When you think of what a personal assistant does, you probably picture tasks: making coffee, picking up dry cleaning, learning how to sync the boss’s new iPhone to his BMW when you have no real experience with either. (OK, so I’m still incredibly proud of pulling off that one.)
But after a decade of personal assisting, I can tell you that everything a good assistant does can be summed up in one simple philosophy: Keep things running smoothly, and make everyone’s lives easier.
It’s a philosophy, a game plan, more than a particular skill set. Anyone can learn to be a kick-ass personal assistant with the right strategies. And here’s the great news for you: anyone can apply these strategies to their own lives to enjoy the less chaotic, more manageable existence that a good personal assistant brings you. No salary payments required.
How to Be Your Own Personal Assistant
Systems are your best friend
Processing your mail, paying your bills, doing chores — You name it, a system can make it infinitely easier.
To really stick, your systems should be easy and intuitive. My “mail processing” area is my kitchen counter, where I naturally put the mail anyway when it comes in. It includes a sorter for arranging bills in order of due date (which I then pay according to my billing system), a trash can for junk mail, and a spot for things that need to be filed away (which I file every night).
It may take a little time to set up initially, but a good system becomes second nature after a while. Suddenly tasks that used to be huge time sucks — or never got done at all — almost seem to take care of themselves.
Write everything down
I mean everything. Life is hectic and has a zillion moving parts, which means it’s incredibly easy to forget anything at any time. Do this regardless of how smart you are.
If your doctor’s office gives you one of those little lose-able cards with your next appointment on it, write the date on your calendar the instant you get home. If you think of a brilliant idea for your side project in the middle of a meeting, do not listen to that little voice in your head saying, “There’s no way you’ll forget that, it’s way too important.” Write. It. Down. Calendars, Post It notes and portable notebooks are your second best friends.
Have a place for everything — and make sure it stays there. Keep like items together. Organize them in a way that makes sense to you. And at the end of each day, take 10-15 minutes to pick up anything that’s strayed from its home and put it back where it belongs (a fantastic tip I got from Gretchen Rubin’s book The Happiness Project). A little bit of maintenance every day prevents chaos down the road.
Touch everything only once
Mind out of the gutters, you! In the assistant world, this refers to paperwork — you open a letter, you process that letter, you file that letter away. Nothing lingers forever in an inbox. Nothing gets put on a to-do pile that never gets to-done. See it, deal with it and get it off your desk.
Life-wise, this applies to all kinds of things. Sort your mail when it comes in and take whatever action needs to be taken, right then. Put your groceries away the instant you get home. Fold your laundry as soon as it comes out of the dryer. Another great trip from Gretchen: If something takes less than a minute to do, just do it, then and there. Putting things off only makes them more frustrating and, ultimately, time-consuming.
Stay one step ahead
Set reminders for yourself a week before important deadlines so they don’t creep up on you. Shop for a present when you get that party invite, rather than waiting till the day of the get-together. Start setting aside the clothes you’ll need for an upcoming trip a week in advance, so you don’t realize on packing day that half of what you wanted to bring is waiting to be washed.
Anticipate shortcomings. A good assistant knows her boss never checks his inbox on Friday afternoons, so if an urgent fax comes in, she walks into his office and hands it to him. Similarly, I know I always forget things when I’m rushing out the door in the morning, so if I’m the one bringing in Mary Anne’s birthday cake tomorrow, I make sure to put a nice big Post It that screams “CAKE!!!” right on top of my purse tonight.
Nobody is perfect. A good assistant sees the weak spots and sets up ways to safeguard against them.
Being your own personal assistant is all about making things easier for yourself. By developing systems, looking ahead and staying organized, you can take control of the flurry of demands and responsibilities that come at you every day. You can deal with them in a manner that’s less stressful, more efficient and much, much more pleasant.
You’ll still have to get your own coffee, though. (Sorry.)
Kelly Gurnett, a.k.a. “Cordelia,” runs the blog Cordelia Calls It Quits, where she documents her attempts to rid her life of the things that don’t matter and focus more on the things that do. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.