Personally Virtual Blog

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/

Have you heard of the Pomodoro Technique?

Back in the early 90's, Francesco Cirillo came up with a technique to help him focus on his university studies. It's almost stupidly simple. 

Take a timer (he had a tomato timer and he's Italian, hence the Pomodoro name) but your phone is fine and set it for 25 minutes. 

Decide to work on a task for 25 minutes. Start your timer aannnnd GO! No distractions, no interuptions, do not pass Go, do not collect £200. Head down, concentration for 25 minutes. 

When the buzzer goes take a 5 minute break; get up, make a tea, put a load of washing on or whatever you want (but ideally movement). Then when you're ready, set your next 25 minutes. Either carry on where you left off or start a new task. 

It's simple but it works.

It's really hard to focus with all our various notifications pinging left right and centre. I have clients on all different mediums and can in a morning get pinged from email (8 different accounts at last count!), Slack, Teams, Google Chat, Skype message or a text or call. It's enough to make your brain explode when you're trying to concentrate. 25 minutes is an entirely reasonable time for people to not have access to you. 

Why use the Pomodoro technique?

Beat procrastination - we all put off the tricky work, the huge looming deadline. Mentally, knowing you only have to do 25 minutes is a great kick start.  If it's a really challenging task (writing can be for me), set a timer for 10 minutes. At least you'll be 10 minutes closer to the end than you were when you started. With writing, I make myself write. Even if it is utter gibberish, it's easier to edit than to keep looking at a blank page.  

Focus - there's whole books on deep working and how hard it's become in these times of instant responses. Turning off distractions for a period of time allows you space to really think, problem solve or get creative.

Manage overwhelm - when your task list looks beyond acheivable, sometimes just breaking it into chunks is really helpful. Look at the list, split it into sensible 25 minute chunks and then start. It's really easy to be so busy worrying that you waste valuable "doing" time fretting. And once you start doing, not fretting then you're already feeling more in control. 

Working through illness or difficult circumstances - I used this technique to keep working through a slipped disc. It wasn't fun, but working in these sprints made it doable around an insane blend of drugs and an operation. It's the same when life feels awful and you have personal challenges but still need to get stuff done. Work in small, focused chunks to make it more manageable. You might only manage 2 or 3 pomodoros in a day. That's OK. It's better to be focused for less time than sit at your desk for longer and feel bad for not being more productive. Do a couple of pomodoros then rest. 

Household chores - I hate cleaning. So I will set a timer and hurtle through as much as I can with a decent playlist going. It makes me work faster to try and fit more in!

I hope that this has shared my love of the ticking tomato with you! 





As I have mentioned on a number of occasions, there are certain characteristics that are more common in people who are self-employed (or run small businesses) than they are in employed individuals – and vice versa. It’s not a bad thing at all, as if we were all the same then life would be incredibly boring.

One of the characteristics that is pretty much essential for any small business owner is the ability to ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’. Obviously, there are a huge number of employed people who have this characteristic – brain surgeons, astronauts, paramedics, firefighters, etc. (to name but a few) – but as a self-employed person without this mentality, the likelihood is that you’re going to find it more challenging to run your business for a long period of time without burning out or experiencing huge levels of stress.

Things go wrong in business. All. The. Time. In a large business, these incidents can be shared by the wider community – computer issue? Speak to IT. Invoices not being paid? That’s an issue for the finance team. Having to self-isolate for 14 days as a precautionary measure to reduce the spread of COVID-19? There’s probably a colleague or two that can step in to cover your work and the buffer of sick pay to help ease the financial burden of absence from work.

When you run your own business, it’s not quite so simple. You are the IT department, and if something is so catastrophically wrong with your computer or essential software that a google search and the good old fashioned ‘turn it off and turn it on again’ can’t help, you need to pay out to get it fixed (and ensure that there’s a little pot of money somewhere entitled ‘ARGH HELP ME!’). If invoices aren’t being paid, you become the debt chaser or, yet again, have to pay out to find someone to support you with this task. And don’t get me started on self-isolation… I’m not sure that it’s any different to my usual working routine, and without the benefit of sick pay or income protection (though if you can set this up, it is highly recommended), the likelihood is that most freelancers and small business owners will be working through illness, at least up to a point.

