At AssistU, we curate content into a weekly brief that’s delivered to our folks each Monday morning. Yesterday, we shared some of our best “2016” lists. You’ve seen them—the 25 best business books for 2016, the 19 top iPhone apps for 2016, 465 things to get rid of in 2016—those sorts of lists.
Shortly after we delivered the brief, one of the VAs forwarded it to me and asked why she’d never seen such a list come from me for VAs. I sat back in my chair to consider that—and had to admit I wasn’t sure. 24 hours later, the best I have is that I think that with all the other yearly lists, it never occurred to me to add another voice to the well-meaning, but entirely-noisy space.
At her urging, though, I decided to take on the challenge in miniature fashion since I could likely talk about this all day long, and I give you—for better or worse—seven (my lucky number!) of the most important things a VA can do to improve her productivity in 2016!
But first, if you’re new to me, you need to understand how I see productivity. Being productive is getting the stuff done that needs to be done, so that you can walk away and have a good time in your life. Being productive is not about getting stuff done faster so you can cram more stuff in that needs to get done. It’s not about how to run faster on a gerbil wheel of your own making.
Also, I think productivity is built on a foundation of general well-being. Critical are things like getting sufficient good sleep, eating healthy foods and drinking a lot of water, moving your body regularly, taking regular work breaks—both during each day, and longer vacation breaks, and having love and laughter in your life; a puppy or kitten wouldn’t hurt, either. ;)
If that resonates with you, read on, by all means!
1. Before anything else, create standards around your work hours
The goal is to work enough to fill your work hours, not find enough hours in which to do the work people want to have done.
So, if you want a life that’s not mainly or mostly about getting work done (please, want that life desperately!) you need to create regular work hours. In my view, the sanest way to do that (barring infants and toddlers in the house whose schedules run the show) is to have them be in a single block—like “real” businesses have hours. I don’t care what days you work, or what the time block is on those days. But in my experience, a block of time tells you where you’re supposed to be, allows you to settle into a routine (for yourself and with clients), and lets you know, easily, where your focus is supposed to be, and when. It also tells you when you’re available, and how much work you can get done. It brings greater ease to your days, peace to your work, and mostly, it brings sanity.
And lets face it, you cannot claim to be an administrative/operational super-star if you’re all over the place with your time.
Them there’s the basics ;)
Now, because you own this business, you can do whatever you want. And if your long-lost cousin Pete calls you up, says he’s coming to town but only has two hours before he needs to head off for Poughkeepsie, of *course* you move things around so you can spend the time with him, assuming you can. If you can’t—because there are deadlines that cannot be moved an inch, you have to say no (see #7).
But assuming you can say yes, say yes, take two hours to have fun with Pete, and then work a couple of hours that evening, or during the weekend, or one extra hour tomorrow and another extra the day after that. Whatever you need to do you can do it.
As a regular thing, though, it’s far easier, and gives you more focus and productivity if you have regular hours you work.
2. Rules and routines are freeing; make some
I’ve learned that there’s immense freedom in rules and routines. There’s goodness in actually having office hours. There’s freedom in standardizing what you do. Doing the same thing over and over prevents a very real thing called “decision fatigue.” When you standardize, there’s more of you available to your business each day in higher-braining sorts of ways. In the ways of your specific brilliance. In ways that really matter. Routine is good. Steve Jobs wore the same thing every single day to help him have more of himself available for things far more important than what he’d wear. Every routine that you create for yourself and follow helps your productivity.
And besides that, it helps you look like a grown up and helps clients believe that you know what you’re doing and can help them with the same. Why would anyone want to work with you if you seem to be all over the place?
3. Schedule everything and then be fiercely committed to protecting your schedule
Any organizer worth her salt will tell you that you need to put things in one place and one place only. When it comes to managing your time and being more productive, the ONLY way to do that efficiently and effectively is by using a tool that addresses time and dates—that’s a calendar.
You cannot manage your time as a list of to-dos. You cannot manage your time with some things on your calendar, and some things on a paper list. You cannot manage your time with some things on a calendar and everything else in a productivity app. All of that stuff—it’s ineffective and inefficient, and that’s patently unproductive.
A calendar. That’s it. It’s simple, elegant, available anywhere you are, and will never, ever, ever fail you if you don’t fail it. It’s freedom in one small package.
Each thing you need to do (including breaks in your work) gets added to the calendar with an appropriate amount of time to do it. This keeps you from overcommitting, from underdelivering, from working long into the night to get everything crossed off the list (if you know your day ends at 6p, you’ll never put anything on your calendar that would take you past that time, when you’re protective of your work hours).
Have notes about whatever you’ve scheduled? Put it in the notes section of the entry. Feel the need to check things off? Amend the calendar entry with a big, ole, fat and bold DONE when it’s complete. Whatever you can do manually, you can recreate on your calendar. If you can’t, the problem is the calendar you’re using—get a better one.
4. Single-task or duo-task, never multi-task
Single tasking is focusing on one thing at a time. This should be the gold-standard of work.
Duo-tasking is handling two things at once—but they don’t need active brain space or concentration (like printing a document, and while it’s printing, sending an email)
Multi-tasking is bat-shit crazy.
You cannot split your brain into multiple directions and expect to do any of it well, or at your full capacity. The world needs your brilliance and full capacity.
