Protect Your Time & Maintain Boundaries at Work

May 26, 2020


The 30-minute afternoon call you were taking on behalf of your boss has crept over the one-hour mark with no clear end in sight. Back at your desk, you have a plethora of emails to reply to. If things proceed like this, you'll either have to stay behind after work or pull out the laptop after dinner!

To your boss and colleagues, you are a hardworking executive assistant who's thriving at their job. But deep down, you're fatigued all the time as you don't have boundaries in place to protect your time at work.

Time management can be hard for administrative professionals and executive assistants. There's never really a typical day. One day you may be coordinating a project across several departments, and the next, you're handling correspondences with your Board of Directors. So how do you set and maintain boundaries for your time? Keep reading to find out!

Create Structure

Without a solid structure in place, it becomes easy for people to mismanage your hours and leave you with unattended workloads at the end of the day. The first step in setting boundaries is creating and executing a structure. Due to the lack of routine in most executive roles, you can do this on the go to ensure you are flexible enough to accommodate any new tasks that come up in the day.

First, create a schedule for every day. Set aside time for meetings and uninterrupted work. Create time to reply to emails in their order of priority and urgency. Block out some minutes on your calendar for breaks and you-time at work. Use scheduling and management tools to help prioritize your work. Say no to distractions from colleagues during your working hours.

A solid structure allows you to complete the work you set aside for each day and still leave the office without burnout. It also allows you to identify when your time boundaries are being violated. For example, if the accountant wants to discuss something with you during your uninterrupted work time, you can quickly ask to reschedule the meeting and avoid disruptions.

Kill Unproductive Calls or Meetings

One thing that executive assistants do most is attending endless meetings, some of which have nothing to do with their executives or their roles. Impromptu meetings that don't add value to your work are a major time killer. Most end up dragging on for over an hour, especially if there was no clear agenda at the start.

Protect your time by saying no to such meetings, mainly if they're not led by your boss. If you have to be available, insist on a clear and focused agenda to avoid wasting time. State your intention at the beginning of the meeting. For example, "I've got a hard stop at 3 p.m., so let's ensure all the main issues are covered by then." This will prompt people to respect your time, and it allows you to slip out if the stipulated timeframe isn't adhered to.

Prioritize as Much as Possible

Effective prioritization is one of the most valuable skills an administrative professional can master. It will improve your day-to-day, expand your opportunities, and allow you to attend to pressing matters. While you may not be able to offload confidential work or managing your executive's schedule, there are several ways you can make your workload feel more manageable, while keeping it better aligned with your goals.

The main tool would be to use Eisenhower’s Principle. With this, you regularly assess and sort things into four buckets with one being the highest level of importance:

  1. Important AND urgent
    • You need to preserve time for things that unexpectedly come up that are both, and reoccurring tasks that are both.
  2. Important but NOT urgent
    • Important things need the right amount of time and care, even if they aren’t time-sensitive. They help you stay on track professionally, so protect time for them so you aren’t stressed later when something becomes urgent that didn’t need to be.
  3. NOT important but urgent
    • These tasks often come from others; can you reschedule them? Delegate them? If a particular person is a frequent source, schedule a regular touch-base to tackle several things at once.
  4. NOT important and NOT urgent
    • Ignore or cancel as much as you can in this category. