As we have so much to do and the workload is never-ending, I thought I would start by share my productivity tips, tools and techniques for Executive Assistants and Personal Assistants.
This overview will give you a good understanding of productivity methods that you can integrate into your daily routines, and there is an accompanying video underneath this section.
Number 1: How long does everything take?
This might seem like an obvious tip, but it is super helpful. I got this tip from Get your Sh*t together by Sarah Clarke.
So how long does everything take? If you are, for example, someone who is always late in the morning for work. Have you asked yourself why? It might merely be that you do not give yourself enough time to get ready because you haven’t worked out that showering, eating your breakfast, watching TV can take 2 hours easily and you give yourself 20 minutes..?
The same applies to a work task; I know I have to write three or four blog posts per week. Usually, they take about two hours. So I know I have to schedule a maximum of eight hours per week on this task alone. Once I worked that out, I could plan the time in my diary and not stress that I never had enough time to write blog posts.
So, the first point for our Productivity Tips, Tools and Techniques for Executive Assistants. Work out how much time stuff takes.
Get your phone, click on the stopwatch and time yourself. If you are taking too long on one task, is there a way you can simplify the process or skip anything? Some things aren’t worth the time. So, once you know, you can work out how to improve the process. You can also use fancy software that helps you track how long you spend on specific projects and tasks.
For a free, simple piece of time tracking software, I would recommend Toogl.
Just as an aside, if you work for multiple Executive’s it is quite good fun to work out how much time you spend on each Executive.
Something like Toggl will give you conclusive data if one Executive complains that you don’t spend enough time with them. We have written about creating a time audit for your Executive here.
Number 2: Do the worst first
Most of you will have heard of, if not read, Brian Tracy’s book Eat That Frog! There are 21 tips on how to be more productive, but the one stuck with most people is eating the frog. In other words, do the worst, crappy tasks first.
Everyone has tasks that they do not want to do. In my case, I hate hate hate doing anything financial or anything to do with my expenses. So much so I leave anything relating to my tax return to the last minute. That includes finding all the stuffed receipts and bank statements.
But if I ate the frog, I would find the time to file all of my receipts and highlight all the deductible bank transactions on my bank statement each month.
I would add the data to my online accounting software, and that would mean come December when organised people file their tax return, I would be able to quickly and efficiently complete the return. Hay, I’m a work in progress.
So, eating the frog.
This means making a habit of doing the stuff you do not want to do first. Here is what Mr Tracy says about frogs:
Things you don’t want to do but need to do. These are the ‘Frogs’. The ugly, distasteful things that need to be done but tend not to. You aren’t motivated to do them, leaving them victim to procrastination. Frogs need structure around them to ensure that they get done.
Create the motivation to make them happen, either by transforming them into something desirable or making them subordinate to a strong habit. Eating your frog at the start of the day is just such a habit, but it is even better. Making sure frogs are the first thing that gets done leaves you free to do the things you enjoy doing. The habit creates an intrinsic reward.
Either way, reward yourself for eating the frogs. Otherwise, they will sit there watching you and croaking!
If you have to eat a live frog, it does not pay to sit and look at it for a very long time!
Think about what your frogs are? What are the things that you hate to do and continuously put off? Although Brian Tracy suggests you do them first in the morning, I have a slightly adapted suggestion. Yes, they need to be done, and no, you shouldn’t put them off, but you can also schedule them for a time that makes them slightly easier to digest.
I hated doing expenses for my Exec’s as much as I hate doing them for myself. I used to schedule them for a Friday morning when the office was quiet, and I didn’t necessarily have the brain capacity to do other, more creative and challenging tasks.
This leads me nicely on to my next tip
Number three: Adopt a rolling to-do list
This is my favourite tip. Here is why. While working as an EA, I was super productive, and I was able to shift through a ton of work because I adopted a rolling to-do list.
So I had my day planned, I had the frogs that I needed to eat, and I had time scheduled for other tasks. But I also scheduled the time to tick off the tasks that I hadn’t completed the day before.
Nine times out of ten, they were the frogs that I had put off the day before.
I have an excellent method that works like an absolute dream for me at work. So I have a notepad that I carry everywhere, around the office, into meetings, at my desk and in my handbag. In this notepad, I write my notes, actions, tasks, anything and everything I needed to remember.
I then give myself half an hour, 20 minutes at the end of each day, to transfer my actions to my diary.
That gives me a straightforward to-do list that I can work through each day. Anything that hasn’t been actioned (because it isn’t urgent or I didn’t get around to it) gets added to the following day and done first thing in the morning.
