Productivity Tips, tools, techniques and technology for Executive Assistants
This chapter covers specific productivity strategies for Executive and Personal Assistants
Just because you are a busy, hard working Assistant, doesn’t mean you are getting the right things done! In this chapter, we are going to cover all of the tools, techniques and strategies Assistants need to maximise their time and efficiency.
Productivity is about maximising your time and completing the right tasks. Assistants work in such fast-paced environments that it is imperative they make use of tools and technology to free up time to concentrate on the proper work.
Assistants also need to employ the right productivity tactics so that they can stay on top of their top do list and avoid overwhelm and burn out. We will cover everything you need to know about productivity tips, tools, techniques and technology for Executive Assistants.
The chapter includes:
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 your self 20 minutes..?
The same applies to a work task; for me, 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 for actually writing 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? Somethings 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 that has stuck with most people is to eat 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 by 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 that 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 thing 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.
For me, and 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 I was 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 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 stuff.
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 have a 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 is going to go and how many people are going to interrupt you. So, let’s talk about the method first and then let’s 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 longer 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 at the same time, 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 so 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 of 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 in to 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 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!
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 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.
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 to do. When I was busy, which was 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 are in line 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 am going to 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 is limiting 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 single email that comes into our inbox is just 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 a lot of questions and demands on our time. Working in an open-plan office makes this ten times worse, so how do we stay focused, on track with all of our tasks and deal with constant interruptions.
It is tough, but there are a few strategies you can put 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.
Being to look at your to-do list and prioritise 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 so thought, that describes a day in the life of an Assistant.
So basically what he was saying was that we spend our time on urgent tasks and neglect the 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. Make sure 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 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 the thing that 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 that you would 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 a lot of, 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 you have to think about how to solve 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 do treat your time with the same amount of importance as your Executive. Being productivity 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.
Sometimes it can be hard to find that extra dose of motivation, especially when you are faced with a myriad of emails and your to-do list is longer than your arm, and let’s face it, nobody has a to-do list longer than an Assistant!
But fear not, there is plenty of productivity tips, tools and techniques for Executive Assistants and Personal Assistants to help you control your time.
Nicky Christmas, Founder and Editor of Practically Perfect PA, has tried and tested plenty of apps, platforms and methods and is sharing her favourite tools and techniques to help you manage your workload and personal productivity.
We all know how hard it is keeping on top of the never-ending to-do list every Assistant and their Executive seem to have.
The work can be relentless but don’t fear; there are lots of fantastic apps available that can help you manage your to-do list, your time, your productivity and everything else in between.
Tracking your tasks doesn’t need to be a complicated process; a lot of Assistants still use pen and paper to keep on top of everything. The apps I have suggested below are simple to use, help manage all aspects of the role and can be shared with other people – so you can also manage your Executive’s time and productivity.
Task Management Tools
Todoist is one of the most popular apps available on the market. You can use it on all of your devices and share your tasks with your colleagues and your Executive. It is straightforward to use but comes with a lot of great features that will help keep you on track.
TickTick offers loads of features, including a great Pomodoro timer so that you take regular breaks. It can be found on every platform, and it integrates well with your calendar and project management software.
Microsoft To-Do – If you are using Microsoft 365 or Office in your organisation, this is the tool for you. Microsoft To-Do fully syncs with Outlook so you can manage your task list on the platform you use the most.
Things is only available on Apple products, which is excellent if you are an iPhone or Mac user but not so great for everyone else! It is a great tool though, effortless to use and with a load of features that will keep your tasks organised and you on point.
TeuxDeux is a beautifully designed to-do list app that allows you to list your tasks throughout the week simply. Uses can add recurring tasks, highlight important tasks and set deadlines. The app looks like a piece of paper and is as simple to use.
Omnifocus is only available on Apple products. It is built around the Getting Things Done productivity system and offers lots of features that help move projects forward.
Eisenhower uses the popular urgent / non-urgent matrix to help you prioritise your tasks. You can quickly move your tasks into an order of urgency and importance so that you are getting through the right tasks daily.
8. Google Tasks
Google Tasks – If you use the Google Suite, then it is well worth checking out Google Tasks. The app syncs with Gmail and Google Calendar and can be found easily on your Gmail inbox. You can also download Google Tasks as an app on your phone.
9. Remember the Milk
Remember The Milk is so quick and straightforward to use, you can list a ton of tasks without having to move away from the app. If you need a quick to-do list or a place to remember all of those random requests, this is a great choice.
Any.do is great for Assistants who struggle to put a to-do list together. The plan my day feature forces users to schedule when they are going to do things and then sends notifications to your phone when the deadline is due.
MyLifeOrganized is a robust task organiser and manager that works on the principles of the Getting Things Done system, while also syncing all your to-do items across devices and other platforms.
Time Management Tools
Toggl is an app you can use to track the time spent on all of your work. You can tag and manage your time by team, client, project, or Executives. You can add notes and see data on where you are spending your time.
RescueTime is similar to Toogl, however once installed, RescueTime automatically tracks the time and gives you real-time data on what you are spending your time on. You can ask other members of your team or your Executive also to install the app, and from there, you can track everyone’s time management.
