As the saying goes, you can’t be all things to all people.
As a people pleaser, this is something that I have had to come to terms with in my career.
While working as an Assistant, I wanted to help people as much as possible and got pulled in all directions. It soon became apparent that I really couldn’t do everything if I wanted to leave the office at a decent time or concentrate on a big project without getting interrupted.
I would imagine that a lot of you are nodding while reading this. Assistants tend to want to please everyone and forego their boundaries to help out their Executive’s and colleagues (and sometimes boundaries are stretched by overbearing Executive’s and colleagues).
If the idea of setting boundaries scares you, let us have a look at how you can start the process and then I will show you what can happen if you put boundaries in place. This is the foundation of the productive Assistant mindset.
Where to start when setting boundaries
Can you say no?
I’m going to throw this one out there straight away.
You might not be able to say no to your Executive, but can you say no to colleagues that might be able to do the work themselves? This is worth thinking about if you are working incredibly long hours and find it challenging to achieve a work-life balance.
What are your priorities? If you are not spending much time with friends and family because you are doing work that other people should be doing, you probably need to say no more often.
Work smarter, not harder
This is a phrase that always comes up when you talk about work-life balance.
All of the self-help books in this area offer tips around smarter working. Some are more useful than others. In our profession, it is a good idea to have procedures in place that make it easier to get things done.
My favourite tip is putting an administrative manual together to give to colleagues to do a lot of admin work on their own (for example, getting their stationery, printing their documents, getting their coffee, finding the toilet on their own…)
Leave your work in the office
So you might have to work long hours, but when you eventually leave the office, try hard to make sure that your work is left at the office.
In other words, do not bring your work home with you – either physically or in your mind. This is much easier said than done, but if you can master this one, it makes for a much better work-life balance.
Drop your standards?
As we have already discussed, nearly every Assistant I have ever met is a perfectionist and those that do not have seriously high standards. This is such a barrier to the productive Assistant mindset.
When you are working ridiculously long hours, it is worth asking the question – does this need to be perfect, or can it be good enough so that I can get home at a reasonable hour tonight? Only you can answer that question, and it does depend on the work and who you are doing it for. Maybe a more important question to ask yourself and the person you are doing the work for is – ‘is this urgent?’ Can it wait until the following day so that you can get home and sleep?
I want to look at what happens when you set boundaries.
What are the consequences, and what can you hope to achieve when you stick with your limits and say no more often.
Every Assistant I have talked to on this subject says the same thing.
When you set boundaries and you have clear communication on your expectations, you become a better Assistant. This is because everyone knows where they stand. The boundaries could be around the type of work that you do or the hours that you work. Whatever they happen to be, you can then start to communicate your expectations once you have set the boundaries. If you are strong and stick to your boundaries, people will understand what they can and can’t ask you what to do. This makes expectation setting much more straightforward and communication much clearer.
Unless you set your boundaries, other people will set them for you.
Once you have your boundaries in place, you can prioritise your workload and personal life. If you have your well-being in mind and prioritise that over everything, again, you will be a better Assistant for it. It isn’t a wrong career choice to prioritise your well-being, even if you work in a very fast-paced environment.
Make sure you check in with yourself regularly and note if anything is slipping that is important to you and then give yourself a nudge back in the right direction.
Communication is the fundamental skill that makes Assistants great, and setting boundaries will help you communicate clearly and concisely.
The reason is that you have defined your limits and expectations, and you can communicate what you want and how you expect to be treated. Ultimately you will appear more transparent and gain more respect because you are projecting how you want people to talk to you and work with you. It is compelling stuff.
So you’ve set some boundaries.
What happens now?
You’ve got to own them! You have to live your life by them. The more you believe in your boundaries, the more people will respect and trust you (and if they don’t, it makes you see what kind of individuals you want to work with).
Saying no more often leads to so much more.
Think about it if you say no to all of those requests that people should be doing themselves. What can you do with that time? Make your Executive more successful, take on a new project, go home on time, get to the gym, chill out in front of Netflix. Whatever it happens to be. You deserve to live your life, making choices for yourself and your career, rather than have them made for you.
What struck me as really interesting was the extent that so many challenges could be resolved by setting boundaries and respecting yourself.
Take, for example, the fact we are now connected with our Executive’s 24/7 through technology. How do we make sure that we are not working crazy hours or are expected to answer every phone call? We set boundaries. That is easier said than done, though, right?
We all get told that setting boundaries between your personal and professional life are essential. We need a balance and shouldn’t be taken advantage of when our wages certainly don’t reflect our work hours. And of course, those boundaries can easily slip when your Executive travels extensively or works long hours and needs your support. It is beyond tough.
Over the years, particularly since I’ve become self-employed, I’ve found that getting the balance between work and life is never quite going to work out. Instead, I’ve decided that a mixture of the two over the day is a good thing.
So work long hours, sure, but during those hours, take some time out, have a long lunch break, meet up with friends for a coffee, say at 3 pm, do the school run, get your kids to bed and then open up the laptop once you’ve caught up on your favourite TV over dinner.
A blend, I’ve found, is much better than a balance. But saying that, sometimes, you have to start with the boundaries so that you don’t get taken advantage of, so here are a few ideas to get your work/life blend into some sort of shape!
How to set boundaries between your personal and professional life
My first point is this.
You can’t be all things to all people. You can’t be a super amazing Assistant who lives and breathes your job and offers 100% support as and when it is required without it affecting your personal life – be that your family at home or seeing your friends. Something has to give, and decisions have to be made around what you want your life to look like. But know this, life is pretty challenging to juggle, and you won’t always have the right balance, which is okay. We are not after 100% perfection here!
I’ve done it myself, tried to be an amazing career woman while raising a young family, still having a social life, keeping in touch with friends and seeing the inside of a gym on occasion.
The routine didn’t last long, and I was failing at all of it. So I had to set boundaries. It was the only way to get any sanity and not always feel guilty that I was letting everyone down. It started by not being so hard on myself and then allocating time to each part of my life. Sometimes, I will check my emails while my kids are having dinner, but that is part of the blend because I know that I spent two solid hours with him at some point during the day. That was just our time with no distractions.
What are your priorities?
This has to be personal to you. Your priorities will change over time, and you should adapt your boundaries accordingly. It is okay if you have been a 24/7 Assistant that wants to be at home more because you have other responsibilities. That’s okay. Make sure you check in with yourself regularly and note if anything is slipping that is important to you, and then give yourself a nudge back in the right direction and build the productive Assistant mindset.
Work week by week and make adjustments
I’ve found over the years that the best balance comes when I plan my week and know what I have coming up and where my time and focus will be needed.
Visualise how you want your week to look and write that down! Schedule your day. If you’re going to finish at 6, but that in the diary. Have to pick up your kid from school? Make that spin class? Put it in your diary and share your schedule with those that need to know where you are and what you need to do. Let people see what you have to do. Then they will know you have a life outside of work and a busy schedule at work.
Communicate, communicate, communicate
Communication is key
You need to communicate your boundaries with your boss, your friends, your family. Tell colleagues you are leaving at 6 pm for whatever you need to do so that you don’t get that death stare when you up and leave before they do! Let your Executive know you won’t be online this evening, but you’ll check in early tomorrow. Communicate your boundaries and then try hard to stick to them. Communication is so essential for the productive Assistant mindset.
Yes, there are times that emergencies will occur, and you will need to be flexible and adapt, but this should be the exception, not the norm.