Does this mean you’ll get less done? Yes; but what you get done will be better. And realistic. And non-gerbil wheel-ish. That’s ultimately more productive.
5. Release your death-grip on your email
Nothing makes you feel better than having an empty inbox. Nothing. This, alone, will make you feel like a productivity god.
And I believe in inbox zero. I live it, so I know it’s possible.
But the thing about email that slows you down and gums up the gears isn’t how many things you have in your inbox, or the number of things you haven’t yet gotten to, it’s the way you insist on controlling your email.
Most people think of email as an extended filing system. Maybe each client has a folder (or label). Maybe every project for every client has one, too. Maybe your work has its own folder structure (do, think about, waiting for reply, etc). The problem is that email isn’t meant to be, or have, a filing system. It’s meant to send and receive messages.
Endless organizing takes precious time, and it’s wasteful. In the time it takes you to put an email in a folder (or label), I’ve done two more emails. Know why? I don’t organize anything. I just dump it all into one huge archive, and I’ve learned how to search my archive effectively when I need to find something (HT to Gina Trapani for that one—it’s made a huge difference in my productivity).
“But Anastacia… I find it easier to look for something inside a folder than in a big archive!”
I call bullshit on that one. Here’s why: after about the first week of using any folder or label, you’ll generally have enough email in there that you’ll still have to search it to find something. The longer you file stuff there, the more stuff there is, and the more you have to search through to find what you need. In effect, each folder or label becomes its own big-ass archive at some point.
When you have one single archive, you quickly search it. You don’t have to stop to ask yourself where you put something, or what tag or label you used. You just search.
On the other hand, when you have to search within a file/label, you have to first find that space, then search. That extra step, the extra thinking about which folder/label, the extra mouse clicks—all a waste of time. Give up the death-grip on organizing email.
And then, find great tools that help you do things faster/easier. I’m a Gmail user. And there are all kinds of tools I use to make emailing easier and faster (another reason I live inbox zero). You should find tools that improve your email handling for whatever you use, and if they don’t exist, you need a different way of doing email.
Some of my favs: Boomerang for Gmail so that I can send things when I want to, and have things returned to my inbox—with notes about why—when I want to. And a bunch of Gmail tools and Labs: Auto-Advance (automatically opens the next thing in my inbox when I’ve handled the thing before it; Canned Responses (custom templated answers for things I say to people over and over), the Send & Archive button (dumps the thing I’m replying to into the archive automagically after it sends the email), and Undo Send (allows me to pull a sent email back for a prescribed amount of time if I’ve realized I’ve made a mistake), and I’ve learned how to effectively and efficiently search that archive for what I need.
Just yesterday, I needed an email that had an attached image that I knew had to have been sent to me somewhere in the early part of 2008. I found it in about 10 seconds because the search I did was able to be so specific.
6. Get off Facebook
I can’t tell you how many of my clients repeatedly tell me how little time they have available. Exploring that, it turns out that Facebook is a HUGE time suck for them, and there’s no reason for it to be.
I get the lure that is the almighty Facebook machine. I really do. Cat videos, what your bestie is up to, people making fun of the Kardashians, it’s all just so enthralling. But during business hours, you have no business there.
“But Anastacia… I manage a page, group, etc., for a client and I have to be there!” No; you don’t. There are plenty of tools that allow you to do whatever you need to do without accessing Facebook itself. So find the ones that work best for you, and use them so you can avoid all the parts of Facebook you have to navigate around to get to the thing you manage.
“But Anastacia…I belong to groups that help me with my business and I have to be there throughout the day to be in the conversations!” No; you don’t. You can check in in the morning, or just before you finish your work day. And you certainly don’t have to access your groups using Facebook. You can use the Groups app, for instance, and, once again, bypass all the stuff that pulls your attention and flings you down dark, dank holes of lost productivity.
While we’re at it, get rid of 75% of your “friends.” They aren’t, and their lives only add drama to yours. Drama is a time suck, which kills productivity.
And if you really want to go all out, delete your business page. For most VA businesses, they are a complete and utter waste of time, energy, and heart.
7. Grow the heck up and control yourself
This is partly about your smartphone. And partly about your IM/text app. And partly about your Facebook or Pinterest obsession. And partly about whatever-program you have throwing up desktop notifications to interrupt you. And partly about your sister who calls you five time each day to talk about her life.
Really, it’s about whatever you allow to get between you and your focus. As a grown up running a business, you need to say “no” to things that don’t actually contribute to your productivity during your work day.
Self-control is an extremely important business tool. There’s nothing about life that you should not be able to ignore for hours (or longer!) so you can get your work done. You are not Pavlov’s dog, although you may bear an uncanny resemblance at times. So stop jumping every time someone or something makes a noise in your direction.
Believe in your soul that your tech exists at your whim, not the other way around. Make things silent or put them away. Put boundaries around who gets your attention during the day, how, and when. Grow up, control yourself, and run your business like a business.
There is no magic pill to create great productivity in your VA practice. And what works for one of you may not work for anyone else. If I had to pick only one of these for every single person to focus on, it would be around growing up and controlling yourself.
Without focus, productivity can’t exist. So nail that one first (even though I added it last!). The others on this list are there, truly, to support that one.
What else do you have on your own personal list of ways to be more productive? I’d love to hear about it!!