Some tasks roll through the week and month, but they are always there, and I don’t forget to do them eventually.
Number four: Batch tasks into chunks
Now let’s look at how we structure our day so that we get loads of stuff done. I know, trust me, I know, that you can not predict how a day will go and how many people are going to interrupt you. So, let’s talk about the method first and then talk about how we can apply it.
Have you heard of the Pomodoro method?
It is a beneficial time management method that helps you break down large tasks into small chunks of time. Invented by Francesco Cirillo in the 1990s, the premise is that you work in short bursts with regular breaks. So, for example.
You take one of your tasks, work for 25 minutes, take a break to make a cup of tea, check in with your colleague, and after 5 minutes, start working again for another 25 minutes. After 100 minutes, take a long half an hour break.
I like this method because it firstly understands the need to take regular breaks, and secondly, it gives you the structure to batch tasks together.
Have a look through your to-do list. Do you have tasks that can be batched together? For example, going back to expenses do you do the expenses for, say, three Executives? If you do, batch that into one block of time. In other words, do them together in one straight sitting. The same goes, for say, filing paperwork or printing board packs. Do it all in one go, in one block of time.
Because you are concentrating on one thing, you will have all the resources you need to get everything done simultaneously, and you can decrease distractions because you are not hopping from one task to the next. And you only have to concentrate for 25 minutes before you take a break.
When you think about how to batch your tasks together, such as your emails and meetings, I now set aside two 25 minute chunks per day to check my emails. More on this later!
Back in the day, every single Assistant I know said they were brilliant at multitasking.
We could all juggle a whole load of tasks without dropping the ball. It is still absolutely one of our skills, but most productivity experts now say that multitasking is not great.
This is because multitasking is really about reacting to what is happening around you and, yes, probably dealing with it but perhaps not focusing or finishing something in its entirety. It’s more putting out fires than finding out why they start in the first place. We must be strategic thinkers in able to help our Executive’s succeed and to think strategically. We have to find the time to focus.
Multitasking does not lend itself well to focused strategic thinking.
Number 5: What or who are your time zappers?
Time zappers are worth discussing in further detail. So you are now probably thinking to yourself. Right I will work out how much time everything takes. I’ll do the crappy tasks; I’ll make sure I tick everything off my to-do list. Happy days right?
Well, no, because if life were that simple, we would all be Beyonce, wouldn’t we?
There are those little things I like to call time zappers.
They can be other people, and they can be habits we get into or problems that crop up that take our focus or kill our productivity. Let’s have a little look at a list I pulled together in a blog from a few months ago.
Firstly, and naturally, interruptions. This deserves its own tip, so I’ll come back to that one.
Secondly, powering through your day, I’ve touched on this already, and I’m pretty guilty of it. But trying to cram everything into your day without taking a break is just crazy and so unproductive.
You’ve got to take regular breaks if you can’t make a full hour for your lunch – hay, I hear you.
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 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!
Another example – 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 keep me sane, as well as productive. I don’t know if you are getting the message, but I highly recommend keeping a to-do list.
If you don’t, start today, right now. Trust me, your life will change overnight, and your productivity will skyrocket.
Saying yes to everything is a total time zapper.
So this might be the reason you have so much work in the first place. There 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. When I was busy, most of the time, I would say that I couldn’t do that task.
As we discussed in the time management panel session. You know the bigger picture, and your responsibilities align with the organisation’s strategic direction, so you can say no to requests that are not as important as those already on your to-do list.
And the most prominent time zapper of all. Emails! Which I am coming on to now
Number 6: Turn off your Email notifications – now!
Emails have got to be the number one drain on people’s time. I could dedicate this entire blog to sorting out your email management, but alas, I have other stuff to talk to you about, so I will share my number 1 tip, and it is a simple one. You have to turn off your email notifications.
Seriously. All of them.
The little jingle noise, the window that pops up, the envelope in your toolbar.
All of them!
If you want to be more productive, half the battle limits disruptions and email notifications are an absolute killer. Turn them off!
Okay, I think I’ve made my point! We have to answer our emails, but reacting to every email that comes into our inbox is madness.
So, switch off the notifications, put some time aside each day to deal with incoming emails, fire off any quick emails that don’t require a vast amount of input, add the other ones to your to-do list and get on with something else.
Number 7: Dealing with interruptions
Okay, let’s go back to those dreaded interruptions.
Assistants get interrupted a lot. Being the face of our organisation, the go-to person is great, but it comes with many questions and demands on our time. Working in an open-plan office makes this ten times worse, so how do we stay focused, track with all of our tasks and deal with constant interruptions.
