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

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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.

Routine Procedure – Tuesday & Wednesday

Day two and three: I am trying to follow a routine that will maximise my productivity…


0830 – A soggy start to the day but managed to check my emails on the train and read a few pages of my book

0910 – Just made it into the office, grab a cup of tea before heading to my desk. On the way I am stopped by the CEO and asked to get a flip chart for a meeting taking place in the boardroom. Have to locate a flip chart and carry it into the Boardroom.

0925 – I haven’t even managed to turn my computer on yet! I’ve just been asked to remove papers from the 20 Board packs I put together yesterday afternoon. I have to photocopy the new papers and add these to the packs. The Board packs have to go out this morning so I prioritise this over everything else.

1000 –   Finally turn my computer on. Rather than spending an hour sorting through my emails I decide to condense it to half an hour so that I am back on track with my routine. I’m not happy with the state of my inbox!

1030 – After a hectic start to the day I decide to take some time to remind myself of the things I need to get through today. The task list seems to be growing by the minute. I make a mental note that if I can complete the top 5 tasks today then I’ve achieved something.

1100 – First task of the day is to hand out the Board papers to the various Directors in the company. This is a good opportunity to see other colleagues and have a break from my desk. Return to my desk at 11.25 and start working on my other urgent tasks. They are quite small tasks like booking couriers and meeting rooms but they need to be done.

1200 –  Well I think the way today is heading I will be unable to follow my schedule. I’ve just been asked to type up a series of notes that need to be completed by the end of the day. Everything else will have to go on hold for the moment, including lunch.

1700 – I finally finish typing up the notes and hand the completed documents over to my colleague. Luckily my Directors have been in meetings for most of the day so they’ve not needed me to do too much for them. However, the notes did take longer to complete because I still had to answer the phones and speak to those asking me questions directly. My colleague mentioned that there might be more urgent work on this tomorrow so I decide to be prepared and spend the next half an hour looking at what else is urgent and has to be done today. I think I will have to come in early tomorrow so that I can finish the work that I was expecting to do today.

1745 – On the train home trying to clear some of my emails from my iphone. Yesterday was obviously the calm before the storm!


0759 – On the early train into work. Over night I received an email asking for more help on typing up notes, which will again take the best part of the day. My plan is to get in early and  clear as many small tasks as possible so that I at least start the day on the front foot.

0835 – In the office at my desk, picked up a coffee on the way in. Necessary! I’m glad I spent a small amount of time thinking about what I can get done first thing this morning. I feel quite focused and am able to tick a handful of tasks off quite swiftly.

0930 – Have a quick meeting with my Directors to let them know I’m working on an urgent project and may take slightly longer in responding to their requests. Start working on the main task of the day.

1200 – I‘ve been working through the notes for the last few hours and have managed to get quite a bit done so decide to take a break so that I can check emails and reply to a few voicemail messages. I have a very untidy inbox which does drive me crazy so I clear as much as I can and file the remaining emails. I also check through all of my directors emails and make sure they have everything they need for this afternoon.

1300 –  Nip out of the office to grab lunch, it will be more “al-desk-co” today than alfresco dining.

1320 –  Eating lunch at my desk reminds one of colleagues that he needs to book a table for dinner tonight. He asks me where is good to eat and then asks if I could book him a table. It is for tonight so I book the table straight away.

1345 – Have been working on the notes for the last few minutes when a Director that  I do not look after asks me to get some refreshments for a client he is meeting with. Despite this technically not being my job I would normally do this sort of request but I have to get these notes finished by 3pm today so call reception and ask them to provide refreshments for the client. It is still an interruption but does take slightly less time.

1450 – Proof read my work and hand the typed notes over to my colleague with 10 minutes to spare! Take a short break to make a cup of tea.

1500 – My perfect routine has definitely taken a few knocks today! Looking through my task list, I need some quick wins to get me motivated again so I fire off a few emails and send a couple of invoices to the finance department. Despite completing a massive task for a colleague I don’t feel like I’ve achieved much the last few days. My task list is looking worryingly long.

