If anyone in the business world needs great productivity advice, it’s freelancers, and most especially VAs. The more clients you have to juggle, the more delicate the balancing act becomes. So how unfortunate it is that most productivity gurus give a lot of advice that VAs can’t possibly follow!
I mean, really – the first thing many of them tell you to do is to stop checking email throughout the day. “Check your email only twice a day, and only at specific times, or have your assistant manage your email for you.” That’s all well and good unless you ARE the VA who’s supposed to be managing a client’s email!
Over the years, I’ve spent thousands of dollars on productivity resources, apps, tricks, and tools, and found much of it just isn’t practical for VAs. But after almost 10 years of trial and error, I’ve adapted some of the best productivity advice to what works for me and my work as a VA.
Here are my top 3 productivity tips for VAs:
1. Recognize multi-tasking for what it is – a myth – and stop trying to do it.
Back in the day before VAs were a thing, there was hardly a job description for an administrative or executive assistant that didn’t include the phrase, “Must be adept at multi-tasking.” Fortunately, the productivity police are now recognizing that multi-tasking is not a good way to get more done in less time. It’s actually a good way to get less done in more time. Multi-tasking is a recipe for unnecessary stress, more errors, and dramatically lower productivity.
Have you ever noticed, especially if you’re working on an aging computer, how the fan speeds up and begins to whine when you get too many programs running at once? Everything starts to slow down, and it takes your machine longer to respond to the commands you give it. So, you try to close something, but you get the dreaded “not responding” message at the top of your screen. Your whole computer is frozen up.
Your brain does that, too. And just like your computer, every process your brain is running slows down and takes longer to respond, not just the one you’re currently working on. To be a good VA, multi-tasking is not the skill you need. What you have to get good at is focusing on one thing and efficiently switching from one task to the next. That leads me to my next tip.
2. Take regular breaks, even if you don’t think you need them yet.
This may seem counter-intuitive. If you’ve been working for an hour and you feel like you can keep going for a bit, shouldn’t you? After all, the longer you work, the more you can get done, right?
One of my core values is, “Do the right thing.” That means if I make a stupid mistake, I have to make it right. When I was charging by the hour for my services, that meant losing money because if I made a mistake, I would not charge my client for the time it took to fix it. I had to write off mistake-fixing time on quite a few occasions. Every single time it happened was preceded by a moment when I knew I should take a quick break, but I thought, “Just let me get to one… more… thing…”
To keep fresh, you need to clear your brain like you would clear a calculator, and do it often. That means getting up from your desk, without taking your cell phone with you, for at least five minutes at least once an hour, and preferably twice. I use the Pomodoro technique, or I’ll do a 30-minute focus session on Brain.FM and take a break at the end of it.
If I leave my phone behind, I can come back in a few minutes with a clearer mind, ready to tackle another task. I also notice that when I don’t take as many breaks as I should, the day seems to drag on forever, while days when I take frequent breaks seem to go much faster. And I’m far happier with the amount and quality of work I’ve done at the end of the day.
3. Eliminate unnecessary distractions, especially those coming from your cell phone.
According to this study, stopping to check an email, text, or social media post that takes 30 seconds to read costs you a lot more than 30 seconds. It costs another 23 minutes because that’s how long it takes your brain to return to the same level of focus as its pre-interruption state. If checking your phone every couple of minutes is part of your routine, you probably get to the end of the day and feel like you’ve worked your tail off without accomplishing anywhere near the amount of work you needed to. I know I did before I decided to break my addiction to my phone.
When I sit down to work, I turn off all text and email notifications on my phone so they don’t disrupt my flow. I still get email notifications on my computer, but I don’t check them immediately. I wait until I finish what I’m working on and can check it without it being a distraction.
I have a few clients who communicate by text. I check for messages from them when I return from a break, never before one, and I’m careful to manage their expectations about when they’ll receive a reply.
There are other productivity techniques I use, but my favorite thing about the tips I’ve shared here is that these are not only the three that have produced the most dramatic results for me, but they are also the ones that have been easiest to implement. None of it required me to radically change my schedule or deeply-ingrained habits. Just a few simple changes can make a huge difference in how much you accomplish and how you feel about yourself and your work.
Rachael Hodo is the Founder of ProAdmin Solutions, LLC, a VA firm that specializes in general administration, content marketing, and association management services. Rachael and her team work by referral only. You can reach her on LinkedIn at linkedin.com/in/rachaelhodo.
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