How I stay so organized (tips from an executive assistant who loves to get s*** done)
A few times now, coworkers have asked me, “Lindsay, how do you stay so organized?” Cutting to the chase (because that’s what organized people do), here are my tips, tools, and treasures for staying “hashtag on top of it” (which I often say out loud).
#1 Take notes
Write notes all the time. Compile and allocate later.
Notes help me #1 jot down things quickly and #2 remember the things. If my boss comes over with a new thing that needs done, the thing almost always gets put on a note first. I’ll often have a small handful of stickies carried around with me for an hour or so until I can get the tasks I’ve written down onto a list (see next section).
If I’m away from my computer, I’ll use sticky notes. If I’m at my computer, I’ll use Mac’s native stickies app. At times I’ll pull up an empty Google doc for taking meeting notes. I’ve used Mac’s Notes app, too, and I used to use Evernote, but I switched fully to Google Drive for simplicity when it comes to longer form.
Regardless of your tool, digital or otherwise, write down the things you need to remember and then organize them when you have the time.
#2 Keep lists
Use master lists to track your projects and progress.
Once I have tasks on notes, I put them into lists (and then throw away the notes). Lists help me #1 consolidate everything I need to do, #2 prioritize my workload, and #3 keep me on task with no balls dropped. I delegate as needed, too. Sometimes I’ll break down my tasks into smaller lists, sometimes I’ll write them on a physical sticky note (this is helpful if I’m trying to stay off my computer and in the productive zone), but my favorite list tracker is Trello. *cue in-love music*
I’ve now used Trello for tracking and maintaining just about every kind of project. Adopting a puppy? Recording restaurants I want to visit? Wrapping my head around everything I need to do during pregnancy? Not to mention my mountains of work projects? Once my Google Drive folders or handwritten notes for a project get unwieldy, Trello is my ultimate jam, and then I think to myself, “why didn’t I just start with Trello in the first place?”
Each project gets a Trello board, each board has different list columns, and each columns holds different task cards. I use labels, checklists, attachments, and bulleted lists within my task cards. I shift cards over to my To Do list, Doing list, and Done list in each board. I add comments, notifications for others, and due dates to my cards to help drive things forward. I’m an evangelist for life and have geeked out over Trello at every opportunity I’ve had so far. (Check out my puppy Trello board here to see a screenshot below.) Added bonuses come with the loads of integrations work teams will find useful.
Backgrounds on your boards aren’t required, and they can add clutter but also cuteness.
Want to learn more about Trello? Here’s a startup guide. The free version is all you need.
Other list tools
While I haven’t used it yet, Zenkit seems to be a delightful alternative with a cleaner UI. The features and integrations (and the import option for Trello users) look very enticing. Another friend has recommended Things 3 (Mac only) for simpler list making. Whatever is easiest and most accessible for you, whatever tool you will actually use, use that.
At home, Caleb and I keep a physical to do list on a kitchen cabinet near the back door. We have columns for To Do, Doing, and Done, and we use different colored sticky notes for Caleb’s tasks and for my tasks and a third color for mutual tasks.
The perks of our physical to do list are myriad. I’m a very driven person when it comes to getting things done, and having a visual of Caleb’s task statuses have significantly cut down on me feeling like I need to ask him about his progress. Plus, when I put my tasks on the board, it gives Caleb the opportunity to see the work I quietly do around the house. In the past, there was much more bugging from me and less trust on both sides, and Caleb and I now have much more respect for one another’s workload and a place to dump chores for an easier breakdown. And, we actually get the stuff done when it’s in our face every day instead of in a corner of the internet.
#3 Make the most of your calendar
Schedule your tasks and set reminders.
Trello is my #1 organization tool, and Google Calendar is my #2. I put everything in my calendar, and this helps me #1 keep my meetings top of mind and nearly un-missable, #2 stay ahead of the game so I don’t get surprised by upcoming events, and #3 share visibility with my colleagues and Caleb. Google Calendar is my hub for all of this.
Separate calendars for separate categories
At work, all my meetings are on my calendar, and we keep separate calendars for managing our interviews, sales tours, leadership’s time out of the office, and all of our conference rooms. Having this breakdown gives us the option to check individual calendars on and off when we want to see certain events. I do this for my personal calendars, too, by keeping a separate calendar (with a different color) for my dog sitting events.
For our personal lives, Caleb and I both have editing permissions for each other’s calendars. When scheduling dates or obligations, we’ll create event invitations and invite one another for visibility. This has kept us in the loop on what’s coming up even when we’re not able to chat.
