Colour Creates Clarity

Colour Coding, Organisational Tips, Colour Code, Red Amber Green, RAG System

Colour is not just for kids. Colour can play a strong and effective role in organising your time, tasks and environment.

Red Amber Green  RAG SystemWe are socially conditioned to see some colours as meaningful. In particular, red for danger, amber for caution and green for go. This traffic light system can be used to great effect in planning and organising tasks. It’s a standardised way to indicate issues in reports and to clearly signpost progress. Often shortened to RAG (Red, Amber, Green) it can give information at a glance and is widely understood.

You can apply the traffic light approach to your desk environment and keep three trays, or files, on your desk. Coloured Red, Amber and Green you can store the information for each category in these locations and instantly see what’s urgent. A colourful variation on the old In, Pending and Out trays. The colours impart a sense of urgency that was absent from the standard issue grey plastic trays with tiny little labels.

If you need to quickly note down a task or To Do item you can use Post-Its. Stick them on the relevant folder and you have everything together in one place. You could also use coloured Post-Its to denote urgency if you find this helpful.

Time and Task Management

When in the early stages of planning a complex project, use different coloured Post-Its on a wall planner or large piece of paper pinned to the wall. You can colour code by task, by team responsibilities, primary and secondary taskings or whatever you need to simplify your plan and make it feel more manageable. The Post-Its can be moved around at will, allowing you to create a plan quickly and easily and to alter it as needed until it works effectively. You can then transfer the plan to its final format, using the colour code to make the plan simple and clear for everyone to follow.

Diary Management

Colour coding is absolutely perfect for very busy diaries. Common events can be designated a particular colour. I put my meetings in one colour if they are waiting to be confirmed but use a different colour for meetings which are confirmed.

If you have multiple clients you can use a different colour for each client.  As many of us use the diary on our phone and check it on the run, this can be hugely helpful.

Outlook provides little icons for your diary entries so you can mark them with common activities such as food, travel, meeting etc in addition to the colour options. Helpful whilst you are getting used to the new colour code system.
It can be tempting to go overboard with the colours. However, too many colours will lead to confusion over which colour means what. You are aiming for a few, easily recalled colours, not a diary that resembles an explosion in a paint factory.
In a hard copy diary you can still use a colour code system. Use a different colour pen for client work, meetings or To Do list items. Use highlighters to denote the most important task of the day, or write the top three tasks in red.

Email Management

Gmail’s star system is incredibly useful for quickly identifying emails that need a more considered response. I use a variant of the RAG system for my Gmail diary; RAY, Red, Amber, Yellow, because once it is green it belongs in a file not in the InBox so that’s exactly where it gets put.

If you tend to review emails whilst on the move you can star the ones that you can’t deal with on the move and by colour coding them you can see at a glance which ones you need to tackle first when you get back to your desk. Naturally you can use whatever colour you want to denote urgency and Gmail also provides a small range of coloured icons in the same section as the stars and some people prefer to use these.

If you share an InBox, you can agree a colour code system to allocate responsibility. The person who picks up the Email colours it “their” colour and it is clear at a glance who is handling that particular task. A universal colour for “completed” is useful in some situations but ideally completed items should be filed in one of the folders you’ve set up for the purpose so that items can be found again quickly.

I hope you find the method works well for you.  I love colour coding and use it a lot with my clients, particularly the diary element which a lot of clients find really helpful.  If’ you’d like to find out more about the range of different ways in which  I can help to streamline your workload and get that pesky admin under control, get in touch and let’s have a chat.

Holiday Planning for Small Business Owners

Holiday planning for small business owners

For the small business owner, the summer holidays can bring challenges.  It also brings with it an interesting dilemma:  do you or don’t you book a holiday. 

The sun is out and your thoughts turn to holiday planning.  You want to take the family away for a break.  You need to relax and unwind.  You are tired.  You’ve read all those articles about burnout and stress and the importance of a good work-life balance.   So, spurred on by your family, who are eager to see you for more than five minutes a day, you book the holiday.  Then the worrying starts.

How will you manage to find time to actually take the holiday.  And enjoy it without worrying when you do get there.  There is just so much still to do.