1530 – I still need to complete the slide deck that I started on Monday so I work on this for the rest of the afternoon.

1645 – Check through my emails and follow the procedure that I set out in my perfect routine, it takes longer to clear my inbox as I’ve not been able to deal with many emails today, particular those that require further action.

1730 – I print off my task list to take on the train home, I can look at this in the morning and get a better sense of the work that I can really prioritise and complete tomorrow

Follow me on twitter @PracticalPA

Routine Procedure – Monday

This week I will be trying to follow my ideal routine, as set out in last week’s blog, to maximise my productivity at work. I will start today and see how I get on for the rest of the week. I’m excited about following a routine and getting to 5.30pm without too much stress and disappointed that I haven’t completed everything that I needed to and also being able to look back on a successful day. Here are the results of day one:


0830 – So far so good. The train turned up on time, I managed to get a seat and was able to check my emails and calendar for the day ahead.

0910 – Arrived at work, immediately I had one of those “sorry but before you sit down” requests. I head back down five floors to get an ink cartridge for the printer. I pick up a cup of tea on my way back to my desk. Say hello to colleagues. My Directors are all in a meeting so no chance to connect yet.

0930 – I seem to be back on track with the routine, I managed to check my emails and follow the procedure. I’ve replied to quick and easy emails and sent holding emails to those that have asked for more detailed responses. 0940 – First interruption of the day. Senior manager asks when one of my directors will be free. I email the director asking him to contact senior manager.

1030 – Checking through my to-do list and have added 5 things from my emails over night. Luckily they are not urgent and have not affected my plan for today. 1035 – Sales call; end the discussion as quickly as possible.

1100 – My first task of the day is to put together a slide deck for the HR director, this includes analysis of excel data. This will take me much longer than an hour and a half but I will make a start and work on this throughout the week. The deadline is Friday.  I make a good start as it is still fairly quiet this morning.  1125 – One of the Directors has popped out of the meeting to ask me to scan a 40 page document without removing the binder for another colleague in the meeting. This takes 10 minutes. Coming back from the scanner I have a voicemail message, quickly return the call to another PA to set up a meeting with her Director and mine for tomorrow morning. This was something I needed to do so I can tick that off the to-do list.

1245 – I decide to stop working on my slide deck as I’ve managed to get a quarter of the way through. The Directors finish their meeting so I pop into their offices to say hello and check they are okay.  1250 – I sit with one Director for 20 minutes to go through his task list and walk away with six additional actions. Take 5 minutes to add them to the to-do list.

1315 – I have a quick look at my emails before heading out for lunch.  Take 45 minutes for lunch, mainly spent queuing in the bank!

1400 – Check emails and follow procedure. I also have a voicemail message which doesn’t require any actioning. Send off a few emails and feel pleased with quick win progress.

1430 – I feel like I am following the routine fairly well, but it does seem to be a particularly quiet day! I have had to make other tasks a priority including booking an in-house lunch for the CEO for a meeting tomorrow. 1510 – Take a long phone call from a PA from another company setting up a series of meetings for my CFO. The meetings are taking place in my office so I have to book the rooms and catering, add task to the to-do list.

1530 – Grab a quick cup of tea for myself and a colleague.

1535 – Carry on working through my task list and have a
fairly quiet afternoon without too many distractions. Odd!

1645 – I stop to check my emails. I’ve received an urgent email from the CEO’s PA asking to set up a meeting for tomorrow morning. Sort the meeting with her via the phone to save going back and forth via email.

1715 – I’ve added quite a few tasks to the list today so spend a few moments rearranging the tasks  to reflect priorities for tomorrow. I have lots of small but essential jobs that need to be completed by close of play tomorrow and also a few meetings scheduled.

1745 – on the train home.

I think today was a good start to following the routine, despite a few interruptions during the day I did get a lot of work done. It was a quiet day in the office and I’m not sure how the routine will fair tomorrow when all of my Directors are in and out of meetings and I have a few scheduled for myself as well.

Follow me on twitter @PracticalPA

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