By Caroline Gowing, Co-Founder, Pink Spaghetti network of virtual assistants
If you have decided to make the leap and become a self-employed virtual assistant, your years of PA-ing will of course stand you in great stead.
Lots of the work and demands will be familiar. Your organisational skills will very much be called upon, as will your well-honed ability to research and quickly summarise your findings. Your coffee-making talents, not so much. But there will also be new challenges to face.
- How do you manage your day when you are free to set your own working hours?
- What technology should you invest in?
- And how do you prioritise when you have a number of clients all shouting at once and you are used to working for just one boss?
Here are some top tips:
Allow a 15-minute gap between scheduled tasks
Planning in this short hiatus allows for a little overrun time if absolutely needed, ensures clear cut off times for managing a client’s bill, and more importantly allows a break for you to stand up, stretch and grab a cup of tea.
The Pomodoro Technique is good for helping you keep focus. The pattern it encourages you to follow is working for 25 minutes and then taking a 5-minute break three times in a row, and then having a longer 30-minute break before starting the cycle again. Eating at your desk is horrible (grease on the keyboard, distraction, how do you charge a client if you’re half working/half eating a sandwich?) So, plan your lunch around the Pomodoro cycle.
Use IT to manage your clients and free up your brain space
With the right IT in place, you can greatly increase your capacity to achieve, and you don’t necessarily even have to fork out for it. The highly visual online list-making tool Trello is recommended for managing projects. Completely free to use, and very intuitive to learn, it will supercharge your day.
Clickup claims to be the one app to replace all the others. You can choose which features are important to you and remove the others, so they don’t clutter up your screen. There is a subscription version for a few pounds a month, but you can manage with the free account.
Todoist is another really good online to-do list, rating 4.7 stars on Google Play. Again, the free version is more than good enough – even the very busiest – agree.
Eat The Frog
“If it’s your job to eat a frog, it’s best to do it first thing in the morning” is a metaphor for tackling the most challenging task of your day first. Often attributed to Mark Twain, the saying really picked up traction when it became the title of a 2001 bestseller by Brian Tracy.
It’s a motto to live and work by; it resonates, because we all have tasks that we hate and are prone to avoiding. If you eat the frog as your first task of the day, it clears your head and puts a spring in your step. It’s done! It’s uphill all the way from now on.
Get your priorities right
Use clear prioritising so you can work through tasks in deadline order, regardless of which client they are for. Work with weekly overviews and daily task and priority lists. Then when new work comes in, or work takes longer than expected, you know very clearly what can move and what cannot. Block time out: start with the priorities, perhaps daily tasks for a client. Clear them and then start with the higher priority one-off tasks.
The power of a template
Creating templates for clients saves time, especially for repetitive items. Documents you could create templates for include invoices, quotes, presentations and a multi-purpose document with the customer’s branding on the header and footer. When helping clients out with online customer service, email templates can be used in response to the most frequently asked questions.
The sand and the pebbles
Another good metaphor is about putting sand and pebbles in a jar. If you put the sand in first – that is the small tasks – then there will be no room for the pebbles. But if you start with the pebbles ie the big important stuff, then the smaller grains of sand will fit in around them. It’s a very visual analogy that stays with you, and is an additional tool to address tendencies to procrastinate.
Make sure you have a central and secure place for client records, to include everything from timesheets and passwords to notes on their style, their voice, their contact details and information you need when working on the customer tasks. Simple good filing saves a lot of time and makes the switch between clients seamless.
It’s all in the timing
Missed minutes are missed earnings. Don’t guess, time it! An associate was convinced that she didn’t need to time herself during her first year of self-employment. When a colleague finally convinced her in year two that she needed to start, she realised that she had underestimated how long she spent on each client by 100 percent. So, she doubled her earnings in year two simply by improving her timekeeping. Toggl is a really useful tool. Create a separate project for each client to help you keep track.
To call or to email?
With so many potential forms of communication at our disposal, sometimes it can be tricky to choose the most appropriate. You will find that some clients don’t respond well to email, so you will need to pick up the phone if something is urgent. Calling certainly helps to build relationships, but can be time consuming.
Always use what the client wants. Are they a Zoom fan, or more comfortable with a voice call? Would they find Whatsapp messages too informal or intrusive, or is that the best way to contact them? Don’t be afraid to ask which method they prefer. However, always make sure that expectations are managed. For example, if they Whatsapp you at 9pm on a Saturday night you will not respond.
Time away from your desk is vital. Watching cat videos on YouTube does not constitute a proper break. Fresh air and exercise are so important to both physical and mental wellbeing. If you really can’t bear the idea of ‘down time’ during the working day, then listen to a work-related podcast as you walk/run. But it is equally OK to schedule in a yoga or Pilates class or personal training session and make work the last thing on your mind for that hour. Work life balance adds value to everything you do. Remember, it’s probably why you opted for self-employment in the first place.
What to wear
When Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour posted a picture of herself home-working in a striped top and red jogging bottoms, she gave the ultimate seal of approval to loungewear as workwear. But it’s very much a matter of personal preference. For some, they just couldn’t start their day without carefully styling their hair, applying make-up and selecting a perfectly-pressed outfit. There is no right answer here.
First and foremost, don’t forget that you chose to start working as a home-based virtual assistant to find better work life balance. The juggle can be challenging, but also highly rewarding. Remember, you are now the boss, so be a nice boss to yourself. Make sure you eat, make sure you move and don’t watch too many cat videos.