« GTD and Faculty Productivity: Notes from a small pilot project | Main | A question for readers: Advice re: Blogger.com beta switch? »

Best practices for GTD and administrative assistants

I'm working with the director of a major engineering research center next week (one of my services is one-on-one desk-side workflow coaching), and I wanted to share some of the best practices that I've collected that executives might consider in working with their assistants (AKA support staff, administrative assistants, secretaries, etc.) Note: Today I won't be covering delegation best practices - more on that at a later date.

Following are those best practices I've come across, grouped by workflow phase (see Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity for details). It's a bit rough, but see what you think!


  • AA answers phone, takes messages. exec gives personal # out to those requiring direct access. NB: 'phone logs' not recommended
  • similarly, AA might process email. controversy: possibly better for exec to see all emails herself (only she knows importance)
  • exec has an OUT box on desk that is AA's IN box (AA checks regularly during day)
  • AA and exec communicate using inboxes (helps reduce interruptions - for non-urgent items)
  • exec dictates notes, AA transcribes
  • use secretary to filter reading material (should know preferences)
  • when exec's away: AA sorts mail into three priorities. look at in first hour after getting back


  • some or all by AA. can range from sorting (trash, routine replies) up to higher responsibilities
  • controversy: some argue the exec should do own processing
  • process your collecting points jointly with your AA - will teach him how you work, opportunity to delegate efficiently. exec talks out loud, and *do* each item (don't just sort)


  • calendar
    • can range from AA schedules exec's time to exec does own
    • AA can manage exec by blocking out time for workflow phases, keep exec "on task"
    • controversy: mixing can lead to confusion; better to have all scheduling done by one or the other
    • meetings: ranges from AA booking and confirming attendees, to pulling files, creating agenda, attending for boss
  • actions: use @agenda context for non-urgent work (helps maintain focus by reducing interruptions)
  • filing
    • exec has own A-Z. ensure AA knows filing scheme.
    • controversy: all filing done through AA, but can slow down exec access to files and waste AA time
    • for CYA filing: cc to AA, who batches and does weekly (say)
    • contacts: AA enters, updates, culls. use mutually-agreed upon keywords for later searches


  • joint daily review: at day's start: clarify the priorities, minimize interruptions/switches later. at the day's end, have another 5-10 minute wrap-up session to cover any questions that came up, and to plan tomorrow
  • joint weekly review
  • use @agenda and @waiting for
  • make sure to go over calendars


  • can directly assign AA actions or projects, depending on relationship
  • use email to delegate as much as possible (use EOM - see Write a great Subject line)
  • contacts: AA manages them, ranging from sending birthday/anniversary cards to sending articles of interest
  • AA anticipates and prepares material for trips, meetings, and projects
  • travel: AA creates checklists for each location, sets up travel support files

Final points

  • Grab-and-Go Strategy #25 (from Morgenstern): "Create a clear division of labor - specify who is responsible for what."
  • get AA up-to-speed on own process, e.g., GTD. Might use a simplified system, since the AA's project *is* the exec. for example, create file folders for mail passing: urgent, to do, to approve, to sign, to read, to file, to toss.
  • give the AA some interrupt-free, private time blocks - have someone else cover the phones
  • let others know your AA is your surrogate
  • keep each other informed - where you're going, when you'll be back, etc.
  • don't interrupt AAs unless urgent
  • if giving too much to AA, prioritize it

Overall: Every relationship is unique, so get together, ask each other what works, e.g., (from Allen):

  • What are we doing that really works?
  • What are we doing that doesn’t work as well as it could?
  • How could we improve that?
  • What are we doing that we don’t need to be doing at all?

As always, comments and contributions are welcome!


Reader Comments (10)

Thanks for these ideas, Matt. I wrote about something similiar a couple months ago, although not strictly from a GTD perspective, on my site http://www.churchhacks.com/. I put together [ tips for pastors working with an assistant/secretary | http://www.churchhacks.com/2006/10/03/tips-for-working-with-a-secretary/ ] in a church environment. I'll make mention of your post on my site to go along with what I've written very soon. Thanks again!

December 12, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterMatt Book

Thanks for the pointer, Matt. Good stuff:

o Screen calls
o Keep your schedule
o Do your filing, typing, copying, and some research.
o Run errands
o Prepare cards for you to sign and send
o Organize receipts for reimbursements
o Type and file handwritten notes
o Sit in on meetings and take notes.

I also liked your additional points ("Make sure she’s in the know about projects and events," etc.)

Well done; thanks for reading!

December 12, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

Here's a good [ comment | http://www.43folders.com/2006/12/11/gtd-support-staff/#comment-11777 ] from Merlin's post:

Laura M. Says:

I’m an AdminAssist.-not big fan of being called AA =). I work with several people so mainly I used GTD methods to organize my own work as my team has very different understandings of best practices for working. =) Luckily, execs in my team are fairly independent and are expected to take resp. of their own agendas, calls, mails, etc. We rely mainly on GroupWise for emails and agendas. In my own opinion, a succesful delegation of tasks will depend mostly on the initiative your admin. shows, her ability and degree to work independently, your trust on her work and knowing how much she can really deal with.

What works best for me as collecting inbox is email, since I can keep track of the tasks and process them according to GTD methods.

December 12, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

Why are phone logs bad? B/c not enough details? B/c if you use GTD methods for processing it's another system to keep track of?

December 12, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterAnonymous

I, too, am curious as to why phone logs are bad. I have just begun a journaling practice in which I try to note each conversation. Is this different than the phone log you refer to?

December 13, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterJPS

e. donovan & JPS: I believe the recommendation re: phone logs is based on the danger of tracking action in the log, rather than in a central list (next actions). Keeping the log is fine, but I recommend marking action and waiting for items in the log, then processing the log (the new pages, that is) into your system along with every other new piece of stuff.

Once actions have been "harvested," the log then becomes simply a reference tool, which is fine.

I'll probably write about this in more detail...

December 13, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

This article is very nice.but if the details mentioned above is not enough if they elaborately given means it will be better.


[ http://www.coachjudynelson.com | How to Retain Your Super Star Managers ]

August 30, 2008 | Unregistered Commenternancyfernandez

Nancy - thanks for your comment, and for the suggestion of fleshing it out better. I started with this as a raw collection of ideas, which I've since solidified during my consulting.

August 31, 2008 | Unregistered Commentermatthewcornell
E book available yet?
December 3, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJanine Shelby
Janine, the ebook project is on hold, so I've restored the original post. I hope it helps. Thanks for stopping by.
December 10, 2011 | Registered CommenterMatthew Cornell

PostPost a New Comment

Enter your information below to add a new comment.

My response is on my own website »
Author Email (optional):
Author URL (optional):
All HTML will be escaped. Hyperlinks will be created for URLs automatically.