Personally Virtual Blog

22nd November, 2018

So… how is your Christmas planning going? From my experience, people tend to fall into one of two camps; firstly, we’ve got the people who tend to have finished their Christmas shopping (and wrapping) by early summer, and have their Christmas tree, colour coordinated decorations, and tangle free lights ready to ‘deck the halls’ on December 1st.  And then we’ve got the ‘last minute-rs’, adamant that they’ll be able to pick up their hastily written present list amidst the madness and panic of Christmas eve shoppers, and end up wrestling for a goose or partridge (no turkeys left!) with a fellow shopper in the hauntingly empty poultry aisle in Aldi.

If you fall into the latter category, do not fear – all is not lost! I’ve got some simple organisational tips from business that can help make Christmas a walk in the park!

1.) Treat Christmas like a project: When you’ve got a big upcoming project at work that you are in charge of, do you leave everything until the very last minute? For the majority of successful entrepreneurs and business owners, this just isn’t feasible (primarily for their own sanity!).  With business related projects, most project managers map out the lifetime and development of project, setting deadlines so that important jobs can be completed and reviewed in a timely manner.  Why not treat Christmas in the same way? You could set yourself targets for completing Christmas shopping, for writing (and posting!) cards, and for ordering and collecting your Christmas food.  Just don’t beat yourself up too much if you don’t stick to deadlines in a way that is quite as regimented as you might for your business – if your shopping and/or wrapping aren’t completed by your set due dates, it isn’t the end of the world!

2.) Create a gift list online using a tool like Trello or a simple spreadsheet. If you are collecting gift related bits and pieces throughout the year as you see them in the shops or online, it’s all too easy to lose them ‘in a safe place’ or end up with three different gifts for the same close friend and nothing for the family member who is notoriously difficult to buy for! If you are contemplating re-gifting items that you have previously received but have spent the last 12 months unopened and gathering dust, it’s always nice to have a note somewhere of who originally gifted you that item too… there’s nothing that says ‘Merry Christmas’ quite like the return of a gift that you have clearly not enjoyed a year later – unless the recipient would find that incredibly amusing! Making a list of the people you need to buy for and the gifts that you have collected can help you to keep track of spending and present allocation this festive season. 

3.) Hate shopping? Outsource it to the lovely people at Tesco/Asda/Ocado** (**Delete as applicable) and get them to do it for you, so you don’t even have to step foot in the madness of a supermarket in the week before Christmas.  Late December timeslots for delivery are notoriously hard to get hold of last minute, so book it now and fill your trolley with special offer gin and worry about the rest of the list a little closer to the big event!

4.) Know anyone who is lucky enough to have a birthday in December or early January? Admittedly, they are probably used to having friends and family members forget their birthday, or do a ‘two for one’ Merry Christmas and Happy Birthday gift/card, but if you’d really like to get in their good books this year why not pre-order a card and gift and ensure that it gets delivered directly to them to ensure it doesn’t get lost amidst the festive cheer in your own house.  It doesn’t matter if it’s ridiculously early – simply add a ‘Don’t open until X of December/January’ note to the package and get ordering! If the usual festive state of affairs for you is an armful of hastily grabbed miscellaneous items from a local petrol station, imaging the brownie points you’ll get from remembering a December birthday!

5.) Delegate, delegate, delegate! In your business, you probably find it relatively simple to hand the tasks you don’t enjoy to other members of your team, or to outsource them entirely – why not do the same at Christmas? You don’t need to be a martyr to the cause and insist on carrying out everything yourself, particularly if you’ve got a house full of willing volunteers over the festive period! Fuel them with mulled wine, festive music and copious snacks and you can get your friends and family members to help with anything! Christmas is a time to spend with the people you like, and when you’re enjoying yourself, even peeling vegetables and wrapping presents can be an enjoyable and festive experience.

Unlike the work that you carry out for your business, Christmas doesn’t need to be perfect.  But even if you’re never going to be an organisational ninja over the festive season, a little bit of preparation can go a long way and help contribute to a week of reduced stress – because, let’s face it, no-one in their right mind enjoys a supermarket shop on Christmas eve… *shudders at the thought*

22nd November, 2018

I’m not sure whether you’ve noticed, but it’s November. NOVEMBER! Christmas is rushing towards us at terrifying speed and 2019 is just around the corner, and the shops are packed to the rafters with… 2019 Diaries and Planners (and Christmas decorations, obviously).

