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  • Dorit Sauer

Priorities: The Key to an Assistant's Survival

Assistant multitasking

There are days when you work nonstop but do not feel like you are getting anything done. On other days, so many important and urgent issues arise that you do not even know where to start. How do you survive the continued stream of incoming demands and requests?

Knowing the priorities

At times it can be hard to juggle the company's, your boss’s, and your own priorities. If we add to the mix that you support more than one executive or people of different hierarchical levels, the game is on. How can you stay on top of all the demands? How can you do an effective job?

What are the company’s priorities? The first step to do an effective job is to know what is going on at the company you work for. As assistants we should know the company’s mission and core business. How well are you able to explain what the company you work for does?

It is also important to know the company’s strategy. Where is the company headed in the mid and long-term? Which business areas are key to the company’s growth? What are the priorities and key projects? Who are the shareholders and main stakeholders?

All this information will help you to better know how your position fits in. That is, how you may contribute to the company’s development; be it giving the best support, working on projects, or detecting opportunities for business or savings, for example.

What priorities does your boss have? The next step is to know your boss’s mission, responsibilities, and priorities. How does he/she contribute to the company’s mission and strategy? What are his/her main tasks and projects? Who are the main stakeholders your boss deals with? Who are the most important clients and contacts?

If you want to give the best possible support to your boss, you need to understand what their job is. Also, you need to know what is important to your boss on both a professional and personal level. With the latter, I do not mean for you to pry into your boss’s intimacies. Consider, for example, their family situation, well-being, and interest in personal development.

This is how you can be an effective gatekeeper. When you know your boss’s priorities, you can effectively manage their agenda. You can discern which meetings can be moved or not, and which ones are critical or less essential.

Also, you will be able to provide your boss with the information they need for their projects, tasks, and meetings. Moreover, you will know how to screen calls and unexpected visitors and determine who your boss should spend time with and when. Should you put that call through or take a message? Should your boss meet with that unexpected visitor now, should you schedule an appointment for another time, or should you take the initiative to help the person dropping in?

What are your priorities?

Let's think about how you fit into all of this. What is your mission? What are your responsibilities, main tasks, and projects? What are your professional priorities? You might be doing a great job now, but consider how you can also do so in the future. For example, continual learning and development could be one of your priorities.

What is most important to you on personal level? It could be your family, friends, personal development, hobbies, well-being, or something else. In my opinion, being a great professional means ensuring a nice work-life balance. I encourage you to think about your personal priorities, especially the ones that are the most important to you. In our profession, we typically love to take care of and help others. However, that does not mean we should forget about our own priorities and well-being.

Getting everything under one hat

Now that we know all the different priorities, how do we juggle them all? After all, there are only 24 hours in the day.

Which tasks, projects, and activities contribute to the top priorities? Which issues should you dedicate more time and attention to? Are there tasks or activities you could do less, stop doing, or delegate? Also, take into account that not all priorities require action every day. For example, in order to feel like you are taking care of your personal development, how much time should you set aside for learning?

Review and planning Knowing your priorities and which actions contribute to them helps with proper planning. Do you have a planning routine? If not, I recommend making it a habit. It means taking time each year, month, week, and day to look back on achievements, learnings, and important unfinished business.

In addition, I recommend checking your and your boss’s calendars for upcoming events that may require preparation. This will help you to nail down the main goals and related action items. It will also help you to focus on what is important and to be more proactive. You will be able to anticipate tasks related to upcoming meetings, presentations, conferences, and so on. Also, the review will contribute to your motivation as you will remember everything you have achieved.

However, do not be overly ambitious with your plans. Remember that things may take more time than you accounted for and that contingencies may arise.

Having a productive day Now that you have included regular planning into your routine, you should have a clear picture of what the most important tasks are for the week. When planning your day, I recommend you do not choose more than three important tasks to work on. Consider how long each task takes in order to determine the number of important issues you will be able to tackle.

Also, I suggest starting your day with the most important task. Even if you do not manage to finish it due to interruptions and new incoming requests, you will have at least made some progress. This will give you a feeling of accomplishment even when your day takes a turn.

Another thing to keep in mind when planning your day is your circadian rhythm and energy levels. Plan tasks that require less concentration for moments of the day, such as after lunch, if your energy is lower then.

Dealing with unplanned items

As John Lennon said, “Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans.” How much time do you spend on planned items and how much time do you put into unplanned ones?

Even if we anticipate, we cannot foresee everything that may arise. So, we need to be prepared to be flexible and adapt when a shift is needed. However, I do not recommend immediately leaving everything you are doing to attend to whatever pops up.

Dealing with contingencies and urgencies Whenever you receive a request, be it from your boss, colleague, family member, or friend, take a moment to consider the request’s importance and urgency before taking action. Our brain is programed to pay attention to (supposed) urgencies and new items. But that does not necessarily mean that the issue is more important or urgent than what you are already working on.

Also, consider if you are the right person to take on that commitment and, if so, what the optimal timeframe would be. Do not be afraid to ask clarifying questions to figure out the essential details to carry out the job, which includes asking for the deadline. Otherwise, you might feel tempted to leave what you are working on to tackle the request right away.

However, not everything that seems urgent necessarily is. If you want be productive, you need to take time to consider the request. Assertiveness is key in ensuring respect for your work and time; do not be afraid to ask clarifying questions, assert if you are not able to do a task, or let the person know if it has to be done at a later time. There is no need for a categorical “no,” but you might need to point the person to somebody else, tell them where to look up the information, or tell them when you will be able to attend to the demand.

Reviewing priorities

Last but not least, take into account that priorities can change over time. Companies evolve and so can their strategies and priorities. Your boss’s responsibilities and interests may change over time, too. Also, your own priorities, on professional or personal levels, can change. What used to be the most important to you a couple of years ago might not be anymore, or not to the same extent.

That is why we should review priorities from time to time. This way we make sure we continue spending our efforts on what is the most important.

I hope these tips help you not only to keep your head above water, but to feel more productive and satisfied with your job and life.

Dorit Sauer

Dorit Sauer has been working almost 20 years at multinational companies in different sectors giving support to C-suite executives and their departments. Passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge and experiences, she founded The Corner of Excellence, which is a space to help others live a more productive, fulfilled, and happy life.

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