Personally Virtual Blog

10th July, 2015

The sun is shining, the birds are singing and we all turn to thoughts of …. admin?


Well, some of us do! Because what better time of year than the summer when projects tend to get quieter to sort out your back office. These days it seems that August is a ghost month where the serious work gets put on hold as it is impossible to get a full team meeting in around annual leave.

So, there is not a better time to get the office straight and know that come September when life returns to normal, you are on top of things and ready.

Some fabulous things to get on top of while there is a brief respite:

  • Admin processes – are they as good as they can be? Should there be some streamlining? Are systems as effective as they should be to keep the wheels turning on your business? That might be invoicing, expenses, time management, sales meeting follow ups.
  • Filing. It has to be done! Whether hard copy or soft, get everything where it can be found. Delete or shred old versions and out of date papers. It might even be worth a scanning project so you have soft copies of things you need and you can clear some shelves.
  • Contacts database. All those business cards festering in a drawer, get them out. Work through your contacts – anyone that has moved, get them updated. Check you have found them on Linked In. Update the CRM.
  • Office tidy. You know that a tidy desk means a tidy mind. Have a good clear out and move some furniture to keep things fresh.

Does this all sound like far too much hard work? Why not go on holiday and have a VA do some of it for you? Then you can come back refreshed to an organised workplace.

“For every minute spent in organizing, an hour is earned” (Anon)

Back in the olden days (!) getting an email was exciting. That ping was the highlight of your morning. Now, I don’t know anyone who actually has an alert for email arrivals – it would be non-stop.

As a VA I have not only my own inbox to manage but that of clients too. And also multiple email addresses. In fact, I have 6 inboxes to monitor and manage! So over the years I have read many things, tried many things to best stop my inbox(es) from taking over my life. I use Outlook so a number of these tips are Outlook specific but some are generic. I hope you might find some of helpful in organising your own inbox:

1) Categories

I organise my inbox by coloured category rather than by date received. This means I can sort them depending on what needs doing with them. My categories are by and large: Do Today, Do Soon, Waiting for Reply, File, Bring Forward. I may have others for specific projects that I change week on week.

2) Quick Steps

Outlook has these magic things which do things for you with one click. They are rules basically. There are some standard ones (“done” “reply and delete“) but you can program your own. So with one click I can mark an email as read, give it a Do Now category and flag it with today’s date. Another one turns an email from To Do to Waiting for Reply. Play with them, they are brilliant time savers.

3) Folders

I know everyone hates filing but it really is worth it to be able to find things again if you don’t have a decent keyword to search on. Plus, with Quick Steps you can set up folders you use a lot and instantly file things in the right place.

4) Flags

Actually I am not a huge fan of the flag (I prefer the bright colours of my categories, it gives me an at-a-glance idea of what needs doing) but I have a category called Bring Forward and set a specific date for follow ups etc.

5) The 3 minute rule

If you open an email and you can action it in 3 minutes or less, then do it now. Don’t let little jobs clog up your To Do list. Action it, then delete or file.

6) Keep it closed!

If you are head down working on something, close your emails! Nothing distracts faster than an email pop up. Have at least an hour “off” email during the day.

7) Junk and unsubscribe

Still getting newsletters from a lego set your bought in 1998? Rather than just delete, mark as Junk. Or better still, click-through and unsubscribe altogether.

8) holidays, untick

When you go on holiday put an Out of Office on and then untick mail on your devices! That way you won’t be tempted to look.

So I’ve been doing a bit of research around some of the many PAs and VAs that I know. Because we all speak to each other a lot. I mean A LOT!

Booking meetings makes up a large part of my job. And who the PA or VA is at the other end of that call or that email either makes my day easier or harder. Pulling in favours, being helpful when you can, all expected of PAs every day. If I am mid-crisis, often it is a PA I have to call to rescue it!

Boss left the house without his papers? Call the friendliest PA you know in the building he is heading to and sweet talk her into doing a quick print job and running it down.

Don’t know a decent hotel, restaurant, bar in a town – ask a PA that works there.

And, most days, the old diary shuffle of trying to fit stuff in. I call it Jiggling like a Witch but that’s not a technical term! It means a series of delicately balanced calls and juggling many balls, if we can move that half an hour later and then that half an hour earlier we can fit this one in here. All relies on the goodwill and generosity of spirit of PAs!

