Just how much time is lost to disorganisation?

Did you know, on average office workers will spend 13 minutes and 13 seconds each day searching for missing paperwork and stationery? That’s despite one in five decluttering their desks on a weekly basis.  The little things we do in the office each day really do add up, according to a new study from Avery UK.

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The productivity killers

At our recent regional events we discussed some of the issues that are facing assistants today. Lots of challenges came up, but one that struck me as typical across all industries was the actual amount of work that the assistants had to do. Assistants are taking on more and more tasks and are involved in all sorts of projects. This is great (as long as we are appreciated for it and well… That is a whole other blog post!), but it can also be overwhelming. How do we keep on top of all of the work that we have piled up around us? How do we ensure we are, and here comes the dreaded word, productive. Today, I’m going to write about the productivity killers. Those annoying things we do that stop us being productive. Here are my top five.

1. Interruptions

This has got to be the number one productivity killer for assistants. I once counted the number of times I was interrupted throughout my day. I think I lost count by lunchtime. It was ridiculous and often completely unnecessary. To ensure you get through everything you need to do in a day you have to minimise interruptions. This means you have to be tough when people come up to your desk to speak to you. Some assistants are quite happy to just tell colleagues that they are busy and can’t stop to chat, answer a question, make a cup of tea, get them a pen out of the stationery cupboard etc. Etc. But, other assistants may need to employ a few tactics to make it really obvious they are not to be disturbed. I always found headphones helpful. When I had my headphones on it meant I was trying to concentrate on something and quite often the less bolshy colleagues would tip toes away. If I had something really urgent I would often book myself in a meeting room for an hour or go out to a cafe. Obviously, I’d let my Executive know so that they could find me if they need anything.

2. Powering through your day

I’m so guilty of this one. I try to power through work, but often find myself staring at the computer and wondering why I can no longer feel my backside. Regular breaks are so necessary and you will find you are much more productive after a short break. Also, taking a quick break away from your desk means you can catch up with other colleagues and find out what is happening in other parts of the business which will help your career development. Win win!

3. Keeping everything stored in your head

I know most assistants love lists. I love love love lists and use them in every aspect of my life. From experience, I know I am much more productive when I have a list of tasks to work through. Lists basically keep me sane as well as productive. I don’t know if you are getting the message, but, I highly recommend you keep a to do list. If you don’t, start today, right now. Trust me, your life will change overnight and your productivity will skyrocket.

4. Saying yes to everything

So this might be the reason you have so much work in the first place. There really are only so many hours in a day and assistants can not, and should not, say yes to everything asked of them. You have to know what is actually expected of you and push back on work that you should not be doing. Don’t get me wrong, I know for assistants this is a balancing act. You want to be helpful to everyone, but don’t want people taking advantage. My rule was that I would be mega helpful when I wasn’t busy. If I didn’t have much on then I would have the time to do the small tasks that colleagues would ask me to do. When I was busy, which was most of the time, I would say that I didn’t have the capacity to do that task.

5. Prioritising your work load

We have such variety in our role that it is almost impossible that we enjoy every task given to us (urgh expenses!) Putting off hard or boring tasks can be a real drain on your productivity. Make sure you plan some time in your week to get these tasks done and off your to do list. Unfortunately, they don’t magically disappear so the quicker they get done the quicker you can work on much more interesting tasks.

How to deal with conflicting priorities

Although the role of an assistant can be incredibly varied, there are certain aspects that all of us will face at some point in our career. We all have similar experiences in the workplace… Yes, I do know where the photocopier is… No, I can’t fix the paper jam… And then there are the competencies that we all need to get the job done. Today we will be looking at how we deal with conflicting priorities.

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Minimising Interruptions

In my first blog post I posed a question, how difficult will it be to stick to a routine that will enable me to maximise my productivity? What obstacles will I meet and lastly will I be able to be productive while dealing with constant distractions and interruptions?

Over the last few days I’ve had a chance to reflect on last week and from the outset it wasn’t easy following a structured routine simply because as an EA I do have to put other people’s urgent priorities above my own, in other words I have to stop what I am doing all the time. Although I didn’t manage to follow the routine most days I do feel that having something in place to remind me of what my day could look like was very beneficial. I was more organised and did manage to get a lot done, so I will definitely keep the routine in mind for the future. Nevertheless, the constant distractions and interruptions are a problem and make it difficult to complete tasks.