Collaboration and Project Management Tools
There are lots of project management tools on the market and Monday.com is undoubtedly becoming one of the most popular. It is a visual platform that lets you plan, schedule and work together on projects. Similar to other collaboration platforms, users can set up boards to work on projects together, schedule tasks and see what has been accomplished and what is outstanding. The platform has a lot of flexibility and can be adapted to your organisation’s needs.2. Evernote
15. Google Hangout
This year Google will be completely overhauling Google Hangout including a change of name to Hangout Meets and Hangout Chats. The functionality looks pretty similar in that you will still have an instant messenger tool through GSuite and a video conferencing facility. For now, Google Hangout is always an excellent tool for those using GSuite. It will help you communicate with your Executive without having to send emails and of course you can schedule conference calls with your Executive while they are working remotely or travelling.
Citrix Podio helps you organise, communicate and get work done. More than 500,000 organisations use Podio to run projects and company departments. This includes everyone from small, growing companies using Podio to run their entire businesses. Podio speeds communication and provides the transparency and accountability needed for efficient teamwork by enabling people to organise and track work in one easy-to-use place.
Hiver is a Gmail extension that lets teams manage shared inboxes such as info@ or executiveoffice@. The extension has a lot of additional features that will help you manage the inbox without having to send lots of emails or forward on the emails coming into the inbox.
Asana organises everything from company objectives to routine tasks in one place, so teams are clear about priorities and responsibilities, and you can monitor progress in real-time to keep projects on track.
Smartsheet, an online work execution platform, empowers businesses to plan, track, automate, and report on work. Over 80,000 organisations rely on Smartsheet for project and work management because of its easy-to-use interface, real-time Gantt charts and dashboards, and work automation features.
Slack is fast becoming the number one tool for collaboration amongst teams. It allows you to forgo email for a more informal chat environment. With a considerable amount of integrations, it is easy to see why so many offices are adopting this technology. For small businesses, this is an easy way for employees to stay up to date with projects and quickly contact colleagues.
21. Google Docs
What I love about Google Docs is the ability to work on a document in real-time, so if your Executive is in the office and you are at home, you can both sit in front of the same document and make changes to it in real-time. Which means, no more back and forth over email.
Productivity and Focus Tools
Freedom blocks unproductive websites that might distract you while you are working. This is a good one if you procrastinate and spend maybe a bit too much time on social media.
Similar to Freedom, StayFocus is a Chrome Extension that allows users to password protect websites and block any social media platforms.
Pocket is free productivity software that captures everything you need to remember. You can take notes, capture images and websites and store all of your tasks.
Evernote is a free productivity tool that allows you to capture all your ideas, thoughts and images. Evernote has a variety of options and apps that help you remember everything and refer back when you need to.
Workflow is a highly adaptable app that helps manage all the complicated tasks you do every day. With Workflow, you can create a unique home screen shortcuts on your phone that perform batches of tasks with one tap.
Focus@Will combines neuroscience and music to boost your productivity. Select the music that fits your situation, and the app will play music to help boost your focus.
Productivity Tools for Assistants
This is an excellent app for Assistants who spend a lot of time writing documents and reports. Grammarly quickly checks your grammar and spelling.
Use Ottar.ai for dictation and minute taking. It is, without doubt, the easiest and most advance platform in this space.
If your company does not have expenses software, Expensify is a good alternative. You can take pictures of the receipts, then edit all of the data. The app converts the report to a PDF, and then you can send that via email to yourself.
Email Management Tools
Sanebox turns your inbox back into the inbox it was meant to be by weeding out unimportant messages. With additional features to snooze emails, track when people don’t reply, and more
Boomerang makes a whole load of productivity products that are all excellent and that work for both Gmail and Outlook. You can use the software to schedule an email to send later and respond at a different time. It also brings up reminder emails from a few days ago depending on the schedule that you have set.
No signup required – Maildrop is free for anyone to use when you need a quick, disposable email address. This excellent website saves your actual inbox from unwanted spam emails.
34. Unroll .me
Unroll.me will look through all of your email subscriptions and let you quickly unsubscribe, keep in your inbox or only see at a particular time. Another great piece of software that quickly tidies up your inbox.
Sortd lets you organise your emails into a to-do list so that you can prioritise your emails, add them to categories or projects and keep track of responses. It also allows you to make notes and keep a task list in your sidebar.
Streak has a lot of features that will help you manage your inbox, and your Executive’s My favourites include tracking, which instantly tells you when someone has opened your email, snippets, which is a collection of email templates to deal with frequent requests and mail merge, to send bulk emails straight from your inbox.
Mixmax is an app inside Gmail that helps you create engaging emails with instant scheduling, free unlimited email tracking, polls, and surveys.
38. Edison Mail
Edison Mail is a mobile email client app designed to assist you with sorting and organising your email. It can automatically sort incoming messages into appropriate groups, such as messages that contain tracking numbers for shipping, subscriptions, and receipts.
Every email doesn’t need a lengthy reply. Sometimes a thumbs-up or crying face is all you need. With Spark, that’s all you have to send, and this email app lets you do just that.
40. Email On Deck
Email On Deck is another great platform that lets you create throwaway email address so that your inbox isn’t clogged up with spam.