Personally Virtual Blog

9th February, 2017

This week I have been thinking about paper – or, more accurately, thinking about no paper.  Nowadays, the ideal of a ‘paper-free’ office is becoming a more practical and reasonable solution for businesses.  With scanners built into printers and available as apps on phones, and safe and reliable external or cloud-based data storage solutions available for a reasonable price, it is now possible to create an infinite number of documents and store them all safely as digital files.

So what are the arguments for a paper-free office? Obviously, the primary factor is that a paper-free office is more environmentally friendly.  Apparently, a single established pine tree can produce around 80000 sheets of paper.  Occasionally, it can feel as though you are printing that many pages off a day… on a slight tangent, have you ever wondered how much paper you’d need to print the entire internet? In 2015, a student from the University of Leicester calculated that you’d need 136 billion A4 sheets of paper to do just that – interesting fact for you!  Back to serious paper related statistics though, according to the Scientific American[1], globally we are losing upwards of 80,000 acres of tropical rainforest on a daily basis (125 square miles) – daily! That’s a shocking statistic.  Admittedly, not all of that is rainforest clearance so that single species tree plantations can be established to create pulp for paper (land is also cleared for agriculture, palm oil production, etc.) but it definitely would make a positive difference to the world if we all addressed our paper habits and made a concerted effort to use less and recycle more.  If you have to buy paper, locating good quality 100% recycled paper is now easier than ever thanks to the wealth of stationery shops on the high street and online.  If you can’t find 100% recycled, keep an eye out for paper that is FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) certified, as the wood pulp used to generate FSC certified paper has been carefully tracked and inspected to reduce the ecological impact of the manufacturing process on the native rainforest.  FSC certification also requires that indigenous peoples living in a rainforest are not displaced through deforestation.

Although there are a great number of environmental benefits to a paper-free office, there are a few positives associated with putting real pen to real paper.   Doodling and drawing can help boost relaxation, stimulate the imagination and inspire creativity – something that may be lacking after a day sat looking at a computer screen. A 2014 article in the journal Psychological Science also suggested that putting pen to paper boosts memory and your ability to retain and understand concepts, a fact that might help if you have an upcoming lecture or training event that you are attending (and would like to remember!).

I confess that I am partial to a handwritten letter, diary or notebook and a post it note or 30, but that 2017 will be the year that I make a concerted effort to make my paper habits more sustainable through increased recycling, buying 100% recycled paper (when necessary), or keeping an eye out for FSC certified paper products when all else fails.  Will you join me? What are your goals for 2017? I’d love to hear them.


27th January, 2017

As soon as the clock strikes midnight on December 31st, we are catapulted (whether we like it or not) into a living, breathing cliche: 'Be your best self this New Year'. 'Make 2017 your Best. Year. Ever', etc. It's difficult not to start daydreaming of a 'better you' when you are bombarded on all fronts by demands to improve yourself.

I'm going to throw another idea into the ring though – hear me out! This is my ground-breaking, deep and meaningful evaluation of the human condition:

You are doing really well already.

Admittedly, for the people who would actually like to have a slightly healthier diet, or exercise more, or whatever, this probably isn't a helpful mantra to have. I'm coming at it from the perspective of a business owner, and I really think it is an interesting way to motivate ourselves to look at issues more positively. For example, lets consider an issue like: 'I barely have enough time to file my own business expenses'. Some would say that this simply calls for a resolution to be more organised, a resolution that suggests that the business owner currently lacks sufficient organisational skills - it's like a 'NEEDS IMPROVEMENT' comment in big red pen all over your life. However, coming at the issue from the 'You are doing really well already' perspective helps you to cut down a little on the guilt and general whisperings of inadequacy that plague the majority of humankind (even if people don't admit it). Perhaps you really are too busy to carry out this work because you are just so successful at your job! What an alien way to look at things - but, in my opinion, a great way to look at them!

At Personally Virtual, we're here to help Business owners at the top of their game; people who want to focus on what they do well at and enjoy rather the mundane necessities of day-to-day business life that they don't like and don't really have time for.

However, saying that, we're also here for the people who do consider themselves disorganised or inadequate - but only so we can help you rebuild the confidence that you have in yourself and your business so that you too can stand in front of the mirror and say "I'm doing really well". And actually mean it.

27th January, 2017

I'm not sure whether this is the time or the place to admit it, but I have a minor addiction to high quality stationery. I can take or leave a pack of novelty post-it notes, but when it comes to beautifully bound diaries, notepads and planners, I just can't resist. I got 3 for Christmas!

I think it goes back to my time at school and the first day of every Autumn Term when we were handed crisp and fresh exercise books. These books represented a new beginning, a fresh start and the promise of a new year - admittedly, not so thrilling in reality when they were only destined to be filled with diagrams of ox-bow lakes and the water cycle, but some of that magic still remains with me to this day. For me, a new diary or work planner represents the promise of a new year; a year that has the potential to bring me new positive challenges to face and overcome, as well as the opportunity for increased success and contentment.