It is tough, but you can put a few strategies in place that can help mitigate the disruptions. Some of them are pretty simple, but you might not have thought of them because you just assumed being interrupted comes with the job title.
If you seriously need to concentrate on something – work from home. Take a day at home, work in your favourite pyjamas and get that work done.
If you can’t work from home, book yourself a meeting room in your building and focus in there. Ideally, a meeting room without a glass door so that nobody can see you and interrupt you in there. If that isn’t an option, can you leave your building and go to a nearby café.
You’ll be surprised at how much work you get done sitting in Starbucks with the other trendy digital nomads all trying to launch the next big startup!
Interruptions are absolutely par for the course. It is how we deal with them that will help us remain productive. If you are just in your general day to day, then again, the Pomodoro technique has a good system for dealing with day to day interruptions, and it goes like this:
- Inform the other (distracting) party that you’re working on something right now.
- Negotiate a time when you can get back to them about the distracting issue promptly
- Schedule that follow-up immediately.
- Call back the other party when your task is complete and you’re ready to tackle their issue.
So in this technique, you’re not aggressive. You’re not telling someone to get lost. You are just delaying your helpfulness.
Okay, so now we’ve dealt with those time-wasters, let’s have a look at another area that affects our productivity.
Number 8: What are your priorities?
Well, firstly, it goes without saying that your priorities are your business’s and your Executive’s priorities. They are fundamental aspects of your role, and everything you do has to be strategic.
But obviously, sometimes in life, your priority is fixing the photocopier, so it’s not all exciting stuff – I get that.
Looking at your to-do list and prioritising what is essential and what has to get done is a critical skill for PAs. We have to have a clear idea of what is necessary and what is urgent, and there is a handy technique called the Eisenhower matrix that can help with this.
So for those of you that don’t know, Dwight D. Eisenhower was President of the USA towards the end of the second world war. In a speech he gave to the UN in 1945, he said I have two kinds of problems: the urgent and the important.
The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent
When I first read this, I thought that it describes a day in an assistant’s life.
So basically, what he was saying was that we spend our time on urgent tasks and neglect important things.
How to Use Eisenhower’s Principle
Get your to-do list and put the tasks into categories:
- Important and Urgent
There are two distinct types of urgent and important activities: ones that you could not have foreseen and others that you’ve left until the last minute. You can eliminate last-minute activities by planning. However, you can’t always predict or avoid some issues and crises. So schedule some time into your day that allows for urgent and important tasks.
- Important but Not Urgent
These are the activities that help you achieve your personal and professional goals and complete important work. Ensure that you have plenty of time to do these things correctly so that they do not become urgent or get lost in all the other stuff.
- Not Important but Urgent
Urgent but not important tasks are things that prevent you from achieving your goals. Ask yourself whether you can reschedule or delegate or say no.
Number 9: Good procrastination and bad procrastination
We all know that procrastinating is a productivity no-no. We know that procrastinating means putting things off, leaving it to the last minute, doing other less urgent, less important tasks. We know that it stresses us out and makes us feel like we are failing at this productivity game.
So why do we do it?
Because it feels good, that’s why! Like anything, we usually do the stuff we like, and when we procrastinate, it is often time spent doing what takes us away from the things we don’t want to do!
So how do we stop procrastinating? Well, basically, all of my tips so far will help you with that. Particularly taking regular breaks. Use your breaks to do the stuff you usually do when you procrastinate – check Facebook on your break. Why not?
You deserved it.
Do the procrastinating on your breaks and then get back to the business at hand.
I don’t want to fill you with hope on the next point because procrastination is the opposite of productivity. Still, you can have some good procrastination, mainly if you achieve something when you procrastinate.
Daydreaming is a classic example of procrastinating, but many creative types suggest this type of procrastination is a good way of developing ideas and concepts… or as they put it, ‘concepting’. So next time, you are sitting at your desk, staring into space.
Perhaps you are not procrastinating. You are allowing your ideas to ferment. You are way up ideas and thinking things through. If you are a creative type or have to think about solving complex problems, sometimes, a little procrastination will help you develop solutions.
Number Ten: Be your time gatekeeper
Okay, my final point is this.
You are an Assistant, you manage your Executive’s time, and you are very, very good at it.
But you also need time for yourself, your work and your objectives, so treat your time with the same amount of importance as your Executive. Being productive in your working hours, working smarter, not harder, really will serve you in the long run.
You have a lot of stuff on your plate, and hopefully, some of these tips will help you with everything you have to fit in your day.