Planning ahead is the key to a relaxed and relaxing holiday.

holiday small business planning

I’ve booked my holiday

As soon as you have booked your holiday, work back from the date of your holiday and create a list of your commitments, tasks and deadlines.

Move meetings and renegotiate deadlines that fall within, or two days either side of your holiday.

Plan to meet project milestones early so that they are completed before you go on holiday and are not in the back of your mind, niggling at you, whilst you are on holiday. Or agree to move the milestones so they fall after you return from holiday if that is possible.

Let clients know about your holiday dates in plenty of time.  That way they will know when you will be unavailable.  You can discuss alternative deadlines for tasks and agree on a plan that will work for you both.

Schedule your marketing ahead of the holiday.  Write some extra blog posts or social media posts as you think of them during the year and keep them in reserve.  Bring them out and dust them off, tidy them up a little perhaps, and then schedule them to go out whilst you are sunning yourself on the beach.  This will keep your business front of mind with your clients.

Book your pet’s holidays too.  Book the pet sitter or kennels.  Arrange for a family member or neighbour to pop in to feed and check on caged animals if you aren’t sending them away on holiday to a pet care centre.

With one month to go before your Holiday

Write a list of things that still need to be done before the holiday.  Just list the things you have to complete, deadlines that must be met and the tasks that you have left to do that will impact on your paid work.  Leave the “nice to have” stuff for after your holiday.  For more information about harnessing the power of lists to plan your activities, go here.

If you haven’t already done it, schedule your marketing items so you aren’t trying to do that at the last minute.

Keep your diary clear for two days before and two days after your holiday.  This will feel strange but if a super urgent task comes in at the last minute it gives you wiggle room to deal with it without stress.   It also gives you time to pack and get organised for the holiday itself.

The two days after the holiday allows you to come back to work, deal with things that have come in during the holiday, clear down your inbox and get back into the swing of work in a measured manner.  Knowing you will have space to do that on your

return will mean you don’t spend the last three days of your holiday panicking about what you are going back to.

Plan the domestic things into the diary so they don’t end up being a mad rush the day before the holiday.  Fridge emptying. Suitcase packing.  Foreign currency purchase.  Find your passport.  Arrange a time to take the pets to the kennels.  Buy a new bikini and some sunscreen.  Get your prescriptions filled.

Just Before the Holiday.

Ask your VA to keep an eye on your inbox and social media, reply to any routine enquiries, and send a daily update of any items that need your urgent attention.

Finish your last minute tasks.  Use your two spare days if you need to but ideally try to keep that last spare day for actual holiday preparation.

Delegate the tasks you want your VA or your team to do in your absence.

If you have a team, check everyone knows what they are responsible for.  Do they all have the information they need to complete the tasks you have delegated to them?  Are they clear about deadlines that must be met, calls that are expected, and work which remains outstanding?

Set the out of office reply to your Email telling people you are away.  Explain who will answer emails in your absence, or, detail your return date.

Set an out of office message on your phone.

On Holiday

Yay.  You’ve done it.  You’ve got away.  Hopefully, you are feeling relaxed and calm as you step into the car to drive to Norfolk for that narrowboat trip.  Or you are feeling free as a bird as you fly off to sunny Spain.

One final suggestion.  A digital detox is always a good idea during a break.  Don’t check your email and social media constantly.  Plan to check once a day.  If you’ve left staff running your business, or your VA is keeping tabs on things, agree a time when they will email you an update so you don’t feel compelled to check every five minutes to see if it has arrived yet.

If it makes you feel more secure, agree on a method which a trusted staff member or your VA can use to contact you in an emergency.  I use WhatsApp with my clients if they are abroad and text them when they are in the UK.

Enjoy your holiday, secure in the knowledge that you have planned things so that the business will survive for a week without you.  Have fun.  Make memories.  Sleep a lot.  Eat and drink well.  Relax.  Don’t think about work.  It will be there waiting patiently for you on your return.  None the worse for your absence.  And when you do return you will feel relaxed.  Refreshed.  Productive.  Enthusiastic.

So, what are you waiting for?  Book that holiday.  You won’t regret it.

If you’d like to learn more about how a VA can support you before, during and after your holiday, please get in touch here.

