Personally Virtual Blog

On my calendar, there are two different sorts of events; the first is the ‘let’s pencil it in’ event – mentioned briefly by a friend or family member and pencilled in the diary as a ‘save the date’.  The other sort of event is written in pen, possibly underlined or in capitals, and maybe even highlighted, and such events will only be missed in the event of fire, flood or plague. A fellow VA I know crossed the Solent earlier this year (on a ferry, not swimming) in the middle of Storm Dennis, because the event she was heading for was IN THE DIARY. I’ve been known to venture into London in a blizzard for a business event that had been in the diary for months, and a few (read: a lot) of cancelled trains weren’t going to stop me!

My point is this – what kind of dark magic do calendars hold that makes us so unwilling to move against them? And how can we harness this power to boost the effectiveness of our to-do lists and help us finally complete those few lingering, miserable tasks that are always half-heartedly scribbled at the bottom of your to-do list that you know you are never going to get round to…

Why not combine the two? Calendar and to-do list, hand in hand – the perfect productivity marriage!  I’m not talking year-to-view calendar here, you need a day or week-to view calendar for maximum effect (if you’re going for a paper calendar, it obviously doesn’t matter quite so much if you’re working on Google Calendar or equivalent).  My recommendation is to start planning a week in advance, as the likelihood is that your schedule will need tweaking a little if you over/underestimate the amount of time required for specific tasks at first.

So what should you include in your calendar?

-       Start and finish time: I know that this sounds a little silly, but putting in place firm work/life boundaries can be a useful way of signalling to yourself that it’s nearly time to ‘switch off’.  Downtime is incredibly important to help ensure you’re firing on all cylinders and that your creativity is at its peak – things that help you to be as effective and efficient as possible.  There are obviously days when you’ll have to work longer, and days when you might feel like finishing early to get away from the office, but having general start and finish times can be helpful.

-       Breaks – including lunch: How many of us sit down to a task and then, 6 hours later, realise we haven’t eaten/drunk/moved/used the bathroom? Staying hydrated, eating nutritious meals/snacks, taking a break from the screen regularly to rest your eyes and stretch your body – all of these things are required to keep you physically well, and although I can completely understand how easily it is to overlook them, it becomes much harder when it’s written in pen (and underlined and highlighted).

-       Fitness/wellbeing activities – the whole ‘you can’t pour from an empty cup’ thing is real. Everyone needs the opportunity to get out in nature for a walk, book a complementary therapy treatment, pop down to the gym/swimming pool, etc. Why not try putting it in the diary as a non-negotiable rather than have it on a weekly wish list?

-       Family/Friends only time – you can make time for your dentist appointment, to take the car in for it’s MOT, and to see the bank manager for a financial review, so why not make time for things that are actually fun? In this post-lockdown world, so many of us have realised the often overlooked importance of time with loved ones for our mental and physical health and wellbeing, so make sure it’s on the calendar. In pen.

-       Chores that need to be done – if you’ve got a set time for specific chores, it does make it slightly less likely that you will sit down to some challenging client work that requires intense focus and maximum brain power and suddenly decide to mow the lawn or paint the bathroom. Why not try setting aside a little time every day specifically for your must-do chores?

-       Client work time – I like to chunk up my working day into pomodoros: chunks of 25 minute activities followed by a 5-minute break (with a slightly longer 15-minute break after I have finished 4 pomodoros).  This kind of chunking allows me to maintain focus and energy when it comes to particular tasks – it may end up taking 5 or 6 pomodoros (or more) to complete some tasks, but they seem much more manageable if I’ve only got 25 minutes of intensive working to look forward to, rather than hours upon hours of relentless activity.  With client work, you can either just label your customer specific work time generically as ‘client work’, or if you are planning on a week-by-week basis you can incorporate specific tasks that you hope to complete each day that fit into the allotted time. It’s important to note that some things can take longer than expected and may push other tasks back, so allow for some flexibility in this – and above all, be realistic!

-       Email answering time – the constant ‘pinging’ of alerts from emails and apps can be incredibly distracting when you’re trying to concentrate on a specific task, so formalising a specific time each day (perhaps 11AM or 4PM?) to review and respond to emails could help you to avoid the black hole of your inbox. It can also help to set boundaries with clients, who won’t then expect you to respond immediately and will know that if it’s urgent then it’s probably best to phone instead!

-       Planning time – though you might not want to book in some time every week for business related planning, why not schedule in a morning/afternoon a quarter to review your business and what’s going well (and what’s not going quite so well!).  Make it an event by going to a nice coffee shop or café and carrying out your review there, away from all of the distractions of your office.

