Assistant recap: it’s been a long, slow process

Assistant recap. It’s been a long, slow process, me figuring out what I actually need in an assistant, and I still regret that I didn’t do a better job figuring it out faster with some of the earlier people I worked with. I was running so flat out a lot of the time that I think I just went from crisis to crisis, barely with time to breathe, much less think through whether they were actually doing what I needed done.

For a few years, my assistant was mostly a house manager, keeping the house and garden in beautiful shape, running errands, etc. That was helpful, but less directly leading to more fiction writing than I was aiming for, and now that the kids are older and can do more of those tasks, that really wasn’t what I needed most urgently.

A few things are working much better now, so just to quickly document those:

1) Stephanie has been wrangling snakes for me. That’s how I think of it — she goes into my Inbox and looks for things that are urgent and then makes me deal with them. Financial matters, academic matters, contracts and requests for interviews, booking conference travel, etc. and so on. She pays close attention to my calendar too, letting me know if I’ve managed to double-book a time slot, or forgotten to calendar something.

We have a joint Trello board where we track tasks (hers, Heather’s, mine — mostly mine). She’s very good at the kind of executive function task that requires prioritizing, which I think is a rare skill. She sends me little reminders at the end of the day, and the next morning, and if I procrastinate, her reminders get a little more urgent the next day. “Mary Anne, this really is due now. NOW, I TELL YOU.”

Okay, she doesn’t say it quite like that. But gentle persistence is one of her strengths. I’m probably not the easiest person to work for; as Jed and Kev will tell you, I get very set in my ways and very sure that I know exactly the best way to do things, so it takes a little finesse and management, to get me to actually do something I’m avoiding. She’s remarkably good at it.

If I had to cut all the other help, I’d keep someone doing this to the last, because it’s what’s most directly useful for managing all the gazillion projects that I have going on, and also for my sanity. She’s working about 10 hours / week.

2) It’s been hugely helpful having Kirsten take on finances for both the SLF and my writing business. She’s been having me log hours for the SLF, which is illuminating even though I don’t get paid, and is also making sure the checks go out on time, which I was not always prompt with (and then had tremendous guilt about).

I have something of a mental block around money sometimes, legacy of digging myself into a BAD hole in my 20s. I had $40K in credit card debt at one point, on top of student loans, which was a literal nightmare, or rather, many of them. I eventually pulled my way out of it and paid it all off, but it was a painful time, and I’m still weirdly avoidant about dealing with my own money sometimes. (I’m fine with working as a trustee on the 9 million dollar library budget, oddly enough. I have no stress looking at those spreadsheets. Weird.) Like, I’ll avoid writing a $25 check for eight months, even though the money is RIGHT THERE. (PayPal is easier, but sometimes my overseas authors want checks.)

Kirsten is super-organized, and uses apps that will generate little charts for me that show exactly what projects the SLF is spending staff time on, etc. (I think Clockify is doing that, though perhaps she pairs it with something else, I’m not sure.) It’s been a MASSIVE weight off my mind, and is lesson #1 — if you can find someone to take on the things you’re bad at, that is helpful. She put in a lot of hours at the beginning, getting things organized and into professional shape; now it’s just a few hours / week, managing it. (She also manages staff time sheets and getting them paid.)

3) Similarly, if there are tasks that are tedious, those can be helpful to outsource. Heather has been primarily doing two things for me — researching publishing details (like what printer costs how much, and how many postcards I’ll need to order, running comparative calculations), and managing my social media (the latter of which is tedious to propagate physically, and she’s also better with apps that help with that). It’s super-helpful. If I can pay her to do 5-10 hours / week of that, and spend that time writing fiction and essays instead, that’s clearly worthwhile for me, both directly financially and in terms of getting the writing that makes me happy done.

4) Karen is working entirely for the SLF, 5-10 hours / week, primarily as volunteer coordinator right now, learning the ropes of what we do there, but possibly aiming towards managing director; we’ll see. She’s not on Facebook, which so far hasn’t been a problem, but is a little disconcerting for me, since I live here. I can’t tag her into things to bring them to her attention, which is odd. But she’s been good to work with, and helped me organize my thoughts and set priorities, rather than trying to do all the things at once.

5) Finally, there are a few people doing work on contract — Cee Gee on fundraising, Irene on social media / publicity (for both the SLF and Feast), and Pem as publicist for Feast.

People ask how I get so much done. This is how. Is there more money coming in than going out? Um, not yet. But I’m hopeful that we’ll get there within a year or two. For now, it’s an investment in my business as a writer, and in the SLF as an organization. Before this, I was turning away paid writing opportunities, lots of them, because I didn’t have time to do the writing. That was clearly a problem. It’s improving.

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