Chapter One

Productive Assistants – Taking Control of your Day

This chapter covers everything Assistants need to deal with overwhelming to-do lists and getting on top of your day.

Chances are, that as an Executive Assistant, Personal Assistant or Administrative Professional, you are supposed to be excellent at time managment and unbeleivable productive. It is true that Assistants do excel at time management, but it is also time that Assistants struggle every day to keep control of their day and stay on top of all of their responsbilities and tasks.

Productivity for Assistants – Taking control of your day, and safeguarding your time and your priorities might come easy to you. But, for the vast majority of Assistants, it is an ongoing challenge. Assistants are often overwhelmed with their workload. They struggle to prioritise their work because they are interrupted continuously with other people’s urgent matters.

Assistants are also working for multiple Executives with conflicting priorities and objectives, making it hard for Assistants to know where to start when prioritising their own to-do list.

It is a challenge.

Productivity for Assistants – Taking Control of your Day

In this chapter, we are going to cover all of those challenges and give Assistants specific advice on how to deal with interruptions, priorities, have those conversations with difficult colleagues who want your time and attention.

Let’s get started. But, first an overview of how to control your day as an Executive or Personal Assistant:

Taming the Time Zappers

Productivity for Assistants - Taking Control of your Day

Assistants are taking on more and more tasks and are involved in all sorts of projects.

This is great (as long as we are appreciated for it and that is a whole other guide!), but it can also be overwhelming.

How do we keep on top of all of the work that we have piled up around us when there are so many time zappers? Here are my top five that Assistants have to deal with:

1. Interruptions

This has got to be the number, one productivity killer, for Assistants, and we will talk about this a lot in this chapter.

I once counted the number of times I was interrupted throughout my day. I think I lost count by lunchtime. It was ridiculous and often completely unnecessary.

To ensure you get through everything you need to do in a day you have to minimise interruptions. This means you have to be tough when people come up to your desk to speak to you. Some assistants are quite happy just to tell colleagues that they are busy and can’t stop to chat, answer a question, make a cup of tea, get them a pen out of the stationery cupboard.

But, other assistants may need to employ a few tactics to make it obvious they are not to be disturbed. I always found headphones helpful.

When I had my headphones on it meant I was trying to concentrate on something and quite often the less bolshy colleagues would tiptoe away. If I had something urgent, I would usually book myself in a meeting room for an hour or go out to a cafe.

I’d let my Executive know so that they could find me if they need anything.

2. Powering through your day

I’m so guilty of this one.

I try to power through work but often find myself staring at the computer and wondering why I can no longer feel my backside.

Regular breaks are so necessary, and you will find you are much more productive after a short break. Also, taking a quick break away from your desk means you can catch up with other colleagues and find out what is happening in other parts of the business which will help your career development.

Win-win!

3. Keeping everything stored in your head

I know most Assistants love lists.

I love love love lists and use them in every aspect of my life. From experience, I know I am much more productive when I have a list of tasks to work through. Lists keep me sane, as well as productive.

I don’t know if you are getting the message, but, I highly recommend you keep a to-do list. If you don’t, start today, right now. Trust me, your life will change overnight, and your productivity will skyrocket.

4. Saying yes to everything

So this might be the reason you have so much work in the first place. Productivity for Assistants – Taking control of your day starts by saying no to certain things.

There are only so many hours in a day and Assistants can not, and should not, say yes to everything asked of them. You have to know what is actually expected of you and push back on work that you should not be doing. Don’t get me wrong. I know for Assistants, this is a balancing act. You want to be helpful to everyone, but don’t want people taking advantage.

My rule was that I would be mega helpful when I wasn’t busy.

If I didn’t have much on then, I would have the time to do the small tasks that colleagues would ask me to do.

When I was busy, which was most of the time, I would say that I couldn’t do that task. Further in the chapter, we discuss how to go about saying no to colleagues.

5. Prioritising your workload

We have such a variety in our role that it is almost impossible that we enjoy every task given to us (urgh expenses!)

Putting off hard or tedious tasks can be a real drain on your productivity. Make sure you plan some time in your week to get these tasks done and off your to-do list.