-       Marketing time – Why not schedule in an hour a week (in pen!) for social media marketing and/or blog writing? It could really help keep your marketing consistent, as for many people this is one of those tasks that is often right at the bottom of their weekly to-do list, and as such is often missed or overlooked.

Apparently, making a formal plan like this can really help to reduce stress levels (even if you don’t actually ever complete the tasks!).  Florida State University Researchers showed that the Zeigarnik effect—the stressful conscious and unconscious thoughts caused by unfinished tasks—could be overcome simply by making a plan to accomplish a task. So rip up your to-do list and formalise your planning, in pen, in your calendar. It really could help boost your productivity and help with your physical, mental and emotional wellbeing, which is always a bonus.


Source: https://www.forbes.com/sites/kevinkruse/2016/12/12/throw-out-your-to-do-list-fix-your-calendar-double-your-productivity/#3837a2949f26

Are you outsourcing some of your business tasks to a VA? VAs can provide excellent retained or ad-hoc support to your business, but there are a few things that you might want to consider to ensure that your business is adequately protected, whoever you decide to work with!

Insurance – professional indemnity insurance is a must-have for any professional service-based business, as it helps to ensure that in the unlikely event that something goes wrong for your business as a direct result of the working relationship you have with your VA or Freelancer (and you suffer financial loss as a result of this), you can potentially receive compensation for this issue.  It’s important to ensure that your VA has appropriate insurance in place – we’re not saying something WILL go wrong, but it’s always best to ensure that they, and you, are covered if the unthinkable happens and something does go wrong.

Contracts – Although it’s easy to just want to jump straight into working with each other (saving you valuable working hours ASAP), it’s important to make sure that a contract is drawn up to highlight the expectations you have got for your VA/Freelancer, and what they can expect from you. Hourly/Project Rate, Timescales for Work, intellectual property, etc. – all of these issues (and more) can be covered with a good quality contract that helps to build a solid framework for your working relationship from the outset.

GDPR– if your VA is handling personal data (i.e. customer information) on your behalf, you need to ensure that they are doing it safely and responsibly so that the data is protected and the potential for a ‘leak’ is minimised as much as possible.  If you haven’t already reviewed your business systems and processes for GDPR, now’s the time! Check whether the tools you are using (i.e. Email Marketing Platforms, Online Course Platforms, Virtual Meeting Platforms, etc.) are GDPR compliant, what data you collect and where this data is stored – and who has access to it all! Sharing passwords/logins with only specific team members, encrypting data and ensuring you have an up to date data privacy policy (and are registered with the ICO as a Data Controller) can all help you to work towards greater GDPR compliance. To find out more about GDPR, visit the Information Commissioner’s Office website: https://ico.org.uk/for-organisations/guide-to-data-protection/guide-to-the-general-data-protection-regulation-gdpr/

Ownership of platforms/accounts – I’ve unfortunately seen too many instances of Freelancers setting up accounts on various platforms/tools on behalf of the business they are working for, and then leaving (with the login details!). If you want a new tool set up or a new website or domain, make sure these are set up in your business name so that you have access to them.  Setting up a generic website for you VA (i.e. support@ or info@ your business address) can also help to ensure that you are able to deal with any enquiries or issues after your working relationship has ended, and can pass on the email address to new team members if required.

Lastpass – an extension to the point above! Even if the login for a particular piece of software or application is in your name, it’s best not to share the password directly with your team! https://www.lastpass.com/ is a great password ‘locker’ tool that allows you to share passwords and access to online tools without team members ever seeing the password. You can also revoke/share access quickly and easily if required, making it a great tool if you only want to share access temporarily.

Outsourcing work can really help you to work more productively and efficiently, particularly if you are working with an experienced and professional VA (or team!).  Don’t feel embarrassed to ask about insurance or contracts – any responsible business owner will be happy to share details of their set-up with you, and answer any questions that you have about working safely and appropriately together.


A great Virtual Assistant can make your working life easier. They can pick up jobs that don’t fall within your unique zone of genius (but do in theirs!) and help you free up valuable hours to focus on the all-important job of bringing in new work to your organisation.  They can help provide ideas about how things could be done differently, provide a sounding board for zany business ideas (they are, after all, small business owners in their own right, with a comprehensive understanding of some of the unique challenges that come with running a business), and can help your business to keep ticking over (and your customers happy!) if you are away from your desk on holiday or as a result of illness.

Virtual Assistants can be and do many things, depending on their unique skillset and experience, BUT one thing that the vast majority are not is psychic.  I’ve known fabulous VAs who have completed work to their usual exacting standards but have been left close to tears after customers have exclaimed ‘This isn’t what I wanted!’, but when asked for details of what needed to be re-done (or done differently), the answer was ‘I don’t know, I just know I didn’t want this!’. Because, you know, that’s completely reasonable behaviour (if you are 6)...

