Assistants are regularly asked to juggle multiple tasks and projects while reacting to other people’s urgent requests and deadlines. It is not an easy gig! When your To-Do list doesn’t stop growing, how do you plan what to do first? When you do plan, there will be the inevitable surprises, re-prioritisation of work and of course the stop everything to get this done right now task. So how do you prioritise your workload when the usual productivity tricks don’t apply for Assistants?

Understand what’s important

Important tasks are:

  • Things that contribute directly to achieving your objectives
  • Things that contribute to the success of your department or team
  • Often projects.

Highly essential tasks are things like building relationships within your organisation, or with suppliers, planning and strategising and identifying new opportunities. Meaningful work can also involve issues with a tight deadline, such as dealing with a crisis or an upcoming deadline that can’t be moved.

Sometimes you’ll have to make a judgement call on what’s important. It might be essential to get those meeting minutes finished, or it may be OK to let them slide for a bit while you work on something else.

Tasks that aren’t important are things like dealing with trivia at work. You can probably identify a whole load of emails and calls you’ve had into the office this week that don’t count as essential and yet took up a lot of your time!

Understand what’s urgent

Urgent tasks are:

  • Things that have to be completed soon to avoid a negative impact
  • Items that are often quick to complete.

Urgent work has to be completed in a short period. You generally have to judge what’s urgent based on your knowledge of the situation. Some interruptions will be critical, for example, being called to join a meeting at short notice. Some correspondence will be urgent, as will be dealing with today’s crisis.

Returning phone calls and dealing with emails are not, in the main, urgent tasks, but it does depend on the message!

Be flexible and adaptable.

Uncertainty and change are natural in this role. Know that your priorities will change, and often when you least expect them to. But try to stay focused on the tasks you’re committed to completing that day, only if it is one thing – getting that off your to-do list will give you the motivation to keep going.

Making tough decisions

But what if everything is important? And everything is urgent?

Well, there’s a secret that helps you know what to do in that case.

The secret is: Not everything you are asked to do truly is important and urgent.

Call out your manager when the urgent list is getting too big.

“I’m already working on the report for the Remuneration Committee, which will take me until Tuesday. I can work on this new task after that. Or would you prefer that this got done first and the Committee report was finished on Thursday?”

“Can’t you do them both?”

“Yes, if Claire organises the long service lunch instead of me.”

There might be rolling of eyes. There might be sighs. But most reasonable, rational people will be fine when you help them prioritise the work like this.

The most common explanation for giving you more than it feels like you can handle is that they’ve forgotten what you already have to do. If you remind them of what’s on your To-Do list at the moment, they’ll be reasonable in their expectations of what you can achieve.

Once you’ve been in your role for a while, you’ll get a feel for what is truly urgent and what is just someone blustering. Push back, ask for more time, provide evidence as to why that time is needed and get a steer about what is critical from the people who can help. This is essential to give yourself the space you need to do an excellent job because multi-tasking is not the answer to a long To-Do list.

Remember: Lack of planning on your part does not constitute a crisis on my part! What’s urgent for someone else might not be urgent for you. Work with your colleagues to prepare for upcoming deadlines and stay on top of all your work.

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