When it comes to a crisis within a small business, there are only two options – a.) freak out and nothing will get resolved, potentially signalling the end of your business and b.) have a momentary freak out (we’re human after all, not sinister virtual assistant robots) and then make a cup of tea, take a deep breath and sort it out. It’s not always simple or pretty, but most things can be fixed, and there’s always someone out there who can help.

If illness is a worry for you, don’t panic. Bulk buying toilet roll and washing your eyeballs with hand sanitiser isn’t going to help. Why not speak to someone about the possibility of outsourcing work on a temporary or ad-hoc basis, or pre-purchasing a support package from them so that you have a fall-back plan? Even if you are a small business owner and are worried about the financial impact that time off work will have on you and your business, try to think about things longer term – giving yourself time to rest and recuperate properly if you do come down with a bug simply means you’ll be back at your desk and full of beans before you know it, rather than working through the illness and feeling terrible for a much longer period of time. Mistakes are more common when you’re feeling tired, ill and run-down, so save yourself from having to do work twice and give your body the time it needs to recover, if required.

The possibility of some of your work ‘drying up’ during periods of economic and social uncertainty can be a major worry for a small business owner, but it’s important to be pragmatic.  During the current health related crisis, there will be businesses – both large and small – who have to cut back on the work they are doing (particularly if it involves a lot of travel or in-person events, etc.), and on work that they outsource to other businesses. Worrying about the situation won’t change things, so why not start to think about your own business cashflow and offerings? Are there any tools that you pay monthly subscriptions for that you could do without to help reduce business expenditure? Are there any other services that you could offer temporarily (or long term) that aren’t necessarily top of your list of ‘favourite tasks’, but that you are skilled and experienced enough at to provide a high-quality service to people who need it? It’s likely that the coming months are going to be a little tempestuous, but we need to be as prepared as possible to weather that storm, and worrying about it isn’t going to help you stay objective and focused – two characteristics you’re going to need when everyone around you seems to be losing their heads!

To be honest, whatever your job is, the motto ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ is a pretty good one. Life is stressful enough without worrying unduly about things that are beyond your capability or your control. Reach out to a colleague or contact and ask for help (and be willing to pay for it if necessary!), and don’t forget to put the kettle on.

In my office, it’s not usual to find a cat lounging across the keyboard (even on Skype once – that was an impressive feat).  Sometimes there’s even a dog on there too, but generally, I like to have a clear and organised working area if I want to work as effectively as possible.  In my pre-business owner days, I worked in enough offices to know that not everyone feels the same as me, with some people seemingly unfazed by two weeks’ worth of festering coffee cups cluttering the desk, along with reams of scribbled paper notes, dozens of chewed biros, and a liberal scattering of crumbs and food debris.

I’m just not sure how people can work like that (it makes me twitch and feel compelled to anti-bac my keyboard just thinking about that), especially when science supports seems to support the old ‘tidy desk, tidy mind’ adage.

1.)    It’s healthier – 2008 research carried out by Consumer group Which? in their London offices found that of 33 keyboards tested, four were considered a potential health hazard and one had 150 times the recommended limit for bacteria (5 times more than a lavatory seat) and was so horrendous it was immediately removed, quarantined and deep cleaned. (source: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/7377002.stm).  Even if you’re not sharing a keyboard in some kind of germ-filled hot-desking nightmare, it’s likely that your keyboard isn’t as clean and shiny as it might appear, and may be harbouring all kinds of nasties that are putting you at risk of illness. Wiping your keyboard, mouse and desk with a lightly dampened cloth to remove dust and debris, and then wiping down with alcohol wipes can help to make your desk less of a health hazard, as can a conveniently placed bottle of hand cleansing alcohol (don’t forget to take it networking with you too!).

