I was watching The Devil Wears Prada the other day and although it is fictional I must say the scenes between Miranda Priestly and her assistants did have a grain of truth to them. This piece of dialogue seemed particularly realistic:

Miranda: Tell Simone I’m not going to approve that girl that she sent me for the Brazilian layout. I asked for clean, athletic, smiling. She sent me dirty, tired and paunchy. And R.S.V.P. Yes to Michael Kors’ party, I want the driver to drop me off at 9:30 and pick me up at 9:45 sharp. Call Natalie at Glorious Foods and tell her no for the 40th time. No! I don’t want dacquoise. I want tortes filled with warm rhubarb compote. Then call my ex-husband and remind him that the parent-teacher conference is at Dalton tonight. Then call my husband, ask him to meet me for dinner at that place I went to with Massimo. Tell Richard I saw the pictures that he sent for that feature on the female paratroopers and they’re all so deeply unattractive. Is it impossible to find a lovely, slender, female paratrooper? Am I reaching for the stars here? Not really. Also, I need to see all the things that Nigel has pulled for Gwyneth’s second cover try.

Now, the  glamorous references are not something I am used to hearing but the endless stream of random requests is! I’ve spent many many hours searching for bits of paper my manager has lost (or never actually had…), I’ve tried to remember hotels and restaurants they visited five years ago and clients they met briefly at a conference the previous summer. Aside from remembering the details we actually have to remember the task itself – how the heck are we supposed to do that?!

Over the years I’ve used a variety of tools and techniques to ensure I remember everything my boss and my colleagues ask me to do. Here are my top ten tips on how to remember those random requests…

1. Good old fashioned pen and paper

This is still my favourite go to tool for remember everything at work. Every time I get called into my managers office I grab a pen and my note pad before seeing them. Similarly I have a large A4 desk pad next to my keyboard for any quick notes I need to make, things to remember (like phone numbers for instance), and tasks people give me at my desk. I will then transfer all of these notes  on to my task list. I even go so far as carrying a small pack of post it notes and a pen around the office with me – you never know who is going to stop you for something.

2. Ask for confirmation

If the request comes from a more junior member of staff I tend to ask them to email me the details so that I have a record of the task and I can keep the email in my inbox until I have completed the work. I find it is also a good way of making sure the colleague really does need you to do the work rather than being lazy!

3. Set an alarm for tasks of a timely nature

If I need to, for example, print my boss’s boarding pass before they leave the office for a flight the next day I will set an alarm on my phone to remind me to do it at say 4pm. I might well remember to print it off before 4pm but at least I’ve got something to remind me in case I forget. I think it is really worthwhile having as many reminders as you can.

4. Calendars are not just for appointments

Similar to the alarm reminder I will also add things to my diary that I need to remember – not just appointments or meetings but anything that relates to a future date. I find this really helps remind me of things a week in advance. I can also look back through my diary if I need to remember something from the past too!

5. Do stuff immediately

 If my manager has asked me to do something small I usually do it immediately – for example, printing or photocopying something. I know this will interrupt whatever it is I am actually doing but I would rather get the small tasks off my desk as quickly as possible. Plus I don’t think it looks very good if it takes a few hours or days to do those basic jobs.

6. My to do list is my best friend

I certainly spend more time with my to do list! Seriously though you should know exactly what is on your to do list, what you have completed and what you have left to do. I make sure I update my to do list every day and then create a fresh to do list every week, making sure I have carried over any incomplete tasks from the week before. I love the feeling of crossing off tasks and it really really does make me more productive.

7. Archive and search rather than file

I read that phrase recently and thought archiving and searching is exactly what assistants do these days rather than filing. To remember the details that my managers so often forgets I have a really comprehensive archive system that I know how to search through. I know this goes against everything that ’email gurus’ tell us but I keep everything. I archive all of my emails after a year but I never trash them because you just never know when your boss is going to ask you that random question. I love the line in The Devil Wears Prada… “Find me that piece of paper I had in my hand yesterday morning.”

8. Technology does help

I do make use of new apps like Evernote to keep a track of information. A great app for when you are on the hoof is Dragon Dictation which converts a voice message into an email. I’ve used this a few times when I don’t have a pen and paper with me and really need to remember what someone has just asked me to do. Another tool I use quite a bit is the camera on my phone, if I have read something that I need to remember I will often take a picture of it and email it to my inbox.

9. Pay close attention to your boss

I don’t suggest you stalk them but I find paying really close attention to what they are doing helps me answer those random requests – particularly the ones that start with ‘have you seen…?’ I always try to get to grips with their system of working pretty quickly, for example I find out what they do with their paperwork and make a note of how good they are at storing their documents. This means when they do ask those questions I will know where to look if I haven’t already rescued the documents from their temporary resting place! The same goes with people they are meeting – I will always make sure names and places are added to their calendar entries so that I can quickly reference any past movements.

10. Habit

This is my most important piece of advice. I have made my techniques for remember stuff a habit so that I don’t miss anything. I will now instantly pick up a pen and notebook when I go to my boss’s office or write something down on a post-it while on the move. If you can get into a habit with these things it will make it much easier!

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  • Dawn March 10, 2014   Reply →

    Couldn’t agree more. Not every situation lends itself to one particular system so it’s best to have an arsenal and let past experience tell you the correct approach.

  • Deborah Zotian March 11, 2014   Reply →

    Well written and confirms what I’ve believed all along. There is nothing better than a spiral notebook and a pen. I also grab one before I go into my boss’s office whether he called me in or I’m going in to ask a question. I take it in because I know there will be 10 other things besides what I went in for in the first place.

    I also don’t get rid of any emails, but archive them. I’m always being asked “what was the name of that person/company/group we talked to 3 years ago?” because they know I’ll find the email.

    As for pay close attention, there have been times when I’ve been accused of being a mind reader. I’ll over hear a conversation, find the information they’re looking for and bring it into the office before they ask for it.

    I do use Evernote, but actually prefer OneNote (but then, I work for a company that is a Microsoft partner). My iPhone becomes my notebook when I’m not in the office.

    I sometimes think we spoil our bosses by being super efficient. But I don’t know how else to do my job.

  • Tianna April 8, 2014   Reply →

    Brilliant! This is exactly what I was looking for and helps immesley – thanks Nicky 🙂

  • Adam Fidler September 14, 2014   Reply →

    The dialogue you quote from The Devil Wears Prada isn’t actually that uncommon. I’ve found many bosses run off verbally 10 requests/things for their PAs to do in minutes then just walk off – so the only way to record this is on a pen and paper with shorthand. A good shorthand PA can take all this down and then read it back to themselves when the boss has gone. There’s no time to say to a boss ‘I’m sorry what did you say?’ because often they phone you in a rush or ramble on without stopping. It’s a shame more PAs don’t write shorthand as if they did their bosses would find it invaluable as it allows them the bosses to work more quickly. A good shorthand writer wouldn’t be phased by a boss who gives them the Devil Wears Prada quote as they would just take it all their stride by taking it all down in shorthand.

    • Practically Perfect PA September 15, 2014   Reply →

      Hi Adam, you’ve made some great points. Shorthand is a really helpful. I don’t know shorthand and have always been amazed at my (generally) older colleagues writing down all of their boss’s demands in a matter of seconds.

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