Unfortunately, they don’t magically disappear so the quicker they get done the quicker you can work on much more interesting tasks.

Feeling overwhelmed at work

Productivity for Assistants - Taking Control of your Day

I’m sure at some point in our careers we have felt stressed and overwhelmed with how much work we have to get through. It can be such a vicious circle because it can feel like the only choice is to keep going, trying desperately to stay on top of everything and work extra long hours without any breaks.

But working in this state is going to have severe repercussions on your productivity levels, not to mention your wellbeing. So here are some tips for when you are feeling overwhelmed at work.

Get your priorities straight

When you are feeling overwhelmed at work, the first thing to do is to take a step back. This might seem counterintuitive but sometimes once take a minute to breathe and regroup it can reduce your stress levels almost immediately.

Go through your to-do list and work out what exactly you can do in the time that you have in the office.

  • Can you work smarter to achieve what you need to do in the day?
  • Can anything be delegated?
  • Are you doing work that is not a priority for you or your Executive?
  • Can you push back on those tasks?

These are the questions you need to ask yourself when you feel overwhelmed by everything.

You shouldn’t keep powering through.

Instead, you should work out your priorities and go from there. Not everything can be done in one day.

If you don’t know what you are doing, can you ask?

Are you getting swamped with work because you are not 100% clear on what you have to do?

I find this happens a lot with Assistants because they spend a lot of time guessing what their Executive’s expectations are, and often what the task entails.

Yes, your Executive’s are busy, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t set clear expectations or communicate precisely what they want you to be doing.

Is your Executive communicating their requirements clearly so that you can get on with the work they are giving you? If not, ask them to do so or repeat back to them what you have been tasked to do so that you are both on the same page.

Get a second opinion

Sometimes these feelings can creep up on you, even the most organised of people. When I’m feeling overwhelmed, I sit down with my business partner and go through my task list with them. It is always worth getting a second opinion or better ideas on how to work with trusted colleagues.

For me, I always feel much calmer and focused on the work I have to get through.

Don’t always be the go-to person

I know this is harder said than done because we are that person in the office but taking on more work isn’t a good idea because it can lead to feeling overwhelmed with everything.

Instead, you should be focusing on your priorities, the business priorities and your Executive’s priorities.

Rather than being the go-to person, be the knowledgeable person who can point people in the right direction and connect people. Productivity for Assistants – taking control of your day really means you have to decide who you help and when. 

But don’t take on work that is not your priority. Helping people when they can help themselves isn’t going to work for you in the long run. You’ve got too much on your plate, saving everyone else from their problems won’t save you from yours.

Take breaks – regularly

Taking regular breaks is a big game-changer for me.

I used to try and power through work but soon realised that without regular breaks from my desk and screen, I was not always working on the right things and I indeed lost a lot of focus. Taking breaks gives me a chance to regroup a few times through the day.

I try to time them at the point I finish a piece of work so that the break also acts as a reward for a job completed.

Is this overwhelm temporary?

Are you in a busy season or is overwhelm a feeling every day?

Can you sustain the overwhelm because your game plan is to get the brand you are working for on your CV before moving to a calmer environment?

If this is the case, remember your game plan and tell yourself this is a temporary situation but stick it out for only as long as you need to because overwhelm can quickly lead to burnout.

If you always overwhelmed and all of these solutions do not work.

It is time to talk to your Executive. With any conversation like this, you have to go in with some answers to the problem. But, with anything that relates to your mental wellbeing you have to put your needs first because you are the most important thing.

What to do when you’ve taken on too much work

Productivity for Assistants - Taking Control of your Day

Most Assistants tend to work to a capacity of about 99.9%.

We seem to operate at this level day after day, year after year.

It is expected that we take on every piece of work thrown at us, every task is accepted, and deadlines are met.

We run around looking after our Executives without much thought for who is looking after us.

Most of us deal with this level of work, or should I say we get on with it. We are used to multitasking and working quickly through tasks, so the amount of work we can get through in a day is at a pretty high level. But what happens when we take on too much work, and how can we get our workload back to a reasonable amount?

What to do when you’ve taken on too much work? Productivity for Assistants – taking control of your day means you have to watch burn out. 

