Over the years I’ve heard professional trainers speak on being a top PA, I’ve heard PAs talk about how to be the best and I’ve attended many networking events where advice is offered and topics discussed. Every time, I hear the same thing, PAs must be organised! However I’ve rarely heard how you are supposed to be organised.
Telling a PA they must be organised is like telling the Pope he must believe in God. Show me a PA who isn’t organised and I’ll show you someone who isn’t a PA.
I believe one of the reasons you don’t hear details is that each PA is an individual with their own ways of working and of course, being organised. So why don’t we share how we do this? Why don’t we offer our hints, tips and ways of working? Do we fear that we may be sniggered at for saying something that others find so obvious? That’s a possibility, however I’m sure each of us do something that is so obvious to us but completely oblivious to someone else. It’s so basic surely EVERYONE must do it!
I’m going to offer some tips on how I organise my day, some of this may be obvious and some people may snigger but hopefully someone will pick up a tip or two.
It’s an odd place to start, but…
I never, and I do mean never, go home at night until my work is organised for the next day and I know exactly what I’m coming into. Each section of my desk trays (see Desk below) are organised into the order in which I need to work through them the next day. Then each section is placed into a separate hanging file in my desk drawer and locked away, for security and confidentiality.
Because I organised myself the night before, I went home and didn’t have to wonder if anything was done or I’d forgotten anything so I had a good night’s sleep and I’m ready to start my day. I take each section from my desk drawers and put them back into the right tray and I can immediately start work as everything is in the correct order…however, as we all know you can’t predict what might land on your desk or inbox but because my work is already organised it’s easy to prioritise anything new and schedule it into my day.
I have two sets of desk trays. My own has 3 tiers and is simply split with the top tray being ‘In’ (all new items that I’ve not reviewed yet); the middle tray ‘In Process’ (items that I need to come back to later on or that I’m waiting for someone to respond to) and the bottom tray is simply ‘File’.
The second set is for my boss and is only 2 layers. The top tray is everything I have to go through with them and once I have and I know what they want to do it is either moved into my ‘In’ tray to start work on/processing or it remains in their top tray to await further instructions. The bottom tray is everything they want me to keep a hold of but that I’ll need instant access to.
If you work for multiple bosses you can still use this system and either add a ‘top’ tray for each boss or use folders to separate out their individual items.
I use my inbox as my ‘to do’ list and for every email that comes in it is either dealt with and then immediately filed (I’m an email hoarder and never delete anything, let’s thank the IT department for large archive files!) or a follow up flag is attached with a specific date and time for when I need to deal with it. So if I’ve responded the flag will represent a reasonable amount of time as to when I should expect a reply and if none is received I know when to chase them. This way it’s wiped off the mental whiteboard and I don’t need to think or worry about it until my little red flag reminder pops up.
For my boss if an email is read they know I’m dealing with it and will look further up their inbox to see my reply or know that I’ll give them an update the next time we speak.
I also colour code my incoming mail (in MS Office 2013 this is in View: View Settings: Conditional Formatting. For other versions please feel free to contact me). This makes it very, very easy for me to prioritise all emails. Now you can choose any colour or font that you want but this is how I do it:
These are just some options but straight away I can clearly see any emails my boss has sent me (top priority); any emails that are just sent to me, so only I can respond (next priority); and any emails where there are multiple recipients and so it’s not ‘urgent’ that I respond and I can get to it after I’ve dealt with the others. You can add other colours or fonts for emails where you are just cc’d in or why not try Rules. I have it set up so that emails from PA groups or networks automatically go into a separate folder. I know I need to read and respond to these but they are ‘clogging’ up my work email and I can get to them when I can.
Up until the end of 2014 my ‘to do’ list was in a diary and I wrote everything down and scored it off once I’d completed it etc. However at the Office exhibition in 2014 I saw a demonstration of Tasks (within Outlook) and over a couple of months I tried moving over to Tasks and away from my handwritten notes. By the start of 2015 this was the way forward for me and I’ve not looked back.
Each email, with its follow up flag, is shown here and if my boss, or anyone else for that matter, requests something of me it’s automatically added to my Tasks with the appropriate notes and follow up time. Even if I’ve scribbled it on a sticky note or my hand, I’ll transcribe it over to Tasks.
I now have an easy ‘to do’ list which sits at the side of email screen showing me exactly what I have to do that day and when. I don’t need to worry about forgetting anything or not remembering on time as the reminder pops up for when I’ve set it for.
My mental whiteboard is kept clean and free.
I have very busy calendars that are constantly changing. I’ll be honest, I actually find this the easiest part to manage. When I’m setting meetings up I enter them into the diary as tentative, once confirmed the status is changed to busy. However if they are out of the office I ensure the status reflects this and any travel time is noted before and after the meeting. This means that at a glance I can see exactly where my boss is and more importantly if they are in the office or not. Although that’s if they have actually gone to the meeting or arrived on time, if your boss doesn’t update you and keep you informed of changes then guess what?, there’s nothing you can do. I tried injecting them with a GPS tracking chip but they point blank refused, I’m not sure why?!?!
I’ve talked about my ‘mental whiteboard’ and by this I refer to something along the lines of your short term memory. It’s all those things that are thrown at us all day long and you must remember but, eventually it will be dealt with and you can erase it. Some items need to be kept on the board for longer and others can be removed almost immediately, however if you don’t ‘wipe’ them off then your whiteboard gets cluttered and it’s hard to see what it is you actually have to do. My Tasks ‘to do’ list is my mental eraser.
So that’s a few tips on how I stay organised, keep on top of my ‘to do’ list and keep my mental whiteboard free from clutter. You may already do some of these or you may have an alternative way of doing it that’s even better but no matter the PA, we’ll always be organised!