What better way to finally 'break in' that lovely new notepad you got for Christmas than put together a Business Plan specifically for 2017? It's a great way to get yourself focused now you are back into work mode, and it can really help you to identify (and hopefully act on) ways that your business can move forward and find increased success in 2017. Sound like a plan? Well crack out your notepad and have a think about some of these questions:

Where are you now? How is your business doing? Are you working with the businesses/customers that you had wanted to work with when you started out? Are you offering the products and services that you had envisioned yourself providing? If the answer to any of these questions is no, it's not necessarily a bad thing; it might be time to re-evaluate your whole business plan, focusing instead on what has been proven to work efficiently for you. However, if you aren't happy with any elements of your business, now is the time to introduce a framework that puts you 'back on track' - for example, introducing new stricter guidelines for existing customers who have previously overstepped working boundaries, etc.

What are potential opportunities in 2017? Are there any conferences in your field you'd like to attend? Any courses you'd like to undertake? Any new products or services you'd like to offer? When you are self-employed or running your own small business, the ultimate control over the direction and success of the business lies with you, so why not take the bull by the horns this year and take your business one step closer to the ideal you started out with? Tailor a new product or service that harnesses your passion AND new or enhanced skills, and see where it takes you!

What tools will you need to achieve your goals? These aren't just physical tools - i.e. new Office equipment, more money, etc. It could also be that you need more time to dedicate to these new goals and opportunities. Why not consider outsourcing some of your work to free up more time this year?

Timeline - Set yourself some definite (but realistic) goals for the new year. Put a target date on achievements - i.e. I want my new website up by March, I want to be offering product X by July, I want 3 new long term customers by October, etc. By writing these dates down, you are taking responsibility for accomplishing them. Don't quite reach your targets? That's fine, but carefully consider why you didn't reach them, and use these lessons to put together new, challenging but attainable goals.

Contingency - Unfortunately, life doesn't always go to plan, even if we've written everything down on high quality paper and colour coded it with many beautiful pointy pencils. So make plans for a 'worst case scenario'; establish what products and services you have found the most success with (even if you didn't particularly enjoy them) and make sure that you continue to have the tools available to carry out this work again - for example, a piece of paid-for software or piece of equipment that allows you to carry out certain tasks. The likelihood is that if you have previously found success with a particular role, you are more likely to have a network of people who can already recommend you for that work. Hopefully, these contacts and your proven skills should see you through times of hardship until you have had time to re-group and re-focus and get your business back on the road to your ideal business destination.

Personally Virtual

5th October, 2016

Ladies and Gentlemen, today I would like to celebrate the wonder of 'Tags' with you. If, like me, you use a productivity app like 'Todoist' or 'Asana', you are probably familiar with the concept of tags and, like me, may have already have developed an addiction to using them to ensure that your daily 'to do' list or weekly diary is optimised for maximum productivity. In my case I think it may have slinked from a good idea to an obsession actually!

In my 'To do' list app, I use tags to categorise tasks - from 'urgent' to 'do when you have a moment to spare but can't be bothered with anything too mentally taxing'. I have tags so know if I’m waiting for someone to reply to me and even things I need to talk to certain people about – when I finally catch them on the phone I just pull up that tag and have all my queries to hand. I also use tags for categorising the type of work required for each job, i.e. 'finance' and 'invoicing', so that if I am in the bank account I can find everything I need to do in one go, and any notes about invoices I can pull up at the end of the month. I also have a 'Costa’ tag - full of interesting articles that I want to read, but don't ever have time to read on a standard working day. And my favourite tag is one for “spare 5 minutes” which I pull up when I arrive at a meeting a bit early and can bash out a few odds and ends – quick calls to book things, ordering something online, replying to a text.

Being able to tag items of content on websites is also very handy. Facebook has recently jumped on to the 'tag' bandwagon ( a bit like Pocket) and now gives users the opportunity to save articles or videos that look interesting, but that they don't have the time to read right there and then. With more and more businesses using Facebook as a communication tool, every time you log-on to check your messages or make a post, it's likely that you'll spot something of interest; click in the top right hand corner of the article and select 'save' and you'll be able to read the interesting (or amusing) post at your leisure (and repost it on your page or a group as needed).

Emails are another area where tags can be used effectively to help you work more efficiently. You can easily set up folders or categories for different customers, for work that needs to be dealt with quickly, and a 'maybe read later?' folder for newsletters – gmail is brilliant for this. `

Finally, in my CRM, I use tags to categorise the wide variety of different people that I come into contact with - i.e. friends, work associates, clients, potential clients,experts, etc. It's also quite handy for an 'avoid' category; you know, that one person that you once met at a Networking event and would ideally like to avoid for the rest of time... yep, there's a tag for that!