Are you stressed?

The signs are usually pretty visible, but stress does manifest itself in different ways, and not everyone recognises the symptoms in the first place. Here are a few signs that work is taking over your life.

  • Nervous gestures such as nail-biting increases
  • You feel constantly run down
  • You can’t find the energy to clean / cook / maintain your usual standards at home
  • You never seem to get on top of emails
  • Your desk is in a constant mess
  • You can’t remember the last time you left the office while it was still light
  • You are struggling to sleep
  • You are worrying about deadlines

The first step is actually to recognise that you are stressed and working too much. For Assistants, this can hard because we are just expected to take on project after project and complete everything on time. If you are stressed, you have to be honest with yourself – this is not a healthy way to be living life and can lead to significant burnout.

Talk to your manager

As I’ve said, a lot of Executive’s don’t know the extent of our workload. Unless you have a fantastic and attentive manager, the only way they are going to know is if you tell them.

If you are stressed, or you feel like you have taken on too much work, schedule a meeting with them.

At this meeting, you should take the time to discuss your to-do list concentrating on which tasks should be priorities and which tasks could be delegated.

You should highlight the tasks that other members of staff are giving you that maybe they could do themselves?

You should ask your boss to support you in pushing back on this work; ideally, with your manager speaking to the member of staff to clarify the work you should be doing.

Likewise, if your manager is giving you too much work, you should discuss how to manage the workload during the meeting.

Take a step back

If you are happy to work long hours and can handle the stress levels, then, by all means, take on as much work as you can.

Remember to take regular breaks and try to get enough sleep so that you fully charged for each day.

If you are unhappy with the way things are going at work, take a step back and look at your priorities – is your personal life suffering because you have too much work to do?

If this is the case, and you value your personal life, you have to put that first. Once you are focused on your priorities, it is much easier to adjust your workload accordingly.

That isn’t to say you slack off while you are in the office; it is the opposite.

You work hard in the allotted hours, and you work effectively during your time in work – you don’t take on too much work so that your work/life balance is skewed.

Can you be more assertive?

This is the big question and something we cover in more detail in chapter two. Assistants have to be assertive; otherwise, our colleagues, unfortunately, take advantage.

Assistants have to say no to the work that their colleagues should be doing themselves.

They have to prioritise tasks and effectively manage their own to-do list so that they know if and when they can take on additional work.

Being focused on our priorities in life, along with our priorities in work, should help us maintain a balanced workload.

How to prioritise your workload

Productivity for Assistants - Taking Control of your Day

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 multitasking 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.

How to deal with conflicting priorities

Productivity for Assistants - Taking Control of your Day

Although the role of an Assistant can be incredibly varied, there are certain aspects that all of us will face at some point in our career.

We all have similar experiences in the workplace… Yes, I do know where the photocopier is… No, I can’t fix the paper jam…

And then there are the competencies that we all need to get the job done.

Let’s face it, most of us will weekly (if not a daily basis) have to work through several tasks within a specific timeframe.

Some are the usual routine tasks, some are part of an ongoing project, and some are urgent and require immediate attention.

How do you keep your workflow moving so that you meet the requirements of the role and nail every deadline that comes your way? Here are my tips on how Assistants can deal with conflicting priorities. Productivity for Assistants – Taking Control of your Day and deal with conflicting priorities. 

What are you supposed to be doing today?

It is much easier handling multiple priorities if you have a clear idea of what you are supposed to be doing that day.

For me, this is achieved by reviewing your to-do list at the start of each day and working out how much time each task should take you. Look at your deadlines and priorities accordingly.

Having a best-case scenario means that you can at least start the day focused on what you want to achieve. If something urgent crops up you can put your work on hold, deal with the urgent matter and then quickly return to your original plan without too much disruption.

What are your priorities?

As we have discussed in this chapter, for Assistants, priorities are a very fluid thing.

Your priorities are your Executive’s priorities and your organisation’s priorities. Therefore you have to understand the bigger picture.

This is where your business acumen comes into play.

If you are fully aware of what is happening in your business, you can make much more informed decisions about what needs to do be done and when it needs to be achieved.

