Personally Virtual Blog

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?


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:, 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.

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.

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