assuming that meeting a target is the same as providing a high quality of service.

In my experience, if a group of people are meeting a target, you need to look around and see what else is happening – what areas are being neglected to allow them to meet it? You need to look at the bigger picture, to consider their performance as a whole and not just the specific areas where the targets have been set.

Bear this in mind if you’re a manager and you set targets for your team, or if they have targets set for them and you are expected to monitor and manage their performance.

What Stories Are You Telling Yourself To Keep You Where You Are?

You know that voice in your head? Yes, you know the one I’m talking about, it’s not just me, everyone hears it. The one that gives a running commentary on everything you do during the day. What is it saying to you?

We all talk to ourselves. Really, it’s quite normal. Most of us don’t do it out loud, that’s not so normal. But we do it.

And what we say to ourselves makes a huge difference to what we achieve. In terms of your career, for instance, what you tell yourself will largely determine how far you can go.

I know from the coaching I do that people tell themselves stories. Stories about themselves, about what they’re like, about what they deserve, about their place in the world. And, often, these stories are used as a reason to stop them moving forwards.

For example, I hear people saying, “I’m not the sort of person to be wealthy/to run a business/to be a leader…”

They say, “I’m unlucky/I’m lazy/I’m disorganised/I’m too young/I’m too old/I’m not ready/I come from a poor background/I’m just an ordinary person (whatever that means)…”

I think it was Tony Robbins, the self-development guru, who once put it very plainly and said something like, “There are two types of people – there are winners and there are losers with a great story.”

In other words, people who don’t achieve what they want to always have a good story to tell as to why it never happened for them. That may seem unfair but there’s some truth in it.

Of course external factors will have an impact on what you achieve. Bad things may happen to you. Other people may treat you badly. There may be circumstances outside your control. But how you react to those things will determine your level of success – and how you react will partly depend on the stories you tell yourself.

If you see yourself as unlucky, as a victim, or as someone who doesn’t deserve to be successful, you’re preparing the way for failure right from the start. As soon as you hit an obstacle, you’ll say, ”There, I was right!” Where someone else might find a way round that obstacle, you’ll use it as justification for giving up.

So think carefully about the stories you tell yourself. When you hear that voice in your head offering some excuse for not trying or for not achieving something, ask yourself, “Is that true? Is that really why I haven’t achieved what I want yet? Is this story helping me or is it holding me back?”

Because, if you can change some of the stories you tell yourself, you’ll be amazed at the difference it makes!

How To Manage your Career Successfully

A subject that often comes up when I’m talking to people I’m training (often in informal conversations as it’s not usually the focus of the training) is how best to manage your career.

Sometimes people ask because they feel their careers have stalled in some way, sometimes it’s just that they’re starting out and want to know what to do to get on as quickly as they can.

Thinking back over my own experience and from watching other people progress in the various organisations I’ve worked in, I’ve come up with these points.

I have to admit, I didn’t do all these things myself. To be honest, even at the time I knew I should do some of these things but decided, for various reasons, not to. I can look back now and see that not doing them actually held me back in my own career.

But, to some extent, that was my own choice. And it’s your choice as well. Being aware of these factors will help you, but it’s up to you whether you want to act on them.

1. Ask for feedback.

Most people avoid feedback because they see it as criticism. See feedback as a guidance system, it tells you if you’re on track. If you’re not, it’s best to know so you can do something about it.

If you’re looking to get promoted at some point, why not be open and ask someone, “What do I need to be good at to get that job? Where am I falling short at the moment and what do I need to do?”

Simply showing this openness and willingness to listen and learn will make you stand out.

2. Show a willingness to take on new work.

Be the first one to put your hand up when new work comes in. Look for opportunities to learn and develop and to expand your experience.

3. Get a name for being good at something.

Make yourself stand out in some way – be really good at something and get known for it. If someone asks what you value you add to the organisation, it should be really easy for them to see the answer.

4. Strive for excellence.

Don’t be satisfied with doing an OK job, aim to be outstanding. Whatever you do, do it to the best of your ability. Plenty of people are happy to be mediocre and to make a moderate amount of effort, being just good enough. Get a name as someone who produces excellent work every time.

5. Be accountable.

Do what you say you’ll do, when you say you’ll do it. Be reliable and hold yourself accountable for producing the results you say you’ll produce. Don’t give yourself excuses for not delivering, don’t blame other people, take responsibility for your own performance.