Being proactive can also ensure that you are working on the right things and completing tasks that are increasing your Executive’s productivity.

Rescheduling tasks and creating space in your day

Annoyingly the routine work doesn’t go away.

If you have to stop what you are doing and work on something urgently, you will still have to complete all of the other stuff you need to do that day.

How do you do this?

I will often add a little white space to my day.

If something urgent crops up I will use my ‘white space’ time to get this done and then I can go back to what I was doing previously.

If I have a perfect day, I use my white space to do some personal development, plan my workload for the following week or go out and get some fresh air.

This is very rare, and usually, the ‘white space’ does get used for work, but I at least plan it into my day.

Communication is and always will be key

I know, I know, I say this all the time. But it is true.

You need to be very, very vocal as an Assistant; otherwise, your Executive and colleagues will just assume you can handle every little task that is passed your way.

Speak to your manager every day, find out what is coming up, what the priorities are, and what you can do to meet deadlines.

Tell them what your task list looks like, what you are working on, and what you have coming up.

Say no more often… It will do you good!

Last but not least if you have loads of conflicting priorities and you are struggling to get everything done, you must must must say no to things.

Question your colleagues that always use the urgent card.

Is this urgent?

Or have you just left it to the last minute?

Make everyone aware that you are busy and can’t take 5 minutes to quickly do that thing they are asking you to do (it never takes 5 minutes!) Being a little more assertive will certainly help you manage priorities.

Minimising constant and unneccessary interruptions – Nine Strategies

Dealing with interruptions for Assistants is a constant battle.

As I have said in this chapter, we are the go-to person and the centre of knowledge. When someone in your office doesn’t know the answer to something, they know that you will have the solution they need.

And so, they come over to your desk, or phone you, or send you a quick email, or get in touch via Slack.

They interrupt you for what could only be a few minutes for them, but a significantly more extended period for you.

Executive and Personal Assistants need to manage interrupts, as it is an inevitable part of the role.

Here are nine strategies that help deal with interruptions:

  1. Implement an Executive Voicemail system. In my current role, I receive loads and loads of sales calls that are of no interest to my Directors and sometimes it is challenging to get these types of people off the phone, so just after I started here, I asked the switchboard to put through any calls that sound like they are from a salesperson, or are callers asking for my Directors by job title rather than by name, through to the voicemail which I then check a few times a day. Productivity for Assistants – Taking Control of your Day. Implement strategies that free up your time. 
  2. At the start of each day print off a copy of your Director’s diaries so that when someone asks where they are or what they have on today, you can refer to the piece of paper rather than stopping what you are doing on the computer and accessing their diaries via outlook.
  3. If you commute to work, do take time on the train to prepare yourself for the day ahead. It’s worth taking a small amount of your own time so that you know how you want the day to pan out. I find it helps to have a game plan if you know it will be a busy day.
  4. Make it easy for people to have the information they need without having to ask support staff. For example, you could implement an open stationery cupboard that colleagues can help themselves to, on the condition they do not take things they do not need. One of my previous employers had a booklet which was given to every new member of staff. It detailed all of the department’s procedures, including an extensive section on administration, such as holiday requests and ordering meeting rooms. When I was asked anything, I could point them in the direction of the booklet rather than doing the work myself.
  5. Ensure you have everything at your fingertips. If feasible, have things like the letter tray and the printer close to your desk. The office equipment that you use the most should be nearby so that you are not spending large amounts of your time walking around the office. I had to collect a new printer cartridge from the ground floor at the beginning of the week. I’m up on the 5th floor, so this took about 15 minutes to sort out, while I was downstairs I made sure I ordered a few extra cartridges so that next time I will have spares next to my desk and I won’t have to make the journey downstairs.
  6. Try and commit to getting a task completed every day. Even if it is a small task, it does feel good to tick something off of your to-do list and by the end of the day feel like you’ve achieved something.
  7. Don’t be on the back foot when it comes to people interrupting you. Try and be proactive to stop the same interruptions occurring. If colleagues are asking you the same questions all the time, why is this? Can they get the information themselves or is that you struggle to be assertive with lazy colleagues – can you say ‘no’ more often?
  8. If you are in the middle of a big task and can’t afford to be interrupted think about ways to let colleagues know not to interrupt you. In the past, I’ve put up a little flag to notify people and also put in earphones when I don’t want to be distracted or involved in chit-chat in an open-plan office.
  9. Have a backup plan, if you can’t complete one of your tasks what else can you be doing? It is always worth getting other tasks ticked off while you are waiting for someone else to get back to you.

