I’ll never forget being asked that question in an interview. I answered, in detail, exactly how I go about planning my day. First, I plan the week, divide the tasks up amongst each day, (scheduling a certain amount of time for each), and allowing time between tasks for inevitable fires to put out.
The interviewer stared at me, as if expecting more, then finally said, “Yes, but…how do you organize your day?” I couldn’t very well say, “I just answered that question”, though it’s what I wanted to say. After a moment of silence I finally answered, “It depends on the day.” It’s the best I could think of.
I left the interview almost in tears. I’d never done so horribly before. It was clear I wouldn’t be getting this job.
A week later the Director of HR called to offer me the job. I was stunned, to say the least. The company was a reputable one, so I accepted. The man who had put me through that stressful interview would be my boss. Oh no!
It wasn’t until about a year later that my boss and I finally talked about the interview. We had formed a great relationship, and he showed that he appreciated my skills. He admitted that he too felt stressed during the interview, that it was the worst one he’d ever conducted. He’s the Director of IT and had never interviewed anyone in an administrative position; he simply didn’t know what to ask, or how to ask it.
He said he hadn’t wanted to hire me, that because of the uneasiness of the interview he just couldn’t see it working out. But the first woman who had interviewed me, the Director of Administration at the time, talked him into it. She showed him the responses from my references, and pointed out my successes in previous jobs. He told me he was very glad he had listened to her because he didn’t know what he’d do without me. I’m glad to say, after 8 years, I’m still with the company, and still working as his assistant. It’s the best job, and the best employer/employee relationship I’ve ever been in.
So, how do you organize your day? Although I’m obviously not very good at verbalizing an answer to that question, I have developed strategies over the years that work, (when I use them).
I’ve heard that it takes 21 days to make or break a habit. Apply these tips to your job and let me know how it works for you.
GET WITH THE PROGRAM
Give yourself time for breaks. I’m listing this first because it’s the most important step. Pushing ourselves to go, go, go, and never taking a moment to breathe, creates enough stress to cause us to make mistakes, in essence taking more time to do everything because we’ll just mess up and have to start all over again. Don’t just say “I’ll take a break when I get a chance.” Rather, put it on your calendar, and, no matter what you’re in the middle of, stop, get up, and walk, stretch, anything to get your blood pumping, (which will boost your brain power).
Enjoy your work. If you don’t like what you’re doing there’s no way creating a schedule is going to help you. We all have times when we’re ready to pull our hair out, but if those times are popping up continuously, it’s time to find a new job.
Time yourself. It can be overwhelming to create a schedule from scratch when you have no idea how long it takes you to do each different task. When you begin working on something, everything from filing one piece of paper to a phone conversation, set a timer; then derive an average amount of time based on one weeks statistics. The time you end up with is how long you schedule each chore.
Write it down. If you’re anything like me you’ve got 50 billion things going through your mind all at once. You feel like if you don’t stop what you’re doing right now and work on that other thing you’re thinking of, you’ll forget about it. Well, guess what. If you do stop what you’re doing, and redirect your attention elsewhere, it’ll keep happening. While you’re doing that next thing, you’ll think of something else, start working on it, and think of something else. The snowball effect has begun. Meanwhile, all those things you started are left unfinished, and you don’t even know where you were when you eventually get back around to the first thing you were working on.
This can be one of the biggest time-consumers there is, not to mention un-productive. The solution? Keep pen and paper with you at all times. When you think of something else you need to do, jot it down and forget about it. Then, when you sit down to plan your next day, or week, (see ‘Plan your planning’ below), take that list and add all those things to your calendar.
Ignore the gossips. There is nothing more frustrating to me than for someone to stop by and start prattling on about who’s getting divorced, who’s cheating on who, etc, etc. Does this person have nothing better to do?! I’m not saying we shouldn’t take time to say hello to each other, (in fact, it’s important to do that), but if we allow ourselves to be interrupted constantly, and don’t interject to tell that person we’re busy, it’ll never stop.
If you know someone who does this, there’s an easy way to stop it. It may take a few times for the ones who “don’t get it” to figure it out, but eventually they will. Here’s what you do: Tell them you appreciate them taking the time to stop by and say hello; tell them you’re in the middle of working on something you don’t want to lose track of; ask them when the best time to catch back up with them would be. Most importantly, when they say “I’ll holler at you later”, ask them specifically what time they’ll be available, then add them to your calendar, making sure they’re right behind you so they can see just how full your calendar is. If they’re one of those who don’t get it the first time, be sure you show up at their desk at exactly the time you scheduled. Take that opportunity to tell them you don’t like to talk about other people without them present. If they do start gossiping, interrupt them to tell them you’d like to call the person they’re speaking of and invite them over to join in the conversation. You will most certainly receive a shocked, even bewildered look. Voila – no more gossip!