Go on, embrace the tags! Make your life a colourful and more organised place to be and get tagging today!

For many of us, while we love a holiday as much as the next person, the idea of getting everything done ahead of it and then what you return to afterwards fills us with dread. It sometimes feels that you don’t actually take time off work, more that you work twice as many hours the week before and then twice as many the week after your holiday. So your refreshed and zen like state lasts less time than your tan.

You can’t magic away a week or two of work, it will always be a juggling act but I have collated some excellent organisation tips over the years to make getting away easier and coming back less painful. I hope that you find some of them useful.

Be Prepared!

Not just for scouts this is great motto for us planning time off. You probably told your boss, your clients, your team and everyone else who needed to know about your holiday months ago. Whilst it is very high up on your radar they will almost certainly have forgotten. Or be in total denial if they are anything like my old boss. Remind them! Two or three weeks before. Set expectations, discuss any projects and work that may need a timeline working around or others to get involved in your absence. Don’t for a second assume they will have thought about it, they almost certainly haven’t. Your life will be much easier if you remind them early enough that you don’t end up with a pile of stuff on your desk 24 hours before you head off.

Lie (just a little bit)

I don’t mean lie outright but depending on your work a little lie to yourself about when your holiday starts might not be a bad thing. This is easier for us self-employed types. So I’m flying out Wednesday morning at 6AM. I’m going to tell everyone I’m off on Tuesday – because there’s no way I’m going to fit a normal day of work and packing and painting my nails on Tuesday. So whilst I might decide to do some work on that spare day, I’m going to tell myself I am off and give myself a buffer to tie up any loose ends. I don’t want to be sitting in the airport bar still trying to finish off client emails.

The same for when I come back. I try and build in a day for catching up before anyone sees me pop up on Skype and starts giving me more work!

At the very least. Put your out of office on your emails and phone from lunchtime of your last day. That should stop a few of the “before you go can you just”s. And block that afternoon so it’s free of meetings so you can clear the decks properly and give yourself a fighting chance of returning to calm.

Manage your diary before you go

If you have a PA or a VA give them some guidelines to make your exit and re-entry as smooth as possible. Otherwise commit a bit of time two or three days before you go away to plan your first few weeks back. If you know you have particular work on projects to do when you get back, block in time for them now.

Accept that leaving a perfectly empty desk and task list and getting to inbox zero is never going to happen. It just isn't – life is too messy. And even if you did have nothing outstanding and a big shiny halo, it won't last until you return anyway. Getting stressed about not having 100% finished things is no way to begin a break. Work to an 80/20 rule of getting most things cleared and reevaluate whether you can delegate anything. This doesn't mean you skip out of the office Julie Andrews-like, ditching anything and everything, leave others to sort out your mess and come back to hell, this is a realistic assessment of how much you can actually accomplish before you go. If you use a To Do List or task system, start adding a "when I get back" list. Again, if it is a big chunk of work you are having to defer, look at your diary now and block time to get it done.

Don't book any meetings on your last day in the office, or your first morning back. Give yourself some desk time. Then, during your first afternoon back you will want to be catching up with your VIPs , your clients, PA/VA, boss, project leader, co-workers - anyone who needs to give you an update on things. Keep it to a snappy 15 minute call each and ideally, have them booked before you go so you just have to turn up day one and do what it says you have to in your diary.

Be kind to yourself! Returning from holiday is a hard landing, don't book yourself 3 work evenings out and 2 early starts in week one. Wean yourself back in gently.

And to get through day one and keep your sanity? Here's a quick and dirty guide to hitting the ground running

  • Make a strong coffee
  • Show off your tan to anyone who will let you before finding your desk.
  • Decide now on a ‘clock off time’ today and stick to it!
  • Change all your ‘out of office notices’
  • Open a pad and get writing.... Three columns, "diary, delegate (or ask), do"
  • Check your diary for the week ahead; quickly note any prep work needed
  • Emails. The biggie!
    • Do an initial whizz through and delete all junk and other rubbish.
    • Start at the oldest emails, where action is needed mark them (flags, categories etc). If it is an urgent action, note them separately on your pad.
    • Separate “things to read” from “things to do” if that helps you and add to your list anything that is “delegate to others”
    • As you work through, make sure that any threads are followed (organise by thread / conversation to help) in case the initial action isn’t the end action. Note any questions to follow up on later when you do your 20 minute calls (delegate / ask).
    • Make any changes to your diary.
    • Once you have made it through, start work on the most urgent first.
  • Write yourself a reminder for next time you take a break to get a Virtual Assistant to support you – they can take much of this pain away…

If you want to know more about how a super organised VA can look after your inbox while you are away, you can read about it here.

Kathy Soulsby, Personally Virtual

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