As an avid stationery fan, it’s a dangerous time of year.  The promise of the crisp, clean pages of a brand new planner often proves far too tempting, and it’s difficult to refrain from buying more than one!

So why are planners so popular? There are a number of reasons why people like to use a diary or planner for their personal or professional lives – here are a few:

Productivity – Whether you run your own business or are an employee, the likelihood is that you have a multitude of tasks that you need to carry out on a daily basis to ensure that your job is carried out efficiently and effectively.  If you have a particular and specific role in your business, it can be relatively straightforward to keep track of these tasks as you fall into a daily routine, but if you run a small business, it could be that you are the marketing team, the sales team, the finance and HR departments, etc., so keeping track of the plethora of day-to-day tasks required to keep your business afloat can be a little trickier! If you find that you are missing important tasks, or just aren’t able to find time in your week for things that are lower down on your priority list (i.e. social media marketing, networking, etc.), blocking them out in your diary and building them into your weekly or monthly routine can help you to find precious minutes for these activities, and help you to achieve the variety of goals you set for your business.

Time Management – Do tasks that should take you 5 minutes take you hours to complete? Do clients call and ask you for a ‘quick job’ that in reality is anything but? Keeping track of the time you are spending on particular tasks can help to ensure that you are charging (and being paid!) an appropriate amount for the work that you carry out.  It’s okay to go above and beyond occasionally, but it’s just not cost-effective to dedicate huge swathes of time to elements of your work that provide very little in the way of financial compensation.

Organisation – constantly missing appointments? Double booking events or not leaving yourself appropriate travel time between meetings and/or events? WRITE THEM DOWN as soon as they are booked, it’s as simple as that! Whether you’re popping them into an online calendar or collating everything in a paper diary, as long as you’ve got all of your events in one place it’s much easier to stay on top of your pre-planned activities and reduce the amount of time you are running around like a lunatic from one event to another.

Stress release – struggling to sleep at night thanks to the 101 tasks circling around in your head like deranged sheep? Many planners have space for you to make lists of the tasks that you need to do, a simple process that can help make your monstrosity of a mental to-do list seem a lot more manageable! Attributing levels of priority to the tasks, as well as the amount of time you estimate each task will take and making note of any deadlines imposed (either by you or the client) can help you to re-gain control when it first appears as though work is controlling you!

Creativity – how often do you have a brilliant idea in the shower, or on the train, or in the middle of the night? Admittedly, in the cold light of day some of these ‘eureka!’ moments aren’t quite as ground-breaking as you anticipated, but collating your ideas in a central location can help you to keep track of them before they evaporate into the ether.  Even if you’re not verbalising abstract ideas, the very process of doodling or sketching in a dedicated planner or notebook can help to promote creativity and aid in relaxation too, and who wouldn’t want that?

A personal or business record – want to see how far you have come personally or professionally? Want to keep track of what you have done and the things that you have achieved? Keeping a brief diary describing what you have done each day makes it much easier to remember.  If you find it easy to forget the positive work that you are doing, keeping an account of all the things that you have achieved can help shine a light on your achievements in the darker moments of business; why not keep track of one thing (at least!) each day that you have completed and are proud of?

Planners and diaries can make an incredibly positive difference to your life, but though it’s easy to get swept away by the sheer volume of planners on the market, you don’t actually need an all-singing, all-dancing planner with separate sections (and stickers) for ‘The twenty wines to try in 2019’ and a reference section that provides a list of all of the holidays celebrated in Ancient Egypt.  A plain exercise book or simple ‘week to view’ A5 calendar can prove just as effective, particularly once you know exactly what you want to keep track of in the new year!  And if the thought of lengthy, ‘Dear Diary…’ entries leaves you feeling more like an uncomfortable teenager than a business professional, why not try keeping a bullet journal? Create daily and weekly bullet points of things that you want to achieve, things that are on your business ‘wish’ list, and things that you have completed on a daily/weekly/monthly basis.  It’s a great and simple entry point for the diary keeping novice, and there really are few things comparable to the joy felt when you can vigorously cross an activity off of your to-do list!

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.

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