When In the Shed Secretarial opened its virtual doors 18 years ago, I was bombarded with advice on time management and how to be more efficient and productive.
Very quickly, I tried (and mostly discarded) every tip in the book, thinking them all more bother than they were worth.
Why was that? What was I doing wrong?
It turns out that productivity tips are like shoes – you have to try on an awful lot before you find the perfect fit.
Here are a few of my old favourites, the old comfortable ones that get me through the day.
- Location, location, location. If you’re having problems with a piece of work, try (if possible) working in a different office, in the library, in the coffee shop; just somewhere away from your usual desk. It’s amazing how much easier it suddenly becomes.
- Take short breaks. Sounds counter-productive, but remember to take regular breaks throughout the day. Stop every 60 – 90 mins to make a cuppa, tidy your office, do something different for 5 – 10 minutes before sitting back down. Even that short break will help clear your mind so you can come back to your task, ready to start again.
- Take longer breaks. At some point in the day, make sure you take a longer break. Go for a walk, sit in the garden, read a book. Sitting at your desk for hours, staring at a computer screen can make you feel sluggish and cause dry, tired eyes.
- Do one thing at a time. Focus on the task in hand. If you’re interrupted – a phone call or email from a client – write down what needs to be done, and then return to the original task. Very few things are so urgent that they need to be done NOW, especially if they arrive by email!
- Take a few minutes to tidy up your desk. You’ll be surprised at how easily clutter can distract the brain and drain your focus. A quick tidy up before you go to lunch or finish up for the day can work wonders.
- Simplify any routine tasks. Any regular admin tasks can be simplified or automated. Set up quick and easy systems for sending out standard letters or responding to frequent requests for information. If you use Microsoft Outlook, investigate some of the advanced features. You can create rules to deal with your incoming messages automatically, diverting into subfolders, sending out regular replies, and categorising by colour (client, action required, info only, etc).
- Make it easy on yourself #1. Whatever system you use, make sure you can work with it. If it’s clunky or takes too much time, it isn’t simplifying your work, it’s adding to it. You may have a great way of organising your expenses but if it’s too complicated, you just won’t use it. By the time you need to send the info to your accountant, you’ll have a huge backlog of receipts to sort out.
- Noises off. If you work in a busy office or a noisy environment, plug in your headphones and search out a noise-reduction website such as net. Choose from a range of natural sounds, tonal drones, relaxing voices (Gregorian chant, chapel voices), or soundscapes. You can then use the sliders and alter the frequency to block out the different types of noise around you.
- Noises on. Working on your own can be a lonely business, and many of us like to have the radio on for at least part of the day. If you to listen to music or talk radio, try a classical or a jazz station instead. Listening to your favourite music while you work means that your brain needs to work harder to focus on the task in hand. It knows what’s coming next – and you want to sing along! Music without words (such as classical or jazz with its irregular tempos and rhythms) allows your brain to stop listening, relax, and focus on what you need to focus on.
- Time check. Research has shown that we are incredibly bad at estimating how long it will take us to complete a task. But we are good at predicting the time it will take someone else to do it. Whenever a client asks how long a piece of work will take, think twice before you answer (and then check with a colleague).
- Manage your To Do list. There are so many apps out there that will help you organise your To Do list. As these will sync across all your devices, it’s easy to keep your list up to date even when you’re on the move. Outlook’s Tasks function is both a To Do list and a project management tool, showing outstanding tasks and displaying the percentage of work completed – which gives you a lovely sense of achievement!
- Don’t overload your To Do list. It’s easy to overestimate the number of things you can do in working day. The 1-3-5 list is a trick I use all the time. The idea behind it is that you complete one large task, three medium-sized ones, and five small ones. It may not work every day, but it gives me something to aim for!
- Make it easy on yourself #2. You can have a fantastic system for organising your To Do list, but if it’s not simple to use and update, it’s pointless. If you’re more comfortable using a pen and paper, that’s great. I use both old and new technology at different times, depending on what I’m working on.
- Break things (down). Smaller tasks are easier to deal with. When you’re struggling with a big project (“re-write website”) and don’t know where to start, break it down into lots of little manageable tasks. Not only are these easier to tackle, but you’ll also be able to see what needs to be done first, and can set appropriate deadlines.
- Are you a morning person? Know which time of the day suits you best, and organise your day around the peaks and troughs. Morning people can jump straight into whatever needs to be done, slowing down by mid-afternoon. The rest of us (ie., me) need time and caffeine before we can so much as look at a spreadsheet.
- It only takes a minute. Small chunks of time are invaluable. Tasks such as short emails or updating spreadsheets can all be completed in 5, 10, or 15 minutes, perfect for fitting in just before lunch or finishing up for the day.
- Limit your multitasking. Multitasking has its place. But there’s a fine line between making the best use of your time and doing too many things at once.
- Organise tomorrow today. Before you leave your desk, write/update your To Do list for the following day, and gather together all the files and papers you’ll be working on. You can then start work in the morning knowing your priorities, and having everything you need close at hand.
- Have everything you need close at hand. In my case, that’s radio, mobile, notepad, an array of pens, snacks, sweets, and my insulated coffee mug.
- Have a weekend. When you’re busy, and especially if you work from home, it’s easy to end up working seven days a week. Make sure you have one work-free day, and give yourself the downtime you need.
Christine Todd, In the Shed Secretarial
I started my VA business, In the Shed Secretarial, after spotting a copy of “How to be a Freelance Secretary” in a bookshop one lunchtime. Four years of (mostly) uninteresting temp jobs had started me thinking seriously about self-employment, and that little book was the kick-start I needed.
Eighteen years later, I now specialise in working with accountants and solicitors, although my current clients also include a roofing contractor, an antique bookseller, a PA training company, and a folk music magazine …
Away from my desk, I can be spotted walking or running around the local area, training for any number of events from the London Moonwalk to the Great North Run. I’m also proud to be an Age UK Befriender, and fundraise for several charities such as Action on Elder Abuse and Contact the Elderly.