Simple Steps to Increase Productivity

increase productivity; simple steps to increase productivity

Filing. 

There, I’ve said it.  In this fourth part of the Getting Things Done series, I’ll be looking at filing.  If you have missed the other three parts of the series, you can read Part One here, Part Two here, and Part Three here.

I love filing, something I have been told is more than a bit weird.  Apparently, No One likes filing.  That being the case, I’d rather like to meet this mysterious No One.  I think we’d get on fine.  But I digress.

The Getting Things Done method won’t work as effectively if you don’t have a decent filing system.  Before your eyes glaze over and you run away screaming in horror, can I just say that a filing system really is only a system that works for you, in which stuff that you need to refer to is kept.

Your filing system doesn’t need to be complicated, it just needs to make sense to you and hold the things you want to find quickly and easily.  Your system will reflect what you do, what you need to keep, and how you like to work.  And that’s fine.  It’s your system.  Design it to work for you.

Designing your file system can sometimes take a little time to get right, but is worth spending that time because a well-designed system that is kept up to date will allow you to lay hands on things when you need them.  The less time spent digging around in the files, the more time you have available for revenue-producing activity.

Key Considerations

key to success; key to admin success

Key things to consider when designing your filing system:

Ease of access.  You shouldn’t have to trek across the office to add something to a commonly used file.  Keep the reference files you use most often closest to you.

Label things in a way that makes sense to you, so you can locate information quickly.

If you are using hard copy files then keep a stock of new file covers close at hand so that if you need to create a new file for something you can do so quickly and easily.  When you finish with the file (or anything else) put it back where it belongs so that it’s always easy to find.  Put the correct documentation into the correct file.

Filing System

filing, file folders, filing processes, filing tips

Don’t make your filing system really complicated.  Follow a naming process, ideally a really simple one.  Always follow the same file naming protocol whether that is client surname, project name, or whatever works for you.  When you are busy you don’t want to be searching around wondering if you filed the Garside Project under G for Garside, P for Project, I for IT, or C because your client’s name is Charles.

File things away regularly.  Ideally, put things away when you’ve finished with them.  As a minimum, tidy stuff up and file things at the end of the day.

If the item you need is in your filing pile rather than the file it will get overlooked, or you will have to spend ten minutes taking the filing pile apart to look for it.

Of course, much of your information will be held in electronic form and the same ideas apply here as for physical paper in terms of labelling and organising things logically for fast retrieval.

Ideally, your electronic filing systems should follow the same labelling plan across all devices and mirror any paper files as well.  That way you can find things, quickly and easily, in every system you own.

Don’t forget your Email System

email, email organisation

Email In-Boxes need to be kept tidy.  It is so much easier to find things if you have a filing system within your Email system and you actually use it.  Again, the labels should echo the labels in the rest of your system so that you have a limited number of places to look for the item you need.

It is very tempting to keep lots of stuff “just in case I need it”.  Sometimes this is exactly the right approach.  Sometimes it is not.  One area where people seem to accumulate far more items than necessary is the Email System.  It can be helpful to look critically at what you are keeping hold of and be realistic about whether you really do need to keep the information.

Sometimes, you can get so overwhelmed with all the things you need to organise that it can be helpful for an outsider to come in and help you to sift through the information and support you in creating a filing and information management system that works well for you.  So, if you want to start the process of increasing your productivity using this method, but are struggling to set up your filing system, get to Inbox Zero, or find time to sort out all the information that needs to be captured and organised, then give me a call.  I’d be happy to support you.  You can contact me here.

Three Steps Will Increase Your Productivity

increase productivity, three steps to increase productivity

This is the third in the series of posts about the organisational methods outlined in David Allen’s book “Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity”.  This post examines the importance that review, update and reflection play in the system.  If you missed the previous two posts, you can read them here and here.

When I first started with the Getting Things Done system I had to really force myself to review my lists regularly and to stick to what was in my diary.  You do need to regularly review both in order to make the system work.  No matter how good your system is, if you don’t visit it and reflect on its contents, it won’t be functional.  No diary can ensure you are where you are supposed to be if you don’t actually look at it after all.

