Where do you draw the line? Setting boundaries for Assistants

Let’s start with a question. Would you say that you are good at setting boundaries for Assistants? Here is an even more important question – are you good at setting boundaries, and are you good at sticking to them?

Assistants need to set boundaries for several reasons. We work closely with our Executive, who often work incredibly long hours and are super passionate about their work. So, Assistants can be taken for granted very quickly.

We do our jobs so effectively that I think our Executives expect us to be around all of the time, and they tend to become very reliant on us. Boundary setting is an essential part of any relationship (be it personal or working), so where do we draw the line? How can we set boundaries for Assistants, make sure we are setting the right boundaries, commit to them and then, the most important bit, communicate our boundaries?

Setting boundaries for Assistants

“Machines are built to work 24/7, but not human beings. It’s crucial that we put boundaries in place for ourselves, to have offline time, exercise and sleep, time with loved ones and friends and family that’s not tethered to a screen. That’s how we start to get into the dance between being effective and productive with our time, and also being healthy and sane human beings.” Marie Forleo

I want to start by sharing this quote from Marie Forleo. We really can not work 24/7, and it is so important for Assistants to put boundaries in place for our own health and mental wellbeing.

To truly commit to boundary setting, you have to understand your why. Borrowed from Simon Sinek, you have to understand why you do things and what makes those things so important to you. It could be your family, your friends, your health or your wellbeing. It is important to root your why in things that make you happy and bring you joy because it makes setting boundaries much easier.

Where do you start when setting boundaries?

I think the most obvious place to start when thinking about setting boundaries for Assistants is time. It is not an unlimited resource, and Assistants need to use it wisely. Setting boundaries around where you spend your time, getting very clear and focused will help you do what you want to accomplish in a day (week, month and year). When you are very intentional about your time, you’ll notice that you find space to do the things you love.

What are your non-negotiables?

The first place to start with setting time boundaries is to look at your non-negotiables. What are the things you absolutely want to do in your day?

For me, that is spending quality time with my kids when they get home from school, shutting my laptop down around 9 pm to spend time with my partner and making sure I read a book at some point during the day. I’m creating non-negotiables around eating better and doing more exercises (which is a work in progress). There are times that I commit to things that conflict with my non-negotiables, but on the whole, I try to stick to these boundaries every day. I also have monthly and yearly non-negotiables, such as taking vacation time.

So what are your non-negotiables? The things you want to do with the time that is really important to you. Planning these out into an ‘ideal week’ structure will really help you visualise and stick to your boundaries. Remember to attach a strong why to your non-negotiable. Again if you really understand why you do these things, your commitment becomes more solid.

Along with understanding what you want to spend your time on, it is equally important to set boundaries around what you do not want to spend time on. For me, that really boils down to limiting how much time I spend on my phone and my laptop. I put boundaries in place limiting my screentime and, more specifically, social media and emails (and more recently – watching endless amounts of news!)

Let’s move on to set some boundaries around your working hours and what you do within those hours to make sure you can commit to other areas of your life.

Setting boundaries for Assistants

When it comes to working and setting boundaries, I know it can be a difficult area for Assistants. We are often people-pleasers. We often have an ‘ad-hoc duties’ section in our job descriptions, which means that co-workers can drop anything onto our desk and expect us to do it, and we often have an overworked, overstressed Executive who relies on us to manage their time and ensure they commit to their boundaries.

It is not easy.

But, for our wellbeing, we must put boundaries in place that work for us.

Where do you start?

You start by understanding expectations. What is expected of you? Ideally, it would be best if you did this at the beginning of every role you take. It is much easier to have these conversations in the interview process because you will understand how much of your time your Executive wants. If you are in a role and your boundaries are consistently compromised, you should also have this conversation because you can either change the scenario, live with it or change your role. At least you will know where you stand.

Let’s face it. Your Executive is not going to start the conversation about boundary setting at work.

I’m afraid you will have to assert yourself on this one.

Here are a few questions you can ask during the interview process to understand expectations:

  • Do you want me in the office when you are in the office?
  • Do you expect me to answer my mobile phone/emails outside of office hours?
  • What is the culture here regarding hours? Do people work over their expected hours, and if so, is this from the office or remotely?
  • What hours do you work? When do you switch off?

And lastly, tell your Executive a little bit about yourself so that they know you have other priorities outside of work. For example, I used to play netball twice a week, which meant I had to leave the office on time. This is a risky approach. Nobody wants to annoy your Executive early on in the role, but what happens when working long hours and unsustainable? The only one suffering is you! I believe most Executives are reasonable and will respect your boundaries if you are flexible in other areas.

One of the best assets we have as assistants is that we can be really flexible, and we should be because we don’t know the emergencies that will crop up in the office, and we don’t know when we have to drop everything to complete urgent work. Our flexible approach to work will mean that we are in the office for long periods of time. So I think of flexibility as a trade-off. Yes, I will be flexible when I need to, and I will make sacrifices, but I will also leave the office early now and then because I make the hours up elsewhere.

This is where compromise comes into play. Although you have boundaries and non-negotiables, as Assistants, it is only realistic that we do occasionally compromise. Concentrate on doing most of your work during working hours, be available when there is a crisis and make sure to turn your phone/ laptop off when you want to spend time doing the things that bring you joy.

Saying no to things that are not your priority

I can’t write about setting boundaries and not mention the ‘no’ word. We have many resources on how you can say no effectively, but it is worth reiterating that you have to decide what to say no to and what to say yes to. Saying no allows you more time and space to do the things that you want to do. It is easier to say no when you understand that your role is strategic and your work is very much aligned to the goals and objectives of your Executive and your organisation.

For Assistants who struggle to say no, it gets easier with practice. I often said yes to things and then felt really uneasy about it, anxious and often dreaded doing the work or the thing I had said yes to. I now know, with practice, that if I feel any of those things, I will most often say no (unless it is good for me to feel uncomfortable or it is good for the business, and I have to challenge myself).

Here is another quote that I want to share with you, this time from Oprah Winfrey.

You have to be able to set boundaries. Otherwise, the rest of the world is telling you who you are and what you should be doing. You can still be a nice person and set boundaries.

So if Oprah say it is okay to say no, it really is okay to say no! It doesn’t make you a bad person. Sure, you will have a few uncomfortable conversations, and I’m sure you will disappoint a few people, but you have to put your boundaries front and centre.

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