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 rarely hear how you are supposed to do this.
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 unknown 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 but, to give you some context, let me explain briefly what I do. My main duties are being the PA to the Managing Director of 151 Products Ltd and the PA to the Partner in B7 Ventures Ltd. Both of these companies are owned by the same people but, at the end of the day, I’m employed by 151 (see the end of this article for a brief overview of both companies). I’m also the Office Manager (we own our building) for over 40 staff in the head office, manager to our Receptionist and, oddly enough, I’m also the Account Manager for one of top 10 accounts within the group.
As you can tell, I must be organised if I’m going to manage all the different aspects of my role. So, how do I do this? Well, here are just a couple of things that I do each day that helps me keep on top of it all. Some of this may be obvious and some people may snigger but, hopefully, someone will picked up a tip or two.
End of Day
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.
Start of Day
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 write tray and I can immediately start work as everything is in the right 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 it 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) and the bottom tray is simply ‘File’. The second set is for the MD at 151 and is only 2 layers. The top tray is everything I have to go through with him and, once I have, and I know what he wants to do, it is either moved into my ‘In’ tray to start working on/processing or it remains in his top tray to review within the next week. The bottom tray is everything he wants me to keep a hold of but that I’ll need instant access to.
For the Partner at B7 I use my trays as his is more project based so I’m working on that myself. However, if I had more ‘daily’ work I’d use another set of 2 trays for him (if you’re limited on space just make a stack of 4!)
As I and my two bosses each work for both companies we have an email address for each, so I have 6 email accounts to monitor and manage. Thankfully they both predominately only use 1 but both of my emails are used extensively for each company. I use my inboxes 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 both of my bosses, 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 the emails between both my accounts. Now you can choose any colour or font that you want but this is how I do it:
• Maroon: All emails where I am the only recipient in the ‘To’ field
• Black: All emails where I am not the only recipient in the ‘To’ field
• Blue: All emails from my boss
These are just some but, straightaway, I can clearly see any emails my boss has sent me (top priority); any emails that are just sent to me, so I know I, and 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 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 either of my bosses, 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 post-it 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 them for.
My mental whiteboard is kept clean and free.
I have 3 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 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 both my bosses are 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!
151 Products Ltd: supplies the FMCG (Fast Moving Consumer Goods) market. Providing over 2,000 product lines to the major supermarkets, high street multiples, discounters and over 750 independent retailers. The products are sold under multiple brands, whilst also providing a vast range of own label products.
B7 Ventures Ltd: specialise in acquisitions and investments within the FMCG supply chain from manufacturing and wholesale to retail and ecommerce.