I know there are situations where you might not know exactly what you want – you might be looking for an article written, or a logo designed, or a marketing automation created, but not have the first clue where to start as you have never done this yourself before and really have no preconceived ideas that could help in the creative process.  If this is the case and the finished article isn’t quite your cup of tea, tell your VA in a way that is as clear and constructive as possible. Communication is key! VAs and other Freelancers are there to help your business to work more effectively and efficiently, but need to know how you want to achieve this, or at least receive some constructive feedback along the way to achieving this so that they are in line with your business vision and ideals.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, I’ve seen VAs who have been bombarded with communication via every platform going – email, Whatsapp, Facebook Messenger, Zoom, Slack… They’re asked every three and a half minutes to check in with their customer about their progress and are being micromanaged to within an inch of their life.  Trust me, I get that it is difficult to relinquish control over some of the tasks that you may have been carrying out yourself in your business for a number of years, but there are very few people who thrive in conditions where they are micromanaged – particularly if they are a seasoned and successful small business owner themselves.  In my experience, it’s best to pick a single preferred communication tool and trust that your VA has the knowledge, skills and experience to complete your tasks efficiently and effectively (it’s why you chose them in the first place to support you!). If you want to check in with them, consider doing it once a day or only if you have important updates that you want to share with them.  If regular calls are important to you, speak to your VA to find out if they work for them too – I don’t know about you, but once I’m in the ‘zone’ with work, I’m far more productive if I have the chance to work uninterrupted.  In addition to this, the likelihood is that you aren’t your VAs only client, so unless you are paying for their undivided attention all day every day, it might not be cost effective to use the time you do have for a telephone call update meeting that could just have easily been an email!  Telephone calls and video conferencing calls definitely have their place in a VA-Customer relationship (giving people the space to share their feelings about the work, build rapport, and see another human every so often), but it’s best not to over-do them. Zoom fatigue is real!

Developing a strong and successful working relationship with your VA takes a little time and effort.  They aren’t likely to simply waltz into the organisation and understand all of the nuances of the business without some input from you.  There may also be the odd occasion when things don’t quite go to plan – this is completely natural given that we are all human rather than pre-programmed administrative support robots from the future; clear instructions and comprehensive feedback, particularly at the beginning of a working relationship, can really help to build the foundations of a positive and long-lasting working relationship.

If you’re working from home or working reduced hours at the moment due to the covid-19 situation, it’s perfectly natural to feel distracted or lacking on the motivation front.  Perhaps you’ve got a million and one things on your business to-do ‘wishlist’, but just don’t know where to start? I’ve devised a novel way of dealing with this if my motivation levels and attention span is waning momentarily – introducing ‘task tombola’.

I have a small glass jar on my desk, filled with pieces of paper with different short tasks written on them.  Once I’ve completed my client work and general day-to-day business admin, if I still have some working time available but aren’t sure what to do because my motivation has gone AWOL, I go fishing in the ‘task tombola’ jar.

Some of the tasks I’ve got written in my jar include the following:

Check in with someone via phone.

It’s important to note that this isn’t a sales call, but a friendly check-in with another human during these uniquely challenging times. Yes, it might mean that they suddenly remember a small task that they could use your help with (an added bonus if your workload has reduced a little recently), but the main thing is that you are maintaining positive communication with others, both for your sanity and theirs!

Write some blogs/record some videos for future website and social media use.

If you’re feeling particularly creative, why not spend 30 minutes or so writing some useful business content? Even if you haven’t got a full blog in you at the moment, drafting some notes, finding some useful references or just writing some future social media content is all useful! Plus, if you’ve had a video conference call earlier in the day and you aren’t looking like you’ve been dragged through a hedge backwards in your pyjamas, why not make the most of your tidy desk/organised background/non-dishevelled self and record a few informative videos?

Filing.

Yes, it’s not glamourous, but if it helps to keep the paper pile on your desk below 3 feet then it’s a good thing. Why not do something interesting at the same time, like listening to music or a podcast whilst you file?

Complete your tax return.

Who doesn’t feel just a little bit smug when they’ve finally submitted their annual self-assessment tax return? If you’ve got all of your financial records in order, it shouldn’t take too much time to complete your return.  It might also help with some financial planning and goals over the next few months as you prepare your business for post-lockdown life.

Tidy your desk/office.

The old ‘tidy desk, tidy mind’ adage definitely rings true for me, so 30 minutes or so of cleaning and tidying definitely helps to improve motivation and concentration levels when I return to work.  If your work area is already pristine, why not consider a move around or popping some pictures or motivational stuff on the wall? Sometimes a change of scenery is as good as a rest, and might give you that little spring in your step you need to tackle your daily work schedule.