VIDEO: How Assistants manage their own time at work and deal with interruptions

In this session chaired by Nicky Christmas, you will find practical ideas on how Executive and Personal Assistants can manage their own time and crucially deal with interruptions.

You will hear from three very experienced Executive Assistants on how they make sure they stay as productive as possible by making sure they prioritise their own time. Productivity for Assistants – Taking Control of your Day? The video answers all of your questions.

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Handling colleagues who think you are their Assistant (when they are not!)

We’ve all been there, picture the scene.

You are sitting at your desk, working hard, you are focused, and you have a deadline to meet when a colleague comes up to you, interrupts what you are doing to ask you to do something that isn’t your priority, it isn’t something you should be focusing on right now. Your colleague should probably be doing this work themselves.

It happens every day, right?

For Assistants, 100% it does.

We all have to deal with interruptions, sometimes we don’t mind, and sometimes we do!

Productivity for Assistants – Taking Control of your Day means it often depends on the day, what you have on your plate and how empathetic you want to feel towards your colleagues. But, most of us will have to, at some point in our career, deal with a colleague who truly thinks you are their Assistant.

They ask questions that they don’t ask anyone else in the business, they use you as the office Google, rather than find the details themselves, they interrupt whatever you are doing without any hesitation and they ask you to complete tasks that they don’t want to do or can’t do themselves. Sound familiar?

Yes, I thought so!

Assistants have to deal with these co-workers all the time, so I thought I would write some advice on handling colleagues who think you are their Assistant (when you are not!)

This is my first piece of advice.

Stop helping them! 

You are going to reinforce their bad behaviour if you help them regularly.

They won’t realise they are doing anything wrong until you tell them.

Yes, I know it is frustrating.

They should understand that you are not there to serve them.

You are there to assist your Executive strategically.

That is your job, and you can’t do that job if you are helping your co-workers with work they are paid to do themselves.

This takes confidence, but it is so worth pushing back on colleagues who treat you like their Assistant because it does take up valuable time that is better spent on making your Executive more successful.

How do you go about having this conversation with your colleague? Here are phrases you can use:

  • No (No is a full sentence after all!)
  • I’m sorry I am busy doing (name three or four high-level projects you are working on), and I don’t have the capacity for your request.
  • What have you tried so far?
  • Can you ask (name someone good at what they are asking for)? They are fantastic at that. I’m sure they can help you.
  • I’m on deadline at the moment. I will be free (look at the calendar and give an obscure date in the next few weeks).
  • I’m busy working on strategic projects for my Executive at the moment if you would like to check with them if I have time to fit in your request do you want me to book you an appointment? Courtesy of the excellent Abigail Jones on our Virtual Summit back in October 2018. 
  • I can’t help with that right now, have you checked with IT / Finance / HR? If you have an administrative manual, you can point them towards that too.

Speak with your Executive

If you don’t feel confident that you can push back with this colleague (they might be in the Executive Team, for example), then do have a conversation with your Executive.

Explain that this colleague is taking a lot of your time and you want to check if that has been agreed with your Executive.

If they say no, then that should give you more confidence to push back, you have the blessing of your Executive to do just that.

If the colleague gets difficult after you say no, then refer them back to your Executive.

In most cases, you want to support your colleagues.

You have skills that really can help them move the business forward and get work done.

But, you have to chose who you help and when you can offer that support.

You should never let someone treat you like the office dog’s body or take work from colleagues who should be doing that work themselves. You have to set your boundaries and be prepared to push-back on the people who are trying to take advantage of you. It’s not easy, but if you want to advance in your career, you have to be clear about your role and what you do for the organisation you work in.

Next Chapter

The Productive Assistant Mindset
Chapter Two