You know that sinking feeling when you come back from a long break, and you have a vast number of emails to sort through, you have loads of paperwork to read, and everyone wants you to deal with their urgent issue first?

Yes, well, welcome to the life of an assistant! That sinking feeling is an everyday experience for us. We look at our packed to-do list, and we have to make a decision which tasks to tackle first when all of the work is a priority with imminent deadlines. We also have our colleagues interrupting us with their urgent questions and multiple bosses wanting attention. Of course, we also want to please and be helpful; no wonder the role of an assistant can be quite overwhelming! Due to the nature of our job, we have to remain flexible while handling multiple priorities, so how do we do this and where do we start?

Is it important?

Over the years, I have come to understand what people mean when they ask me to do something “urgent”.  There seems to be a varying degree of how vital something is. Is it urgent, or have they left this to the last minute? Is it urgent, or are they just a bit overdramatic? Is it urgent because they want to be a priority? Is it urgent but the work you do for them then sits on their desk or in their inbox for the next week? The answers to these questions are unfortunately determined after you have completed a few tasks for these individuals. However, once you master how “urgent” urgent is, according to these colleagues, it is easier to handle their expectations and priorities and schedule your work. The secret is for Assistants to look like they are dealing with the work urgently, but you are dealing with the work like a typical day to day request.

The boss comes first

Many assistants are now taking on work outside of the 1-2-1 support for an executive. We all seem to have added lots of strings to our bows, but I think the priority still has to be the support we provide our bosses. This should be made very obvious when taking on extra work, and we should communicate this to our colleagues. We must also make our bosses aware of the extra work we take on. When it comes to juggling multiple priorities, we really shouldn’t be dropping any tasks for the boss. They do write our performance reviews, after all! Make sure you have clear communication with your manager so that you both have the same expectations when it comes to additional projects.

Make yourself organised

As you all know I love, love, love a list, and I pretty much live by them so you will be correct to assume that I think the best way to handle multiple priorities is with lists. Getting organised, working your way through tasks and being focussed will ensure you have a little wiggle room to say yes to your colleague’s urgent requests: this will make you appear flexible and helpful. If you are up to your neck in work that day, you can at least let your colleague know when you can take on their work and when you will deliver the results. Flexibility has to be on your terms; otherwise, you will find yourself drowning. 

Roll up your sleeves and get the job done

Sometimes you have to dig deep and get the job done, which means working longer hours to make sure you meet all of your deadlines. It also means not putting off the rubbish tasks until the last minute. It is a good idea to get the rubbish jobs done as quickly as possible so that you can take your time with the fun stuff. I always like to help the colleagues that don’t often ask me for things or delegate much work. I think all assistants should have a little time put aside to provide support for those under real pressure.

You can’t do everything

Assistants can’t be flexible if they take on every piece of work that is left on their desk. Colleagues will take advantage, and ultimately, you will be working all hours without any help or support. Not good. If you have colleagues that are lazy and do take advantage, you have to push back and say no. Your time should be used to support your executive first and foremost, and then you can take on extra work and help others as and when you can. It is so much fun being able to help with additional projects or work with different departments so do try to be open to various opportunities, remain flexible and helpful in your approach but also remember that flexibility has to be on your terms and in line with your workload and priorities.

Starting out as a New Assistant

The eBook is designed to help you navigate the first few months of your new role. Here you will find everything you need for the initial first meeting with your Executive. You will also find articles on how to navigate the tricky world of working with the Executive Team, building rapport with your new Executive and advice on how you can work effectively with a boss who has never had an Assistant before. Download the free eBook now.

Managing expectations