During the week I got to thinking, I might not be able to stop the interruptions but I can certainly try to minimise them. Here are a few ideas to help reduce the distractions and maximise productivity.

  • Implement an Executive Voicemail system. In my current role I receive loads and loads of sales calls that are of no interest to my Directors and sometimes it is really difficult to get these types of people off the phone so just after I started here I asked the switchboard to put through any calls that sound like they are from a sales person, or are callers asking for my Directors by job title rather than by name, through to the voicemail which I then check a few times a day.
  • At the start of each day print off a copy of your Director’s diaries so that when someone asks where they are or what they have on today you can refer to the piece of paper rather than stopping what you are doing on the computer and accessing their diaries via outlook.
  • If you commute to work do take time on the train to prepare yourself for the day ahead. It’s worth taking a small amount of your own time so that you know how you want the day to pan out. I find it helps having a game plan particularly if you know it will be a busy day.
  • Make it easy for people to have the information they need without having to ask  support staff. For example you could implement an open stationary cupboard that colleagues can help themselves to, on the condition they do not take things they do not need. One of my previous employers had a booklet which was given to every new member of staff. It detailed all of the department’s procedures including a large section on administration, such as holiday requests and ordering meeting rooms. When I was asked anything I could point them in the direction of the booklet rather than doing the work myself.
  • Ensure you have everything at your finger tips. If feasible, have things like the letter tray and the printer close to your desk. The office equipment that you use the most should be near by so that you are not spending large amounts of your time walking around the office . I had to collect a new printer cartridge from the ground floor at the beginning of the week. I’m up on the 5th floor so this took about 15 minutes to sort out, while I was downstairs I made sure I ordered a few extra cartridges so that next time I will have spares next to my desk and I won’t have to make the journey downstairs.
  • Try and commit to getting a task completed every day. Even if it is a small task, it does feel good to tick something off of your to-do list and by the end of the day feel like you’ve achieved something.
  • Don’t be on the back foot when it comes to people interrupting you. Try and be proactive to stop the same interruptions occurring. If colleagues are asking you the same questions all the time, why is this? Can they get the information themselves or is that you struggle to be assertive with lazy colleagues – can you say ‘no’ more often?
  • If you are in the middle of a big task and can’t afford to be interrupted think about ways to let colleagues know not to interrupt you. In the past I’ve put up a little flag to notify people and also put in earphones when I don’t want to be distracted or involved in chit-chat in an open plan office.
  • Have a backup plan, if you can’t complete one of your tasks what else can you be doing? It is always worth getting other tasks ticked off while you are waiting for someone else to get back to you.

I hope some of my tips help, it is never easy juggling all of the things we are asked to do as PAs/EAs but minimising interruptions and distractions can help us to be more productive.

Nicky x

Follow me on twitter @PracticalPA

Routine Procedure – Friday

Routine Procedure – Friday

The last day of my productivity challenge!


0810 – I’m on the early train into work today as there is a Board meeting starting at 9am. I have a quick look through my emails but nothing much has been sent in overnight that is urgent so I have a chance to read my book for a bit.

0845 – It should be the best day to be able to follow the routine as all of my Directors are in the board meeting from 9am until 5pm today. Hopefully it will be really quiet in the office so I will be able to get a lot done… fingers crossed! Before I start my work, I help get a few bits sorted for the Directors before they head into the meeting.

0900 – Grab a cup of tea and set up my computer and open the post. Make a start looking through my emails and following the procedure I set out in my previous blog. As I have more time this morning I look through some networking and other emails I have received over the last few days.

1030 – As I checked through my to-do list yesterday quite thoroughly I start working on the tasks in order of urgency. Most of the jobs are small but there are a lot of them, including booking rooms, answering email queries and setting up meetings.

1130 – One of the Directors comes out of the Board meeting to ask if I can photocopy some documents for him. I stop what I’m doing to get this done. It takes 10 minutes to photocopy the documents and take them to the Boardroom. As I’ve been interrupted I take the time to check with the kitchen that the food will be delivered on time for the Board members at 12.30.

1230 – The Board break for lunch so I hover around the meeting room making sure they are okay and that I’m there if they need any help. I have a quick check over my emails while they are eating but don’t manage to answer any queries.