Most people with decent IT skills could probably, at a push, be a PA. But being an excellent PA is a skill, some might say it at its best, an art form.

In my first “proper” PA job I met (never face to face actually, only by phone or email) the woman against whom I now benchmark all other PAs. Exceedingly busy PA to the CEO of one of our clients, a huge huge UK business (income of around £80 million per annum at present) she was never anything other than sublimely helpful. Even when I was in fact booking salesy type meetings with her looney-busy boss, she never ignored a call or an email and was unfailingly fair. And this was before she got her own 2 assistants to help her manage her vast workload. When urgent meetings needed to go in as a part of the project she would get them in, no matter what. I do believe the word “can’t” wasn’t in her vocabulary! She never answered the phone sounding stressed or distracted. She was flexible and helpful and fully up to date on all things she needed to be to get her boss’ diary inline with his priorities at any given time. When it couldn’t be done, she was honest and didn’t flannel (whole blog on this to follow!). I imagine that if she was with others in the business as she was with me, they all had huge respect for her and I dearly hope they paid her vast sums of money, she was exceptional.

So, top things we love in other PAs

1) Reliable – do what they say they’ll do, by when they say they will. Or if you can’t, let me know.

2) Personality plus – we spend a lot of time at work. It has to be professional but it can also be fun. If you’re pleasant, sharp and fun on the phone I like ringing you. You just can’t beat a personal relationship. Where I know a PA a while I do like to meet them for a coffee or a glass of wine if I can and try to make sure I tell them I appreciate them.

3) Says it like it is when they can. Often we can’t be totally honest. Being a PA is a bit like being a priest, what our bosses tell us in confidence stays in confidence but if you can be honest I’d rather hear a “do you know what, we have our favoured consultants already and won’t take on a new one” rather than 6 months of making and breaking meetings because their boss just isn’t interested. The truth won’t break me and it will save us both a fair amount of time going through the motions. I suppose to sum it up “I’m not as green as I am cabbage looking”!

Are you a PA /VA? What do you admire in others you meet on your travels? Do you employ a VA – what makes one exceptional?

17th January, 2015

So, 17 days in, who still has a New Years resolution going then? According to Forbes just 8% of people who make a resolution manage to do it. Just 8%!

I am cheekily proud to tell you that I am one of that number. New Years Eve 2012/2013 I made a resolution which I keep to this day. Sometimes it is tricky but most of the time it delights me. I’ll tell you what it is in a minute and you’ll see why it was so blinding stupidly easy to keep!

The issue with most resolutions is that they mostly involve doing something worthy. Something good for us. Something that falls into one of those “should” “ought to” “must” camps that we all berate ourselves with most days.

“I must lose weight”

“I ought to do more exercise”

“I should really do some more networking”

“I need to spend less money on stuff I don’t need”

Do you hear any joy in any of those? Nope. Me either. They are all very important and I have no doubt that if we could by December 2015 we’d all be delighted to be thinner, fitter, richer and better networked – but ideally we’d like those things to happen without us doing too much work to get there! They all involve us putting in a smaller or greater amount of time and effort.

How about picking a lovely resolution that actually you can keep and that makes life better and gives you back some of your most precious time to with what you would like instead of what you should? These can be big or little but often we do things out of habit that take time when better options are available. Examples:

Spend all day Saturday cleaning and being a (slightly resentful) domestic slave? Could you afford a cleaner (once a month to have a weekend off or weekly) or outsource your ironing? Or could you share tasks better across the household?

Spend your evenings battling expense receipts and mileage for your tax records – get a VA for a couple of hours a month to keep on top of it.

Or you can go small. Tiny. My resolution?

“Henceforth, all black socks shall be paired with any other black socks. No more will I agonise trying to make pairs based on seam types, length or fadedness!”

Now in the 2 years since I implemented this has it saved me time? Without a doubt. Has anyone gasped in horror at my feet and noticed that I have two infinitesimally different seams on the tops of my toes? No. Strangely people aren’t that fussed.

I realise this has probably only saved me a grand total of 2 minutes per laundry load but if I do 2 loads a week that’s 4 minutes, over a year that is a staggering 3 hours plus! On sorting socks!?!?

It seems to me that if I can find other things I do that I really don’t need to do I could get myself whole days back. Days when I shall most certainly not be doing anything in the least worthy – I might go to a spa!

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