Personally Virtual Blog

It’s really easy when you are thinking about time to dismiss anything under a certain amount as not really enough time to do anything. I work on the clock for clients so I have a very clear view of what can be done in five, ten, fifteen or thirty minutes because I am recording it. But I am still very guilty of dismissing small amounts of time.

Of course, it depends on how much time, where you are and what is currently on your mind but as I sit at my desk now, I thought, “I’m going out in an hour and I need to get ready. I only have half an hour. That’s not nearly enough time to do anything useful. I might as well go and have a gin and tonic.” (can I just point out it is currently 6 PM on a Saturday, not 10 AM on a Tuesday morning before everyone calls The Priory to book me in!).  Half an hour doesn’t feel like enough time to finish a blog. But it is certainly enough time to start one, isn’t it? It is also plenty to time to do some client work, to upload my expense receipts, sort out last month’s mileage and many other things. None of which I have done!

Having a spare ten minutes I’m even less likely to think that’s sufficient time to start anything. But again, I bet I could get my receipts done, I’m pretty quick and I don’t let a huge backlog accumulate so we’re probably only talking about four items or so.

Based on this, I have started tagging my task list (Todoist) with a “Spare Five Minutes”. That will show me at a glance if I have things I can do in five minutes.  There is also a mental list of things we all have that never make it to a task list – replying to a text from a friend, putting the bins out, paying a bill and so on.  Another tag I use quite often is “To Read”. If I find an article I want to read, I’ll add it to Todoist with the tag and when I arrive early somewhere or I’m waiting for something I can go straight to something interesting.

Whenever you think “Oh, there’s not enough time to…” the tendency is to then fritter away that chunk of time. But if you add up all those chunks over a week, that is a lot of time that you’ve let slip by when it could have been put to good use. If you want to increase your efficiency, make use of these wasted moments. Find something that will only take ten minutes or make a start on a bigger project knowing that you’ll be very pleased with yourself when you have less to do later.

I use small chunks of time the other way around to motivate myself – either with the Pomodoro Technique or the most basic of all “just clean as much of the kitchen as you can during the ad break”. When it is a small amount it time it’s much easier to commit to something you aren’t really feeling inspired by!

And, if you really can’t face doing any work in those little chunks, you can still use it constructively. Meditate for five minutes, text a friend and say hello or go and have a chat with someone on the team.

7th November, 2018

Due to not being very busy last week, I came to pondering busyness and productivity.

I’ve always been of the belief that in order for me to be at my most productive I need to be busy. There is something about being just a little under pressure (not drowning, just a little pressed) that I believe makes me work at my best. And that isn't very helpful. 

In the last month, I’ve had a few days where things have been quieter than normal. And I have been suffering a bit of angst over that. In part, because I’ve been at capacity on client work for so long that it just feels weird not to have all my time booked out now I have a gap. But also, because I realise that I have come to equate being productive with being busy and they are not the same thing. I think this is in part a personality thing, I used to run restaurants and my favourite part of that job was looking at the Saturday night bookings and knowing that it was going to be a challenge to turn enough tables in time to fit everyone in. Not impossible, not a “we’re so overbooked we might as well start giving the apology drinks away now” but an “if we do X Y and Z and T comes off this could work”. A nice blend of adrenaline and creative problem-solving.

In my current role, I work with three big tasks to do every day. They are the ones I absolutely must complete if I want to be working towards my plans and completing the projects that are vital. Every single day while I was quiet I hit those. And a few more besides because who only has three tasks? And yet I was feeling like I’d accomplished nothing and was very unproductive simply because I wasn’t feeling busy.

So, by way of giving myself a little talking to, here is my take on the difference between being (too) busy and being productive.

Being productive – working methodically and in an organised way through what needs to be done. Having clear priorities about what gets done when. Ensuring that regular breaks are factored in and work doesn’t start to take over life.  Keeping distractions (whether work or not) to a minimum so that your brain isn’t trying to process multiple things at the same time. Ending the day with excellent outputs and a clear sense of what needs to be done tomorrow. In short, achieving what was set out as the tasks for the day is being productive!

Being busy – constantly flicking between many things in an attempt to keep up with too many tasks at once. Replying to and actioning things immediately instead of chunking up time properly. Thinking that movement and action is the same as productivity, it isn’t - just doing stuff cannot guarantee results, you need to be doing the right stuff! Forgetting what is urgent versus what is important. Not really knowing what is still to do because you went down an unplanned wormhole two hours ago and haven’t surfaced yet. Knowing as you are doing, it that your daily plan bears no resemblance to the actions currently being taken!  Forgetting that your brain is in a body that probably needs a drink of water and to move several times in a day.