Review

review tasks, review lists, listing and reviewing tasksSome people like to review and update the lists daily, having a mini-brain dump/mind sweep session as their last task before finishing work.  Others do it once a week, often on a Friday night, or on a Sunday.

If you find you are adding the same thing to your To Do list each week, or regularly moving a task to a fresh list without dealing with it, then ask yourself why that is.

Is it outside your skill set?  Is it not as urgent as you first thought?  Is it too large a task? Does it need to be broken down a bit to make it manageable?  Do you hate doing the task?  Do you need to outsource it to ensure it gets done?  Do you really need to do it at all, or can it be removed from the list?

By keeping on top of the list, adding to it, reviewing it and reflecting on it, your mind is aware that you have the tasks under control and isn’t wasting energy racing around in circles trying to remind you about things and making you feel stressed.

Once a week, review your list of tasks completed and still to do, and the brain dump list, and make your plan for the week.  Sunday evening is a great time to do this part.  You will hopefully be fresh, rested, have a clear head and be starting to consider the week ahead.  Preparing on Sunday allows you to start on Monday with purpose and know what your goals for the day and week will be.

Keeping the systems up to date and reviewing the tasks regularly takes practice but it can produce some great rewards.

“Do it, Defer it, Delegate it”

delegate, delegate tasks, delegate workDavid Allen suggests using the “Do it, Defer It, Delegate it” approach.

If a task will take less than two minutes to complete you should just do it right away rather than adding it to a list.

If it will take more than two minutes then you should defer it, that is, document it on a list, and, if appropriate, add it to the diary or planner, so that it can be done at the most suitable time.

Finally, for those tasks which are very time-consuming, are not your area of expertise, or you absolutely hate doing, you should delegate the task to someone who has the time and expertise to do it well on your behalf.  If you hate the task then you will either put it off, do it badly, or it will take you much longer than it should.  All of which will have a negative effect on your productivity and impact on your work-life balance.

If the thought of cross-checking and updating that spreadsheet sends you to sleep.  If your paperwork backlog makes you want to poke out your own eyes with frustration.  If you’d rather handle a live snake than fill in those forms, then the answer is simple.  Delegate those tasks.  If you have a task or two that you aren’t that keen on doing, why not get in touch with me here.

Plan to Succeed: Using Lists to Save Time

Brain Dump Lists; Save Time; Succeed

Our lives are so busy now.  Just keeping up with technological change, new ideas, apps and methods can be a full-time job.  We have so many things to juggle on a daily basis and so many calls on our time.  It can be difficult to track it all. Many of us turn to lists to help us to manage everything, but a Brain Dump type list alone is not enough.  You need a system in order to succeed.

A system is exactly what David Allen’s brilliant book, Getting Things Done; The Art of Stress-Free Productivity (ISBN 978-0-349-40894-1) provides.  It’s a great resource for learning how to list, organise and get a grip on all the various tasks that you have to manage in your life.  This is part two of the series and focuses on the day to day use of the system to achieve better productivity. If you have missed the first part of the series, you can read that here.

For this part of the method, you will need a planner, diary, Filofax or similar.  Paper-based or electronic, it doesn’t matter.  It’s your system and should be designed to fit your needs.

One of the first things to do is to examine your brain dump list and put any time critical tasks into the diary or planner.  Appointments, deadlines, meetings, project goals, insurance due dates, social events and so forth.

Another category that you need to note in the diary is dates by which others must deliver their part of a shared project upon which your own tasks are dependent.  If you can’t start until they have finished, then you need to know when to check the delivery date with them or ask about any changed priorities that might impact on your diary planning.

David Allen suggests that you should use the diary only for the time-critical framework and not place your To Do lists into the diary.  I take this to mean that a time-critical task from my To Do list can go into the diary but the entire list should not.

The diary forms a framework that will be central to keeping you on track and feeling organised. By checking your diary regularly to identify upcoming events and deadlines, you can ensure that you allow enough time to prepare for them.  Working backwards you can place tasks on a list for each day that will move you nearer to the target in your diary.

Next look at the remaining items on your long brain dump list.  Add the most critical tasks to a To Do List for the week.  These will be things you need to do to meet the commitments you put in your diary as well as things which you have decided to complete that week.   The latter will be driven by the larger business goals you’ve set yourself.  If one of your goals is to re-write the copy on your website by 20th March you can break the goal into separate tasks, for example, tackling a page a week, and allocate the tasks to different weeks in your planner between now and the deadline.