1300 – The Board head back into the meeting room so I go out for lunch. I have an hour’s break wondering around the shops.

1400 – It definitely makes a difference having most of my colleagues in a Board meeting today it has given me the chance to mostly follow the routine and have a lunch break! I check through my emails, not many have been sent so far today but I manage to catch up on less urgent emails that have come in over the week.

1430 – I carry on working through my to-do list, it is so quiet today that I am getting through most of the work really quickly. The only interruptions I have are from people asking where my Directors are, it’s easy to answer as they are all in the same room for the day.

1450 – I’m asked to call a few colleagues that need to attend the Board meeting. Give them a call and then make a cup of tea for myself.

1500 – I’ve now ticked off all of the urgent things that I need to get today and start working on the tasks I would have started next week. It will be great to be ahead of myself when I come into the office on Monday.

1630 – The Board finishes early and all three of my Directors have jobs they need me to do before I finish for the day.

 1725 – Finish all of the tasks given to me by the directors and spend the last five minutes of the day checking my emails one last time before I leave for the day.

1730 – Finish the day and head off for a well needed drink!

Routine Procedure – Thursday

Routine Procedure – Thursday

I am determined to stick to my schedule today!


0830 – Spend time on the train reviewing my to-do list and it seems that  I have  quite a few tasks that require answers from other people. My plan is to deal with these first so that I can get the initial part of the task completed and work on other things while I’m waiting for responses. I also have a quick check over my emails and calendar for the day, I do have a few meetings today that I also need to attend.

0910 – So far so  good, I have a cup of tea and have had the time to set up my computer, open the post and even say hello to my colleagues.

0930 – As I’ve already checked my inbox and prioritised my tasks for today I make a start with my plan by sending out a few queries over email. It is fairly quiet this morning so it seems a good time to finish the slide deck for HR.

1145 – I think after the hectic last few days my colleagues may be giving me a bit of a break! I’ve  managed to finish the slide deck without any interruptions. Excellent! Spend time reading through some of the emails I’ve filed over the last week, including LinkedIn updates and other networking emails. I do think it is worth taking a little bit of time when you can to review this sort of information and keeping up to date with your peers. I also have some answers following the requests I sent out earlier this morning, some of the replies are easy for me to deal with, for example adding meetings to my directors diaries.

1230 – Heading into a meeting knowing I’m probably going to come out with some actions.

1315 – Finish the meeting with a few action points that I will add to my to-do list, thankfully they are not urgent so I can complete them next week. I play netball on a Thursday lunchtime so have to leave the office today. This is a good thing!

1415 – While I was out at lunch the network has crashed, this is so rare in my office we are all not quite sure what to do! I spend most of my time using outlook so it is frustrating when this happens. I scan my to-do list and find that I have some data entry work I can be getting on with. It isn’t an urgent piece of work but it has been lurking around the bottom of my task list so it will be good to tick it off as complete and it will also give me something to do while the system is down.

1530The office is back up and running and I have quite a few external emails to deal with. The routine isn’t quite going to plan today but at least I feel like I’m getting through quite a bit of work, and I haven’t had too many interruptions today.

1555 – One of my Directors has a meeting at 4pm and seems to have gone AWOL. Both of his guests have arrived, I put them in the meeting room with refreshments so that they are slightly distracted while I track down the Director. This takes 15 minutes of me running from one floor to the next until I manage to find him. Walking back to my desk one of my directors asks me to scan some documents for him. It isn’t urgent but sometimes I just like to get these little jobs over as quickly as possible, so I scan the document and hand the papers back to him.

1630 – Another meeting to attend. During the meeting I’m asked if I can help with the administration on a large company wide project. It is a really exciting job but when opportunities crop up like this it can be a massive juggling act having to still complete the day to day executive assistant tasks.

1700 – Check through my emails and also my directors emails to make sure I’ve not missed any work I can take off their hands.

1715 – Fridays are normally a great day for me to get lots done as it tends to be quiet in my office.  I spend some time updating the list so that the tasks are in order and I can work through them quite quickly tomorrow.

1745 – On the train home and am able to reflect on the day. Again I’ve not been able to totally stick to  the routine but having some sort of structure has been beneficial today.

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