The life of an EA is, essentially, one big puzzle broken into its thousands of tiny pieces. You do what you can to separate the pieces by color or by type, and you find a place to start. Maybe you build the edges first and work inward, or maybe you find one central image and build out. Either way, as you begin to fit the puzzle pieces together, you begin to make sense of the big picture assignment.
At the beginning, it can seem incredibly daunting to complete everything that is asked of you. It’s like standing at the bottom of a mountain and looking up, but with each tiny success, you build your big picture strategy. With each strategy, your arsenal of skills grows exponentially.
Over time you will develop your own process and strategy for making the climb, but it is always helpful to get some advice from those who have been in your shoes and survived. Here is a look at what has worked for me, what hasn’t and what I hope the EA landscape holds in the future.
The art of organization – it’s such a lovely topic. Whether it was color coded highlighters and tabs during middle school, meticulously handwritten notes in high school, or walk-in closets organized by item and color in adult life; it appears that hyper-attentive attention to detail is in my DNA. Even still, sometimes I face chaos feeling completely unprepared to tackle it, so I can definitely relate to the anxiety a new assistant might experience when developing his or her first organizational strategy.
When faced with these situations, I try to find one task in the many that I thoroughly enjoy organizing. Completing that one task gives way to another which gives way to another, and before I know it, I’m either knee deep in working through the chaos – or better yet, close to the finish line.
Completing that first step also distinguishes a successful organizational framework for the rest of the project. Chances are that if you enjoyed completing that first task, the organizational system you built is capable of sustaining you through the next task.
Tips for Staying Organized
- Choose colors that call to you when delineating between groups.
- Create systems that inspire you and light that creative spark upon which your assisting talent thrives.
- Find ways to turn chores into games.
Personally, when working for my favorite bosses, I found that indications of their happiness inspired me to be more efficient and more thorough in the completion of a task. I used that motivation to continually improve and out-do my personal bests.
The one caution flag I would wave is that an Assistant be mindful that their method also makes sense to their Manager. There’s no point in organizing something if the person you are organizing it for gets lost in understanding the process. Remember that we are looking for harmony, happiness and horse sense!
I am a very tactile person, so I am a big advocate of committing my tasks to a to-do list. I have a sort of photographic memory in the sense that once my hand commits a task to writing, my mind remembers what my hand wrote. Weird, I know, but it works for me and that is the most important factor when tackling your workflow.
There are two rules for creating a successful workflow:
- The system works for you.
- Your Manager can organically understand your system.
Beyond a to-do list, I make sure to keep detailed notes as to my progress for each task.
I used to carry around a spiral notebook with my to-do list written on one page and the progress of each task with all associated details on the pages that followed. That way, if my Manager needed to know something immediately, I always had the most up to date information in one place and if I was going on vacation or delegating a task to someone else, I could hand over all the information from the beginning to the present.
Today, we have programs like Evernote and Google Drive that allow shared access to a digital notebook. It might not be as simple as having a concise progress report on each individual task, but if kept up to date, both programs can house all the relevant pieces to a task’s puzzle.
As many of you already know, workflow is a subjective word in our industry. We plan for the expected and minimize the unexpected, but the frustration with the unexpected is that even when it’s expected – it’s still unexpected. In the moments when the unexpected arises, EAs do best when they roll with it. Like I said before, your job is expert juggler. Your success hinges on flexibility.
Flexibility requires mastering the art of multitasking, delegating and expecting to work the extra hours when the unexpected comes calling unexpectedly.
What Works for Me
I LOVE my planner. It’s large (8.5” x 11”), and much like a trapper-keeper – it makes me look very nerdy. I get a lot of weird looks and jokes when I start working for someone new. “Let me grab my planner” often leads to quips about me being a grandma or Zack Morris. I’m OK with that because if you asked me how often I miss deadlines, I’d say almost never (here’s why: http://www.vox.com/2014/6/4/
Carrying around an old-fashioned planner doesn’t mean that I exclude online calendars or boycott technology. It’s quite the opposite. The planner integrates my tactile way of successfully processing information while affording me the ability to double check schedules and ensure I’m keeping up with all the work. If I’ve scheduled something in my planner and it doesn’t show up on my online calendar, I force myself to double check the item scheduled.
It’s no surprise that, by the end of my employment, most of my Managers end up using planners as well.
Tools that Miss the Mark
There are so many productivity tools out there, and in my experience, none of them live up to their hype. In their attempts to reinvent the wheel, they’ve also segregated each and every task down to its own automated solution. Try integrating all those solutions into your life. Add to it their misunderstanding of the true authority held by the EA position, and that which is intended to provide clarity only fosters chaos.
People thrive when they’re given the tools and the ability to successfully use those tools to follow through. Segregated task management doesn’t allow for life management, and there’s data to back that up.
According to ESRI, 1,695,000 US households “are well connected: own the latest devices and understand how to use them efficiently; biggest complaints—too many devices and too many intrusions on personal time.”*
That’s a lot of households. What’s worse is that over 600,000 of that 1,695,000 are successful MANAGERS.
Take that a step beyond isolated task management and you’ll see how high-level people thrive in life management. Highly effective people are successful because they built something methodically and diligently without compromising their flexibility.
I think the best way to understand what I’m describing is to take a look at Sunrise Calendar (https://calendar.sunrise.am/). Sunrise incorporates the traditional look and feel of scheduling on a calendar – making it user friendly to a broad number of people. It also integrates with just about every single scheduling program – making it highly customizable as well. With Sunrise, a user is able to schedule an event with someone even if the two parties don’t use the same calendar programming.
Sheer brilliance is achieved when a program can achieve broad market saturation while meeting user-specific needs.
Resources for the Future
The future of Assisting is a bright, open playing field, so I hope for two things:
First, it is my hope that more people embrace the assistant career path and understand that it can open more doors to success than law school and med school combined. There are MANY high-level people in need of EAs and as an EA, you have a MUCH better chance at climbing the ladder when you put in the time early and a high-level advocate helps open the doors.
And second, that the tech industry spend some time in the Manager-EA dynamic to fully embrace the roles of each party. Despite popular belief, an excellent EA often calls most of the shots so his or her Manager can spend their time efficiently and effectively. After all, that is what the Manager hired the EA to do.
Staying organized is the most important part of being an Executive Assistant. Once you fall behind and lose track of tasks, it becomes nearly impossible to get everything done and brace yourself for the inevitable unexpected issues. As EAs we are constantly putting out fires. It is imperative that we have the right tools in our arsenal to keep ourselves and our Managers from getting burned.
What are your favorite tools?
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