By breaking large tasks down into smaller ones with measurable outcomes they feel more manageable. You can feel a sense of satisfaction that you have completed a step on the journey to completing the whole task.  If a task is too large and you don’t break it down then it will feel too difficult and you will put off doing it.

Having a long list of tasks with no real feeling of urgency (beyond that awful feeling of having too much to do and not knowing where to start) can lead to things being missed.   Creating a set of daily To Do Lists works much better as you have a much shorter list to get through, and this feels more manageable, and you are therefore much more likely to actually succeed in completing the items.

Choosing too many tasks for your weekly list leads to feelings of overwhelm which will negatively impact your productivity.  Having only one piece of paper for the list is one way to keep the list manageable.   Be realistic about what you can achieve in a day or week.  Three to four main tasks per day is a good number to choose.  You can always go back to your list for more if you finish quicker than expected.

Small related tasks can be chunked together.  Dealing with related tasks in one go can save time as your brain doesn’t need to switch tracks too sharply.  The brain isn’t great at switching rapidly between disparate tasks and takes a while to get back into the concentration zone.   If you plan your week so that similar tasks are done back to back, you will often get more done.  You could write more than one blog post in a particular session for example.

If, whilst doing a task, you think of something else you need to do, just make a note, and then return to your original task.   This will be less disruptive to your concentration than thinking you will remember the new task and write it down later.   At the end of the day or week, you can then add the various notes to your main brain dump list.

By concentrating on only a short list of things and having all the time critical elements noted in a diary, you have a plan for the week which allows you to calmly progress through your week, regularly referring to your list and planner to ensure that you are always engaged in the task that you should be doing and moving to the next task in a timely manner.

If you find that you still have too many tasks that fall into the critical category and you are not able to fit them all into your day, one option is to delegate some of the tasks.  I will be examining delegation in more detail in a future post and it is often the answer for those time consuming but essential tasks such as data input, research, sourcing images for social media, proof checking and filing.  If your lists include time-consuming admin tasks that you just don’t have the time to do, then just get in touch.  I’d be happy to help you to get it all under control.

Holidays and Small Business CAN mix

Whilst the long school holidays and warm weather are wonderful, they can create some challenges for small business owners. Staff will want to take holiday.  You want to take holiday.  But the work doesn’t take holidays.  Juggling the needs of family and business can be more difficult than usual, but there are ways to make it work.

“I can’t take a holiday. It just isn’t possible,” cried the small business owner.

Wrong answer. You can’t come up with new ideas, innovative marketing or fresh goals to drive your business forward if you are exhausted. Small business owners tend to work considerably longer hours than the average employee and have a huge level of responsibility. Working extremely long hours over a sustained period can result in reduced productivity, ill health, strained family relationships and burnout. Taking a holiday is an investment in both you and your business. You will return from even a short break, reinvigorated, rested, and ready to hit the ground running.

To keep your business running smoothly whilst you are away, consider the following:

Let clients know ahead of time so that their expectations are managed.

Get your work as up to date as possible before you go. Hand anything that must be completed during your absence to a trusted staff member, or your Virtual Assistant. Or, if you are the only person who can complete the task, renegotiate the deadline with the client.

If you have staff, ensure they are clear on what work needs to be completed in your absence and what the deadlines are.

Have a digital holiday. Don’t check your phone and email constantly. Plan to check once a day at a set time. The evening is often a good time. If you have left staff running the business, let them know when you will be checking in, but tell them to contact you only in an emergency.

Plan Ahead and Work Around

If you can, plan ahead and get as much work done as possible ahead of the holiday period. This allows you to relax during your time off, knowing work is under control. It is a good idea to leave some gaps in the work diary to slot new work and incoming tasks into so you accommodate work without feeling overwhelmed.

Scheduling your social media in advance is a great time saver, ensuring you have an online presence even when you are on holiday.  If you blog or Vlog, perhaps create a couple of extra posts prior to the summer period.   If you don’t have time to create new content over the holiday period, you can use one you have in reserve.  Other options include asking someone to guest blog during the holiday season and asking your Virtual Assistant to research and write posts for you.