2.)    It’s easier to focus on the task at hand – 2011 research carried out by Stephanie McMains and Sabine Kastner (source: https://www.jneurosci.org/content/31/2/587) found that being in a cluttered environment makes it more difficult to focus, with the items strewn across our desks apparently all competing for our attention.  By removing unnecessary paper piles, old mugs, defunct pens and other non-essential clutter from your desk, you should find it easier to concentrate on your work.

3.)    Need a little boost? Sometimes, projects seem to go on and on forever; other times, you carry out the same tasks day-in, day-out with little variation (and little thanks!); on these days, a quick tidy and desk organisation session can give you a little bit of the instant gratification for a job well done that we all need every now and then – it’s immediately visible what you’ve done and the improvement that you have made, and should leave you feeling a little more positive than pre-desk tidy up.

4.)    Video calls look more professional – if you regularly have Zoom or Skype calls with clients, it’s much nicer to have a clear backdrop behind you rather than stuff. Everywhere. Admittedly, if you’ve got a cat it’s almost guaranteed that they will join you at some point during the call to present their rear end to the camera, but as long as the backdrop for the rest of the call looks as professional as you are, that’s a good thing!

5.)    It’s just easier to find things! Calls with potential clients or existing clients can be challenging enough without being able to find a.) a pen on your desk when you know you’ve got about 1500 in your office and b.) something to write on that has more than 1 square inch of space available on it. Important paper documents in some kind of filing system can also be a godsend, without you having to venture into that pile of unopened bills, junk mail and other ‘stuff’ that is gradually taking over the corner of the room… it’s okay, we’ve all got one of them somewhere!

So why not start your day off with a little desk spring clean? There are worse ways to spend half an hour or so (the Which? offices apparently being one of those…).


A bit about us! 

I realised when catching up with a long term client this week that I don't very often talk to clients about other clients. Obviously, confidentiality is vital but my client wasn't aware of the variety of businesses we work with. 

Although we work with a number of solo entrepreneurs, small business owners and local organisations providing administrative support, did you know that Personally Virtual also works with large businesses? Several of our customers are large organisations who employ 200+ staff and already have permanent in-house employed team members providing internal PA support.  We have been brought in to provide additional long-term remote support to help the business work more efficiently and effectively, and work successfully alongside the permanent, employed PA/EA team in order to do this.

One of the questions I get asked quite frequently about this working relationship is, ‘How does it work?’. In my opinion (and experience!), high quality administrative support, call answering services, email management, lead generation and sales assistance, expenses and invoicing help, diary management, holiday cover and travel planning can all be carried out successfully both in-house and externally – it’s the knowledge, skills and professionalism of the individuals carrying out these tasks that makes all the difference; when you’ve got an experienced team of professionals with years of experience behind them, they could be in a cabin in Antarctica and still be able to provide high level support (WIFI permitting, obviously, but you get the point!).

At Personally Virtual, we’ve got an incredibly skilled and highly experienced team of organisational ninjas working together on a variety of projects, supporting everyone from microbusinesses to international organisations.  Over the last few years, I have found a dream team who can support consultants and partners within a business seamlessly, without having to be ‘in the room’.  Looking at the businesses we support from the outside, no-one would ever know that the high-level PA assistance we provide is done remotely, and from a business’s perspective we are a highly cost-effective administrative support solution, given that we don’t need desk space or computer equipment, and that holiday pay, etc. is not required (and if a Personally Virtual team member goes on holiday, we’ve already got holiday cover prepared!).

So when it comes to finding the right administrative support for your business, it’s worth remembering that it doesn’t have to be an ‘either/or’ situation: you can have a team of in-house administrative professionals, but you can also bring in one or more virtual assistants to support your business short- or long-term to help you work more efficiently.  You can also rely solely on these external professionals to support your business if you would prefer not to bring the role of administrative support in-house.  We’re here for whatever works for your unique business, and can develop a package of support that fits your needs.

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