6. Be adaptable and embrace change.

Nothing stays the same, things always change. That’s a fact of life in any organisation. The skills you learned years ago won’t be enough now. The things you used to be good at won’t get you much further. You need to constantly adapt and learn. Keep moving, don’t expect to stand still (or your career certainly will).

7. Have a positive attitude, don’t be a complainer.

Workplaces are full of moaners and whiners. I’m not being cruel, it’s just true. There are always people you can find who spend their time criticising and complaining. Don’t be one of them.

Of course, you live in the real world, there will be things you’re not happy about and there will be people who drive you mad. But keep your criticisms to yourself and try to maintain a positive attitude, whatever the temptation.

8. Build relationships with people who can support you.

Get to know, and be known by, people who can support you in your aim to progress.

This doesn’t mean you have to be manipulative or go around sucking up to the boss. But, at some point, someone will have to make a decision about your future, whether to keep you on or let you go, whether to promote you or leave you where you are. At that point, you need people on your side who will stand up for you because they know what you bring to the organisation.

9. Find a mentor.

Find someone you trust and respect and ask their advice. It may not be your direct line manager (in fact, it’s probably best if it isn’t), but someone who knows their way around the organisation and whose opinion you value. Someone you can be open and honest with.

10. Take responsibility for your own career.

Accept that it’s up to you to look after your own career. Progress in any organisation isn’t like an escalator, where you just step on and get carried along until you get to where you want to go. It’s like several flights of stairs. You can use them to get where you want, but you have to decide where you want to go and then you have to make the effort to get yourself there.

I’ve never worked in any organisation, in the public or private sector, where senior people came round the office looking for people who did good work, sought them out and said, “Hey, I’m sure you’re doing a really good job here, how would you like to be promoted?”

It’s up to you to make things happen, don’t rely on others. Everyone else is busy with their own work and their own plans, they can’t be looking out for you as well. You need to put yourself in front of them, bring yourself to their attention by doing the things I’ve listed above.

I’m sure this isn’t a comprehensive list, but I do know that all of these things will help you to get where you want to go. Where that might be is up to you.

Delegation – No Accountabitlity Without Responsibility!

I saw a great cartoon about delegation the other day.

A manager says to a member of his team, “I’m making you fully accountable for this project.”

The other person says,” Great, so you’re giving me full decision rights, access to all relevant information and the resources, budget and time needed to complete the job successfully?”

The manager says, “Well, no, not exactly.”

The other person says, “Fine, I’ll start working on my list of excuses now.”

Delegation is an issue that many managers struggle with. For one thing, most managers don’t delegate as much as they should do. For another, when they do delegate, they’re not sure what they’re actually delegating.

What do I mean by this?

Well, if you delegate a task to someone, what are you actually delegating? How much responsibility are you passing on to them?

If you expect someone to carry out a job, you need to give them the resources, support, authority and time they need to do it properly.  If you do that, you’re entitled to hold them accountable for their results.

On the other hand, if you give them the task but then tie one hand behind their back by not letting them have relevant information or not allowing them to make relevant decisions, you’re not really delegating fully, are you? You’re not really giving them responsibility. So you can’t then hold them accountable for the results.

Some managers might argue, “But I’m the one who is ultimately responsible for results. I’m the one who is held accountable, so it’s only right that I make the key decisions and I control the resources.”

That’s true – up to a point. Yes, you may ultimately be responsible for, say, completing a project. But if you decide to delegate part of that task (which you should, because as a manager, your job is to get things done by managing other people, not to do everything yourself) then you also delegate a part of the responsibility.

Delegation means that you give someone else the tools they need to do the job you’ve given them – and that means some ability to make decisions, to manage resources, etc. Then, if they don’t do the job well, they are answerable for their performance.

But you can’t have it both ways – there’s no accountability without responsibility!

Preparing For Your Performance Appraisal

On many of my management training courses, and in many of my articles, I’ve talked about how managers can prepare for running performance appraisals and, in particular, given them tips about how to deliver feedback in a constructive way.

I know that a lot of managers spend quite a bit of time preparing to run these meetings and planning to try to make them as successful as possible.

However, one thing which has become apparent in talking to many people is that they don’t actually spend much time thinking about their own appraisals or reviews.

They’re not always very clear what they want or expect to come from the meetings and they’re not sure what to do in advance to make sure the discussion goes well. They just tend to turn up and hope for the best.