Task tombola doesn’t guarantee you a fun 30 minutes, but it does help to focus the mind on a single task if you are feeling distracted.  At the end of the day, as long as we’re all getting through the madness of the lockdown period, we can’t ask for more than that! Stay safe everyone!

9th April, 2020

How are your concentration levels at the moment? Are you finding it harder than usual to clear your to-do list? Perhaps you’re making a few more simple errors than usual? You aren’t alone. Even for people who already work from home, these are strange and challenging times, and we’re already well-versed in the realities (and associated distractions) of home-based working.

Life isn’t ‘business as usual’ at the moment; every news bulletin provides an update on the number of people in hospital with COVID-19, and announcements of the latest ‘big name in business’ to fall victim to the crisis (not to mention the thousands of small businesses who are already struggling).  We’re allowed a short walk or run every day to put some distance between ourselves and our workplaces, but even these can be fraught with anxiety and frustration, whether you’re just trying to maintain social distancing or have been challenged aggressively by a fellow member of the public whilst out for your daily permitted exercise, despite closely following government guidelines. And don’t get me started on the weekly supermarket visit for necessities…

The link between economic or pandemic crises and mental health is well documented[1], so if you are feeling distracted or ‘low’ recently, the most important thing to do is cut yourself a little slack.  Almost everyone I speak to has experienced moments of this over the last few weeks, so you are most definitely not alone.  And though you may want to curl up in a ball and hibernate until August, I have found that some simple planning activities can really help during challenging times.

One resource that I have found invaluable in my employed and self-employed life (both during ‘normal’ life and now in lockdown too) is Steven Covey’s book ‘The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People’.  In his book, he splits tasks into 4 quadrants based on whether they are urgent, not urgent, important or not important, and stresses the fact that productivity really isn’t about getting MORE done, it’s about getting the right things done.

Most of us when planning what to do in a day, look to ‘what is the most urgent task?’. That is entirely normal – the boss needs a sales meeting ASAP with a potential client, you need to unravel a clash with meetings/calls for tomorrow and so on. These are both important and urgent. But there are other things we know to be important from a health and wellbeing perspective too, like going for a walk, reading a book or even just taking a few deep breaths to calm and centre yourself.  In addition, home-schooling (if you’ve got children at home with you) and making sure you call your family members to check in with them aren’t necessarily urgent but are vital at the current time for not just your own wellbeing, but also for the wellbeing of the people around you.  So, if you’ve just got ‘essential work tasks’ on your to-do list, make sure to add in ‘vital’ tasks for your own sanity and wellbeing too, and try to give them the same level of importance that you do your client/work tasks.

Once you’ve addressed your task list, the next thing to focus on is how to actually find the time (and focus!) to do all the things. I recently wrote a blog on the ‘Pomodoro Technique’ (you can find it here: https://www.personallyvirtual.co.uk/blog/86-why-i-have-a-ticking-tomato-on-my-desk.htm), a time and productivity tool that breaks your day down into handy, bitesize and terribly manageable 25-minute distraction-free chunks, broken up with 5 minute active breaks (to make a cuppa, check on the dogs, put a load of washing on, etc.).  By using the Pomodoro Technique, when you sit down to work in the morning the day doesn’t stretch out in front of you as one, long, mammoth work session, but as perfectly do-able mini-sessions, some of which can easily be devoted to ‘things that keep you sane/happy’, without you feeling guilty about spending huge amounts of time on non-work based tasks (which you shouldn’t feel guilty about anyway as they are, as we have established, vital tasks for your own wellbeing!).

And if some of those 25-minute chunks seem overwhelming (in terms of the mind-numbing boredom associated with them, or because it’s a task that you genuinely loathe), why not try a bit of ‘temptation bundling’? The idea was introduced by Dr Katherine Milkman in 2014, and refers to using something you really want to persuade yourself to do something less fun, for example, having a slice of cake whilst you’re doing the filing, or tidying your inbox whilst listening to your guilty pleasure podcast.  The trick is that you ONLY get the good thing while you’re doing the dull thing and you have to do the two at the same time. Trust me, it helped me decorate my entire house over Christmas last year (thanks to the complete Sherlock Holmes boxset…).

What are you doing at the moment to try and keep your productivity, motivation levels and morale high? Whatever you are up to, take care and stay safe!

For example - Uutela, A., 2010. Economic crisis and mental health. Current opinion in psychiatry23(2), pp.127-130. Also Douglas, P.K., Douglas, D.B., Harrigan, D.C. and Douglas, K.M., 2009. Preparing for pandemic influenza and its aftermath: mental health issues considered. International journal of emergency mental health11(3), p.137.

https://www.franklincovey.com/the-7-habits.html

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4381662/

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