Tickle it. It’s a fact that the administrative assistant has the most varied duties in any company. How are you supposed to keep up with all those different assignments? I’ve found that the tickler system works quite well. Basically, it’s a file folder system to store documents, (everything from an email to a maintenance contract), in the future date you need to take action on that document. Wikipedia offers a more detailed explanation: tickler file system. You should know this is not something you have to purchase. If you don’t have the money to spend, it’s easy enough to create your own tickler file using one hanging folder for the “shell”, and filling it with the number of manila folders you need for the dates, (that number depending on whether you use 31 days, 12 months, or both).
Help your co-workers. Whether you realize it or not, you do have time for this, and it can only lead to getting the help you need when you need it. [See my blog, How to get what you want].
Tell your boss what’s going on. Most employers are so busy with their own schedule they have little time, if any, to check your progress, or even know what you’re doing. They shouldn’t need to ask anyway. Be certain to give your boss regular updates on your projects: what stage you’re in, how long you expect it to take you to complete a task, what has come up since the last update that’s slowing down your progress, etc. It’s also important to take this opportunity to point out your successes, especially when they involve things your boss didn’t even know you were working on.
Hone your skills. Use every opportunity available to brush up on your expertise. Just because you made straight ‘A’s in English/grammar in school doesn’t mean everything you write ten years later will be perfect. The saying “use it or lose it” is true. Use some of that extra time you’ll gain to pick up a style guide and review a chapter or two; even add it to your calendar to ensure you don’t neglect it.
Empty your junk drawer. And then use it for all those things you thought you didn’t have room for. This is probably the most difficult challenge for me as I’m an honest-to-God packrat. There are many selections of drawer organizers available, so it should be fairly easy to find one that works for you. It sure has been a lifesaver for me.
Plan your planning. Schedule one hour at the end of each Friday to plan for the next week. I know what you’re thinking: I don’t have time to plan! You’ll be pleasantly surprised, once you get into the swing of your schedule, how much “spare” time you’ll have to use in this dynamic way.
Rotate your schedule. Just because you do your job one way for one week doesn’t mean you should do it the same way the next week. Keep yourself on your toes by rotating tasks around on different days. This will keep you from getting into a stagnant routine.
Organize everything. No matter how tempted you are to toss an invoice in your “in-box”, telling yourself you’ll deal with it later, don’t do it. Use the fifteen seconds it takes to store it in your tickler file. This way your in-box doesn’t get piled up, thus saving you the time of having to sort through it to find one thing, (which is usually on the bottom), or spend an hour trying to organize it “whenever you can find the time”.
Give yourself a reward. It’s of utmost importance that you reward yourself for a job well-done, every job. Whether you finish a project that has taken you three months to complete, or simply conclude a phone call you’d been dreading, treat yourself to whatever it is you’ve been wanting. It could be as big as half a day off work, or as small as that raspberry brownie frappuccino you’ve been dying for.
Rate your schedule. It’s hard to admit, (at least for me), but sometimes, even when you create a schedule, it doesn’t work. Don’t just throw your hands in the air and give up. Figure out why it isn’t working and fix it. Even if you feel like it is working, give yourself some time to measure your successes, and failures, every couple of weeks, (and yes, put this on your calendar too). If you’ve been spending an hour a day on the phone instead of the half hour you gave yourself, adjust your schedule accordingly. You just have to be stringent in taking time from the right places – DO NOT remove time from your breaks or your planning.
Ask for help. When you find yourself in the weeds, (and we all do from time to time), reach out to your co-workers. Ask for help. [See ‘Help your coworkers’ above].
Make time for putting out fires. No matter how perfect your schedule looks on paper, or even how well you’re following it, there will inevitably be interruptions that blow the whole thing out of reach. But, if you add “fire time” to your schedule, say 15 minutes for every 3 hours, you’ll be amazed at how easy it is to pick back up where you left off. No emergencies happening? Count yourself lucky and get started on the next chore, or add 10 minutes to your break time.
I want to know how this works for you. Post a comment, or send me an email.