Now I have had that little moment of reflection I can safely say that today I am being productive and I am going to make sure I tell myself this at the end of the day just in case my adrenalin-junkie brain feels that it was all a bit boring...

When I am tasked with looking after a diary, one of the first things I’ll ask is “how do you work?”. Actually, that should probably be, “how do you work best” because most of us do the best we can with whatever has been booked into our diaries with other people’s needs sometimes taking over.

Have you ever thought though, what an ideal week looks like for you work wise? Not, work 10-12 on a Tuesday and get paid a full salary, we’d all love that. But if you could choose how your week went in a perfect world, what would that look like? When would you have meetings? When would you tackle the work that needs deep concentration? When is best for you to catch up with your clients, your team, your suppliers?

Everyone is different, and everyone works in different ways and performs best under different circumstances. In some cases, it will also depend on what kind of work you need to do at any point – being in the thick of a project kick off, will look a lot different than research and writing a series of workbooks and your diary and your time needs will change accordingly.

I ask clients what they would like, ideally, to see in their diary. That can be complete basics like;

  • Fridays I always work from home
  • No meetings before 9, London no meetings before 10
  • Wednesdays are school pick up days so nothing after 2
  • Meetings should be an hour max, calls 30 minutes

That general type of rule is how most PAs start looking at managing a diary to best effect.

Then you get into how you like to work. Do you prefer to have all your meetings batched together across one or two days in a week, leaving other days totally empty for deep work? This is very sensible and how most of my clients work but doesn’t suit everyone! I had one client that faced with a vast empty day in her diary (despite having lots and lots of client deadlines to hit!) would find it completely impossible to focus. It was too much time. She’d quite frequently find herself completing nothing through the day (a batch of muffins maybe!) and then having a blind panic as the deadline hit and working into the evening. It was much better for her to have a couple of calls or even a meeting at one end of the day and that pressure of a shorter amount of time meant she was a lot more productive during the time she had at her desk.

Some people work better with tight deadlines and are, as I call them “last minute Marys”. I was reading an article about this in which the author said this is for one of two reasons – either they enjoy and need the adrenaline of being late to produce their best work, or they are just chaotic and disorganised. I think there’s a third camp, the hedge-betters. They pretty much know early on what they are doing, and they could do it earlier, but they don’t want to finally commit just in case something better comes to mind, and they’d already wasted time doing it once. They like giving themselves options. Speaking from experience, organising print schedules around these people can make me want to bang my head slowly on a desk!

The rest of us usually plan and fully intend to get things done on time but life throws things in the way which is how we can sometimes find ourselves under pressure. I absolutely hate that feeling of being behind, so I am a planner and build in buffers.

My diary is time chunked at the start of the week into client slots of 30 or 60 minutes and that works for me on the whole. But, especially when I am really busy, it can be quite relentless, and I know that too much of it can send me a bit nuts, so I keep Fridays deliberately “unchunked”. Fridays, I have a day where I can just faff along a little and indulge my need for some freedom at work, catch up on any bits I’ve missed or potter out with the dogs at my leisure rather than at the dictates of my, admittedly self-imposed, schedule.

Most people also have a sense of when they are most productive. Daniel Pink’s book, When: The Scientific secrets of Perfect Timing takes us beyond the normal “morning person” and “night owl” and shows us that actually there are various times in the day which are better for different types of work. Quite possibly, you know that there are certain times of day that are better than others for specific tasks for you. I know I definitely don’t want to be tackling anything tricky late afternoon as I’m not at my most alert. If I can, I use that time for meetings as being sociable energises me.  I also know that if I have something really meaty to do, I am best to get that done first thing. But I do know that evenings are not a bad time for me to write even though I am very much not a night owl.

If you know which of these working styles feels most like you then you can do a lot with your diary to make your working time more effective if you actively manage it rather than let things go into any gaps without considered thought.  Block time for writing or checking email or a big “No meetings” day if it helps when you’re on a call about to book in a meeting.

I would recommend having a look at what your ideal week looks like and scribbling it out on a bit of paper. Of course, the chances of it ever happening are slim but if you at least know what perfect looks like you can be making choices that work best for you when you are able to.

For many businesses, the potential for future growth is an important factor to consider on a regular basis.  We may start out as lone workers, spending every waking hour marketing, networking, dealing with day-to-day admin and business finances as well as focusing on the all-important delivery of our actual products and services to our customers, but as our businesses become more established and successful, it’s natural to look outside of ourselves if we want our businesses to continue to grow.  There really is only so much of you that you can dedicate to your business before something has to give (whether that is physically or emotionally, or in terms of the quality of the service that you are able to provide).

