Ask an Admin: How Can I Set Boundaries and Say "No" More?

September 8, 2023


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Welcome to Career Corner: a monthly blog series from ASAP that offers career advice from seasoned professionals, in response to questions from administrative and executive assistants.

A recently asked question in the ASAP Circle community centered on how to set more boundaries at work. 

We brought this question to Beth Ann Howard, Education Coordinator at Virginia Commonwealth University and one of the ASAP Circle Community Managers, as part of our "Ask an Admin" series.

Beth Ann has spent her career in higher ed supporting students, faculty, and staff. Her favorite part of working in academia is being around passionate people devoted to lifelong learning. She received the ASAP Eureka! Award in 2016 and continues to look for ways to innovate and improve at work. She was born and raised in Virginia and loves returning home to Richmond after all her travels.

Watch Beth Ann's video response and read more below!

Question: How can I set boundaries and say "no" more?

Beth Ann Howard: One of my favorite things I ever heard about setting boundaries is “No is a complete sentence.” Empowering, right? Turns out that doesn’t play so well at work.

When your boss asks you to take on yet another responsibility, or someone goes out on leave unexpectedly and you have to pick up the slack, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by your to-do list. And sometimes it feels like “no” just isn’t an option.

1. Make sure your boss is aware of your workload

When the boss asks if you can get her Project X by Friday, try, “Yes, but that means I won’t get to project Y and Z until next week. Is that okay?” It’s even better if you can have these conversations regularly to make sure you’re on the same page, but don’t be afraid to bring it up in the moment when something new gets added to your plate.

2. Redirect

If your colleague keeps interrupting you for IT support but you’re already overloaded, suggest an alternative team member or resource. Admins are typically highly visible and highly accessible, so we get asked for help on everything, even stuff that’s not necessarily our job. If you can’t take something on, try to offer another solution instead.

3. Establish a system to keep on top of things

Whether it’s designating tasks as urgent vs important (a la the Eisenhower matrix), using the 5 Priorities Model, managing to-do lists in Trello or OneNote, or just highlighting the must-do’s for each day, understand your top priorities to your boss, your team, and yourself. If you get asked to do something outside of those priorities, it’s easier to say no knowing that you are focused right where you need to be.

Final Takeaway

Remember: Not having enough staff is a problem for management to fix, not overworked employees! We all have times when we need to step up and do a little more, but no one should have to do the work of multiple employees for more than a brief period. If you’ve taken on more work to help bridge the gap for your employer, make sure you and your boss establish a timeline for those duties to transition back out of your role.

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