Introducing Jess Ostroff, the Director of Calm at Don’t Panic Management (one of the most unique job titles we’ve ever heard!) Don’t Panic is the first virtual assistant agency that specializes in providing personalized matches between chaotic and overworked entrepreneurs and calm focused virtual assistants. The company focuses on providing administrative assistant services, marketing assistant services, and everything in between.
We talked to Jess about managing her own chaotic life – including her love of outsourcing and why blocking her calendar is a god-sent productivity hack.
What does the first 90 minutes of your day look like?
Every day is different, but generally, I try to start the day with some kind of activity that’s not related to work. If it’s raining, I might listen to a podcast while I’m making coffee or have breakfast, or whatever. If it’s nice out, I’ll take my dog out and listen to a book or a podcast while I’m walking. I make sure it’s not a business book or a podcast so that I can kind of wake up and get my brain moving before I dive into work.
What would you say is your number one productivity time-saving tip?
I use my calendar for everything, and I like to block my calendar. In the morning it’s usually blocked for a workout or whatever, and then I have only certain days that I do meetings. If a client needs something urgently, of course I will talk to them on Monday or Friday, but I try to keep all my meetings within certain blocks, and that allows me to plan all my other work around those meetings. Obviously, when you’re in meetings, you can’t really get any other work done, which is annoying. I wish I could multitask that.
What’s your definition of productivity?
This is a tough one for me. To me, productivity is doing something the most efficient way possible. Not getting distracted, but also not doing the bare minimum. Sometimes I think people think they’re productive because they cross off so many boxes on their list, but they actually didn’t do a great job on any of them. They just kind of got them done. And productivity for me is a mix of being fast and efficient, but also doing really high-quality work without distractions, so it’s deep focused work. It doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s going to be fast, and I think sometimes I get caught up with focusing so much on productivity that I’m not as concerned with the quality, and I think that’s a problem. The quality always has to come first. Maintaining quality, and the low amount of time spent on something is what’s important.
What would you say is your number one email tip?
Each morning and each afternoon I have dedicated times for email. The first thing I do when I sit down to my desk is check email, but after that 30 minutes when I’m responding to people, I try not to check it again until I’m done with next big project. Whether it’s writing a blog post, or applying to speak at events, or working on my book, or whatever it is. I don’t want to be looking up, and seeing an email come in because it distracts me.
I think that checking email on my own terms, not having it pushed to me with notifications, and setting times to check it has really been great for me.
When you lose focus, how do you regain it? What questions do you ask yourself? How do you kind of pivot out of that mindset?
I lose focus when I’m tired, so getting some blood flowing, moving, and having a snack or something is what I usually do. There are days when I can’t get it back, and if I don’t have any meetings, and I don’t have any deadlines, I just say like, okay, I think I’m done. I think my brain and my body are telling me that this is the end, and I can always work later tonight, or I can work tomorrow morning. I can always get up early. I know not everybody has the luxury of making their own schedule, but just being able to recognize it in yourself, and take a break, walk around, do jumping jacks. I think that really helps.
In the last five years, what new belief or behavior do you think has most improved your life?
Well, a lot. Probably that I can’t be all things to all people, and I shouldn’t try. What I learned in my business is that we provide a very specific service to a certain kind of person, and when we evaluated our clients and our team, we realized that in our most successful relationships have certain things in common. We did some exercises around creating values, both for our internal team, and our assistants, and also for our clients, and now we measure everything that we do. Every person that comes in – whether they want to become a client, or they want to become a virtual assistant, we measure them against those values. We found that we don’t have to work with everybody. There are other solutions, and for a while, I felt like I had to help everyone. I had to provide some kind of answer for everything.
But the reality is I don’t have the answer for everyone, and sometimes people aren’t ready to work with us, or they’re not the best fit for us, so I don’t need to be all things to all people – it’s detrimental. I think the more niche that we become with our services, with choosing our clients, and choosing our team members, the better the quality of work we provide, and the better relationships we have. Ultimately, when you have a good relationship with the clients that you’re working with, the more impact you’re going to be able to make, and that’s my goal is to really help people grow their businesses, and feel really great about the work that they’re doing.
Who do you think is your ideal client?
Someone who also knows how to provide feedback, and is comfortable providing feedback, both positive and negative. We’ve had clients in the past who are just nervous, they don’t want to rock the boat, but we need people who understand we can’t read your mind. We want you to tell us what we’re doing right, and what we’re doing wrong so we can do more of the right things, and less of the wrong things.
Oh, and a good communicator. I think just generally with virtual work, you have to be able to communicate effectively. And it doesn’t have to be a certain type of communication. It doesn’t have to be just on email, or just on text message or Slack, it can be phone calls, but we need people who are going to be self-aware, and understand how they like to communicate best, and what ways that they want to receive information, and also give information about projects.
What do you think is your most worthwhile investment in time, or money, or energy that you’ve made?
Taking my own advice, and trying to work on automating and delegating as much as possible has been the best thing that I’ve ever done.
I mean, I spent a lot of times convincing clients that they need to hire help, and they need to delegate things, they need to automate things in their life, and it took me a long time to do that. I was just kind of a martyr, and felt like I could do everything myself, and that I should do everything myself.
But once I realized that I could train people, I could teach people how to do a lot of what I do. I could hire people. I could pay for a housekeeper. I could pay for my groceries to be delivered, or whatever it is. And then of course with work, I could hire my own assistant and my own bookkeepers. It was an investment at first, but it’s been able to pay for itself because I have been able to focus on creating those ideal client profiles, going after those clients, making better connections between clients and virtual assistants, writing a book, doing more speeches, and getting paid in other ways.
Is there anything you want to add?
Some of the productivity stuff that I’ve found is less about electronic and virtual tools, and sometimes for me about physical space. I’m not always the best at this, but I try to clean up my area before I kind of close down for the night and make my list. If I can make my to-do list the night before, then I can get it out of my mind, so when I go to sleep. I’m not thinking about all the things that I have to do the next day because I’ve already written them all down. Writing things down, checking calendars, getting organized – that’s all physical actions that can help immensely.