Taking on an employed member of staff is a huge step for any business owner, though is often considered a natural progression for any business.  As well as the office space, furniture and hardware/software costs associated with an additional member of staff, there is the hourly rate, holiday entitlement, PAYE and pension costs that need to be factored into your cashflow and financial projections before you commit to covering another person’s living expenses.  There is an alternative though – welcome to the age of the freelance workforce! Talented, experienced and professional self-employed small business owners who offer a broad range of remote business support services are a growing community with the ability to support the entrepreneurs of Britain (and beyond!) in a flexible and cost-effective way, freeing up valuable working hours for SMEs to dedicate to the task of bringing in new and repeat business.

An experienced business support professional should feel as though they are a part of your business.  They are helping you to work towards the continued success, growth and development of your business.  Even if they are only providing a few hours of support per week, you will find that the way you and your customers think of your business changes when you take on a freelance team member.  You have moved from ‘I’ to ‘we’ – from a single person to a small team - and for some customers, this simple shift can provide a bit of a comfort blanket of support; the continued provision of the product and service that you offer is no longer just down to you.  If you are on holiday or extremely busy at work with large and time-consuming projects, or are unexpectedly unwell, there will still be someone available who can potentially deal with enquiries on your behalf.  Admittedly, there may be some customers who are used to your incredibly high standard of work and support who are reluctant to trust an unknown entity when they have a proven and trusted resource in you, but if you can ensure that your new team member (whether employed or freelance) has the appropriate knowledge, experience and skills to maintain your record of top-quality work, that should be enough to appease most customers!

So what should you look out for in a freelancer to ensure that they really are the best fit for your business? It’s so important to look out for someone who really takes the time to try and understand your business.  You want to work with people who share your attitudes and values, and understand where you want to be in 3 to 5 years’ time; A freelance team member doesn’t have to be a short-term solution before you take on an employee – you can easily build long-term professional alliances with freelancers without the financial overheads associated with permanent members of staff, allowing you to grow your business on your own terms.

22nd October, 2018

I’ve turned up at a few networking meetings lately with a spare brain. Well, not an actual spare brain but a visual representation. It really is astounding what you can buy on Amazon.

The reason for this is that I was trying to describe a role I play for a number of clients – either officially or unofficially.

We have all been there – we have too much on and it’s not only the physical written list of tasks undone (which may or may not reflect reality as sometimes you’re so busy you can’t even keep up with that) it is the brain which has so many balls spinning it’s like being in a snow globe. And it’s all down to you – the client stuff, the legal stuff, the money stuff. All you. And, when there are too many balls for any one human to contend with, it isn’t long before one gets dropped. Maybe two. Then time is wasted fixing whatever went wrong and you’re even further behind. It’s not much fun. It is time, you think, to get a Virtual Assistant and get some of these balls delegated.

Typically, people think of Virtual Assistants as doers. People to pass tasks on to in order to get stuff done. And we certainly can do that and do it very well. But that all takes you time to decide what needs doing, delegate it efficiently and then quite often do something with whatever gets sent back. It might clear a few items off the to-do list but does it free up any of your brain space or is your ball just suspended for a short time?

Working on an ongoing basis with a skilled and experienced VA is like having an extra brain. If you let your VA be an integral part of your business, share your tasks and goals they can be much more than a doer of tasks. They can, in fact, make you a better business owner.

Using a VA in this way means you might hear some of the following:

  • Do you want me to chase up that meeting you emailed about?
  • You’re off to Sheffield in a few weeks, want me to sort you some train bookings before the price goes up?
  • OK, you’ve just said yes to that new bit of work. Don’t forget you need to allow at least a day to prep that workshop, is it all going to fit? Do you need me to reschedule anything non-urgent to clear you some writing time?
  • Hello! Happy newsletter day! Do you have any text for me?

And so forth. Think of it as warm and positive nagging if you will! But thinking ahead for you based on your diary and your workload, or, if you want it, even your personal life. As a PA, I used to be described as the office mum and I’d be discreetly making sure none of my charges forgot mother’s day or to book a table in the first week of January for valentines night.

And we all know that at the bottom of the list are the internal jobs, the ones that no clients are shouting for. A VA can make you accountable to your own self-imposed deadlines and as we’re usually a pretty organised bunch, we love helping people get more productive so if we can automate things or make them quicker we will.

As a partner in your business, we can be so much more than just a task monkey. We get to understand you and your work more, we get better at helping you, make you more efficient and give you more time for the stuff you do amazingly that no one else can.

Lastly, we are also people! Albeit virtual people. And as partners, we come to care about our clients and their successes. I know that I am with the right client when they call me to tell me that X went amazingly or that they won Y bit of new business. They don’t need me to action anything, they just want to tell me because they know I’ll want to know because I am on their team.

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