I use email reminders for out-of-the-ordinary events, especially ones that are early in the morning (and easy to sleep through). If I have an appointment coming up, I’ll have my event trigger a reminder email to be sent to me a day before along with day-of notifications a few hours before.
Keep events visible
I keep a widget on my phone’s home screen and enable pop-up notifications for my upcoming meetings on my phone and my computer desktop. I’ve found that this level of visibility is what I need to make sure I don’t forget about upcoming meetings.
I also schedule tasks and sometimes schedule large blocks to catch up on tasks. Every Tuesday and Friday, for example, I have a 30min event on my work calendar for reading about UX design to keep me moving forward on my career transition. Before leaving for my 1-week vacation, I set up task event reminders for what I needed get caught up on the morning I get back.
In the past, I’ve also used simple physical calendars to give me a quick confirmation on what day it is or to see what’s coming up. Nowadays, I also create for myself a desktop background that includes a calendar (see below), and I use Mac’s hotspot corners to view my desktop when I need a lightning fast date check.
#4 Keep stuff minimal
Declutter your tasks to stay focused.
TL;DR Use the freakin’ Archive button and work toward Inbox Zero!
Keeping a minimal inbox helps me #1 keep an at-a-glance view of what’s on my plate and #2 maintain sanity.
I use my inbox as another list (I love lists), and I work to keep it free of distractions. Wanna know how many emails I have in my personal inbox right now? Three. And my work inbox? Eight. #HonestTruth. I use the unread markers and stars that Gmail has available to help me prioritize and remember what I need to get to or what I’m waiting to hear back on, and I use the different inbox tabs available for further organization.
Delete if you want (I often do), but the archive button is far underused in our times. Don’t deprive yourself of its liberating magic any longer.
Toss tasks as needed
I picked up this tip from Havana Nguyen. If a task has been sitting on your list for a long time, consider if it’s really that important, if it should be delegated, and if you should you scrap it from your list. Reevaluating and archiving tasks from my list helps me #1 prioritize what really matters and #2 spend my time on what will have the biggest impact. (See also Eat That Frog!, a highly digestible and brief book with 21 excellent productivity tips.)
Minimal desk space
In all seriousness, studies prove that a clearer work space encourages a clearer mind. I’m on the extreme end and have a hard time getting started with cooking if the kitchen’s dirty, and the same principle applies to my desk at work. Keeping things tidy and tucked away (I used lots of pretty storage) keeps me focused and ready to go.
- Research by the Harvard Business Review, Princeton Neuroscience Institute, and IDC seriously support having a tidy work space. (The article is a 1-minute recap.)
- Some easy-start tips for tidying your work space
Share your resources with others so they can share with you.
I’m very thankful that my last two companies have used Google Suite, Slack, and Trello as internal tools. These all make sharing information and assigning tasks incredibly easy. I highly recommend using these tools above others. I switched to Google Suite and Trello for my personal use years ago, and I can’t imagine weaning myself off. I’m also lucky to have a few friend groups who use Slack for communication. Otherwise, GroupMe is my preferred messaging app for mobile. And going back to calendars, share editing or viewing permissions with whomever would be helpful.
Specifically, the leadership team I support at work started using a shared Trello board for tracking our tasks and initiatives recently. Once we all had this space to view and comment on what needed to get done, things started moving along much quicker. It’s hard to get the group of us together for in-person discussions, and with the Trello board, I’m able to see what I can help with then push those things forward, updating the task card to keep everyone informed on status and next steps.
#6 Bonus : super admin tools
Here are some extra tidbits that have been helpful in my role as an executive assistant by trade.
- Alfred’s snippets : (Mac only) Alfred is a powerful search tool and the snippets feature (not free) is a mega copy/paste tool
- Grammarly Chrome extension : Catches punctuation and grammatical mistakes
- Hemmingway app : Makes your writing bolder and clearer
- Gmail Canned Response : Saves canned responses within Gmail for easy copy/pasting
- Gmail Preview Pane : Provides a customizable preview pane in your inbox
- CloudHQ’s mail Notes : Add personal notes to your Gmail messages (Guide) (I haven’t used this one but it comes highly recommended from an admin friend.)
- CloudHQ Gmail Templates : Create templates in Gmail (Guide)
(I also haven’t used this one.)
- Boomerang Chrome extension : Allows you to schedule emails to be sent later or followed up on if you haven’t gotten a response (May 3 update : Gmail has added its own Schedule Email Send feature.)
- Google Calendar, Find a Time : Finds free times across busy calendars for meetings
An internal penchant for accomplishing projects, crossing things off my list, and doing a job well done are the soft skills, but here are all my hard skills. What would you add to the list? Did you discover anything new?