sunday life: in which I hire a virtual assistant

This week I hire a Virtual Assistant in India (and, no, the picture below has nothing to do with Virtual Assistants, or India, but is an image of what I’d like to have more time for once I’ve successfully delegated stuff I hate doing ).sartorialist-paris-lunch

I tell you, VAs are the PTs of the new millennium. Ten years ago we took to delegating our weight loss to personal trainers. Soon enough they became part of the fabric of life, popping up at clients’ dinner parties and dating their friends. Now it’s all about delegating our administrative clutter to a remote assistant. Or so I’m learning.

Every productivity guru and self-help blog I encounter advocates hiring one of these faceless helpers to coordinate travel itineraries, answer emails and organise the kids’ swimming lessons…all from a cubicle in Bangalore.

Admittedly I don’t know anyone in Australia who uses a VA. I think it’s because we feel quite puncy offloading our detritus to others. I mean, who admits to having a pool cleaner?

THAT SAID: (AND CONSIDER THIS AN UPDATE SINCE I WROTE THIS COLUMN) it has been highlighted by some Aussie VAs that there are a number of services here. For details, read the comments below or check out here, here, here, here and here. Or for a virtual assistant directory…here.

In the US, the VA scene is huge. Just try emailing someone over there; you’ll no doubt be met with a response from someone in Uzbekistan who writes with comically misplaced modifiers.

Anyway, this week, I decided to jump the tide and hired Sridhar from Coimbatore to wade through my life admin backlog, to see if it makes life better. To save you reading to the bottom: it does. And in surprising ways.

So, how does one hire a VA? Me, I started with an agency – Elance. You pay $US10 via Paypal and then post your job online.  I was after someone to transfer data on my blog, possibly the most tedious task in Christendom, and one I’d procrastinated on for three months.

Within seconds I was inundated with responses from around the world pitching for my pithy task, replete with enthusiastic emoticons. You’re advised to check each VA’s credentials via clever widgets that show client feedback. But this sent me into analysis paralysis. So I walked around the block, came back and chose the first to catch my eye.  Sridhar from Va4World got the gig at – wait for it – $US3.50 an hour.

Once your breath’s back, let’s tackle the ethical quandary this posits. I can’t flesh out fair trade equations here, but suffice to say this rate is triple the average hourly wage in most parts of India. And, comparatively, a lot more than the $8/hour American-based VAs were quoting me. And, vastly more – again comparatively – than what I’ve been paid in the past for base work. Working on a vegan brownie production line at $5/hour springs to mind.

So, did it work? Did I whoop around my desk when I could finally strike “re-tag blog entries” off my to-do list?  Well, the job came back completed in under 24 hours at a cost of $US30. A resounding success, albeit with a few curious typos. Sridhar was my new favourite person on Wednesday. But let me issue a few tips, mostly garnered from horror stories posted on blogs. First, do not hand over a password you use a lot. For my blog task, I changed my password temporarily.

Also, assign horses for courses. That is, don’t expect an IT graduate in Calcutta charging $3/hour to be able to write a keynote speech. That said, in the virtual world of assistants, there is a horse for all occasions. Online I came across people who hired VAs to chart a diet plan and then issue Big Brother-like daily reminders. Another used their VA to research how to tie a shoelace, the document then passed on to the client’s son. Which is so wrong in so many directions!

But the most salient lesson was found in the way the exercise forced me to get clear. And focused. I’d read other VA users’ tips and knew I had to be certain about what I wanted and issue instructions unambiguously and precisely, otherwise the experience becomes more trouble than it’s worth, what, with the to-ing and fro-ing of tweaks and clarifications. This was a challenge for me. I’m often not very clear about what I want…in life broadly. I have a vague idea and then hope life will lead me there. I get frustrated and victim-y, of course, when it doesn’t. So I got clear and gosh it felt good. Sridhar responded efficiently and we produced some elegant electronic flow.

Here’s the rub: cyber-delegating is a self-referring practice. If you’re not clear with what you want, you’ll get chaos back. Or, as Bill Gates once said, “Automation applied to an inefficient operation will magnify the inefficiency”.  Hiring a VA was an exercise in efficiency. But also in humility.

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