Plan your diary well ahead and block out time for both business and family.  Having a plan allows you to feel confident that you will be able to juggle it all successfully.  Putting family time in the diary as though it was a business event makes sure it happens.

Book meetings and appointments well in advance.  Others will be trying to juggle priorities too and may have limited diary slots available as a result.

Having a plan and knowing when things are going to happen can reduce stress and overwhelm.

You could consider a more flexible working pattern on the days you plan to both work and spend time with family.  Everyone is different but one option is working early and late, leaving the middle of the day to spend with family.

If you have staff, you could increase the amount of work you delegate during the summer.  Allowing team members to widen their knowledge of the business will make future delegation easier.

Outsource

If your staff are taking holiday you may need to hire in holiday cover to ensure work continues in their absence.  Local recruitment companies can provide staffing or you can use a freelance with expertise in the area you need to cover.

If you can’t get everything done in your small business using the Plan Ahead, Work Around Method, another option to consider is outsourcing some of the routine admin work to a freelance administrator so that you can spend more of your time on revenue building activities.  Whether you need someone to schedule your social media, update your CRM, or keep on top of the emails, a freelance administrator can take the strain over the summer and is particularly appropriate if you do not have premises as they can work on your tasks from their own home.

If you would like to discuss outsourcing admin tasks so you can spend more time with family this summer, or you are a local business needing on-site admin support, then please get in touch.

Productivity starts with the Environment

Productivity starts with the Environment

Productivity desk organised organisation safe

It is easier to be more productive if your environment is organised in a way that makes sense to you.  Time is money.  If you can find things easily and quickly when you need them, rather than scrabbling through boxes of dis-organised paperwork you will be able to make best use of your time.  Of course, organising the office takes time, you are busy and perhaps feel you have more pressing tasks to deal with.  However, tackling it a bit at a time makes the task more manageable.

You could start with the desk, removing clutter and finding ways to organise the items you require so they are to hand.  If you can find things more easily then you will be able to work more quickly.  Organising the desk need not be expensive either.  I love IKEA for low cost organisation solutions. For example, I use a plastic IKEA cutlery tray for pens, paperclips and staples etc.  The tray slides up the drawer easily so items stored under the tray can be retrieved quickly.  If you don’t have time to trek off to IKEA, there are other options.  Empty jars, Syrup and Treacle tins are great for storing elastic bands, paper clips, and other small items.  Tins are also great for pens, pencils and rulers.  Perfect if you prefer your stationery out on the desk, right where you can grab it.

Are you comfortable?  Is everything where you can reach it easily and safely? If you have a land line phone, do you need to stretch to answer it? Is your computer screen, keyboard and mouse located at the right height and at a comfortable distance from where you are sitting?  Can you adjust your chair to ensure adequate back support?  If you are uncomfortable you will cause health problems.  In addition, it is difficult to work productively if you are uncomfortable.  There are a number of websites which provide advice on how to set up your workstation effectively.  One very useful source of information is this NHS site:  How to sit correctly

Are the wires of your computer and devices snaking all over the place and creating a mess or a trip hazard?  Try taming them with wire tamer tubes.  These are available at IKEA and at DIY stores.  Alternatively, lower cost solutions include Ty-Raps or string.  In my house, wires get tied up with knitting wool because I always have some lying around.

Pinterest is full of really great ideas for keeping office items under control, including the Lego Figure approach.  Stick a flat Lego brick to your desk then stand your Lego figure on the brick, put your cables into the figure’s hands, and you have an instant wire tamer.  This will only work with fine wires such as Iphone cables and phone chargers.  There are also numerous Pinterest boards showing varied Lego-related organisation ideas for both home and office.

There are many ideas available to increase the efficiency of your work area and help with productivity including a number of blogs and Pinterest boards.  But if you don’t want to spend time trawling the internet for ideas (after all, the point is to increase productivity, not spend hours on Pinterest), then you could approach a Virtual Assistant.  Many Virtual Assistants, myself included, are able to organise offices to ensure they are healthy, productive places to work.  If you would like some help getting your office organised, please click here and choose you preferred method to get in touch with me.