Needless to say, that’s not really the best approach!

Here are some things you should think about if you’ve got an appraisal coming up.

  • What have you achieved during the review period? Go back over your work for the period and list all your successes, with examples and evidence.
  • Look back over any objectives which were set from your last appraisal. Have you met them? If not, make a list of reasons why or any examples of objectives which have been overtaken by subsequent events.
  • Think about what you most enjoy about the job and how you might want to develop your role. Can you put a business case which supports any development or change in your role (including any promotion you feel you should be considered for)?
  • Are there any aspects of your work in which you feel you need to improve or where you might expect some criticism of your performance? What do you think needs to be done about this and what support do you need?
  • What learning and development needs do you have for the coming period? Prepare arguments to support your case for specific training.
  • What level of support and guidance do you require from your manager?
  • What would be some key objectives for the next review period? What expectations do you expect the organisation will have of you over the next year?
  • What outcomes are you looking for from the meeting? How do you want it to go? What results are you looking for? What do you want to ask for?
  • What demands do you think are going to be made of you and how do you feel about them? What are you going to say if you are asked to commit to any objectives you feel are unreasonable?

If you can cover these main areas, you will be pretty well prepared for whatever comes up (and probably more prepared than the person giving the appraisal). You’re less likely to be caught by surprise and you’ll be able to give a good account of yourself and put forward forceful arguments to support your own position.

10 Ways To Be The Manager Other People Want To Work For

Here are 10 ways to make yourself the manager that other people want to work for and to become a great role model for your team.

  1. Manage your time well and don’t make others suffer because you’re disorganised, e.g. by dumping work on them at the last minute.

  2. Give people realistic deadlines for work. Don’t say things are urgent if they’re not or they won’t believe you when something really does need to be done quickly.

  3. Make sure people know where you are and can contact you if you’re out.

  4. Delegate – don’t keep work to yourself which others should be doing – they’ll end up underskilled and demotivated. And don’t just delegate the rubbish that you don’t want to do!

  5. Accept good ideas, whoever suggests them. Don’t reject an idea because it wasn’t yours – and don’t take credit for someone else’s ideas either.

  6. If something goes wrong, discuss why it happened and how to prevent it happening again. Don’t shout and blame people or they will just hide their mistakes and you won’t know until it’s too late.

  7. Deflect pressure from your team, don’t pass it on. You’re paid to deal with it – so deal with it.

  8. Give people regular, constructive, motivating feedback. Catch people doing things right and give them credit for it. Praise in public and criticise in private.

  9. Don’t organise meetings when there’s nothing to discuss. Only have a meeting when you need one, have an agenda and keep it short and to the point.

  10. Never say things like “there is no ‘I’ in team”,  ”work smarter, not harder”, “think outside the box”, “pushing the envelope”, “the elephant in the room”, “blue sky thinking” or use words like “ideation” or “disincentivisation” as if they actually mean something.

Stick to these simple guidelines and you’ll be loved and respected by everyone who works for you (honestly)!

3 Things People Get Wrong About Assertiveness

I’m running some workshops this week, on Influencing Skills and Dealing With Difficult People. In both, I’ll be talking about how to be assertive.

But I’ll also have to be careful to warn the groups about 3 things that people often get wrong about being assertive.

What do I mean by being assertive? 

A common definition is “standing up for your own rights while respecting the rights of others”.  In practice, this means that you state clearly what you would like other people to do or how you feel about something they’ve done but, at the same time, you acknowledge that they don’t always have to do what you want and they have their own needs and feelings as well.

So you don’t just let other people tell you what to do, or behave any way they want, without saying anything about it (which is non-assertive). But you don’t go around telling other people what to do or what you think with no thought for what they want (which is aggressive).

The three things that people get wrong about assertiveness are:


1. Thinking that assertiveness is selfish.

Some people feel very uneasy about stating their feelings or saying clearly what they want from other people. They think it’s selfish, putting their wishes before those of others.

This isn’t how I see assertiveness. As I mentioned above, it’s about accepting that you have just as much right as anyone else to express an opinion and to have your voice heard. No more right, no less. You’re not saying you’re more important than anyone else or that your wishes have priority, just that you have a right to state them.

And, in any case…see the next point.


2. Thinking that assertiveness will get you what you want.

There’s more chance that you will get what you want if you are assertive. Why? Because people will know what you want. They won’t have to guess or read your mind.

But that doesn’t mean you will always get your own way. People may still choose not to behave the way you want them to. After all, they can make their own minds up. They can be assertive as well.

Don’t think, just because someone has not acted on the way you wanted, that assertiveness “didn’t work”. That’s not the whole point of assertiveness, it’s also partly about building your own self-esteem and confidence. Also, assertiveness isn’t a one-off thing, don’t write it off just because you didn’t get the result you wanted the first time.


3. Thinking that other people will react well when you’re assertive.

I blame some books on assertiveness for this. They often suggest that, if you’re assertive to someone, they’ll probably be assertive back and everyone will be calm and reasonable. That’s not what happens.

Sometimes people react badly when you’re assertive, especially if they’re not used to it. Some people can get aggressive because they see you “standing up” to them. They’re used to getting their own way.

Others can be confused because you’ve never done this before, it’s not the reaction they were expecting. They might get upset or try some form of emotional blackmail, telling you how disappointed they are in you or how you’ve let them down because you don’t want to do what they asked you.

So it can sometimes seem that being assertiveness makes things worse, at least in the short term. You’ve got to be prepared for that and be prepared to deal with people’s reactions.

So I would encourage you to be assertive but be clear about why you’re doing it and have realistic expectations about what it can achieve.

4 Things That New Managers Need (And Fail) To Grasp

I’ve trained and coached hundreds of managers over the years and I have to say I see the same issues arising again and again.

A lot of problems come about, not because managers aren’t working hard or because they lack skills, but because they haven’t made the mental shift necessary to step into the role of a manager.

What do I mean by that?

Well, there are a number of things which new managers need to grasp about the role. Unfortunately, many don’t. In fact, many still don’t grasp these things even after years of being managers. And this makes their lives much harder. It also has an impact on the people around them.

Here are 4 things I suggest that managers need to realise, and the sooner the better!


1. You’re no longer “one of the team”.

Yes, you would like to be, and you want to be liked and accepted just as you used to be before you were promoted – but it doesn’t work like that. You cross a line when you become a manager and you’d better get used to that fact. People look at you, and treat you, differently, even people you’ve known for years. And, in a way, they should. Your role has changed now and you have some power and responsibility that you didn’t have before. The rest of the team know that, even if you don’t. Pretending nothing has changed only makes you seem weak as a manager.


2. You can’t, and shouldn’t do everything yourself.

Before you became a manager, you were probably used to just doing your own job. Someone else told you what to do and you could concentrate on doing it as well as you could. And you were good at it. That’s probably how you became a manager in the first place.

But that’s not your job any more. Your job now is to get things done, not to do everything yourself. So you need to use your team – you know, those people who are sitting around without enough work to do because you’re still doing it all yourself.

In a word – DELEGATE! If you don’t, you’ll have too much to do, other people won’t have enough and they’ll get frustrated, the work will be done at the wrong level and it will be more expensive for the organisation.


3. You’re responsible for other people’s performances.

Linked to point 2, you’re now responsible for getting results by helping other people to perform as well as they can. You’re not just responsible for your own results any more, you’ll be judged by how well your team, your group, your department performs.

So it’s no use just thinking about doing your own work well, you need to think about how to get the best out of others. All that “management” stuff, like delegation, giving feedback, training, coaching, motivating and developing other people.

I realise that your previous role may not have prepared you to be able to do all these things. Few managers arrive in their new role with all the necessary skills in place. But the first step is realising that it’s your job to do them. Then you need to develop the skills – that’s why organisations hire people like me to do management training (and my sincere thanks to all of them).


4. You’ve just become a role model.

Yes, like it or not, you’re now a role model for the people around you.

What, you mean you didn’t realise it? Well, earlier in your career, didn’t you ever look at the person who was your manager then and make judgements about the way he or she behaved? Did you never think, “Well, if I was a manager, I wouldn’t do that.”? Or, “Wow, this person’s great. If I ever become a manager, I want to be just like that.”

People will look at you now and, based on your behaviour, they’ll make adjustments to the way they behave themselves. They’ll look to you to set the standard for what’s acceptable and what’s expected. If you set the bar low, don’t expect them to raise it.


These are just 4 of the things that I see managers struggling with, 4 of the mental shifts that you need to make if you’re going to be successful. Sorry if no-one told you when they gave you the job but at least I’ve told you now.

No need to thank me.

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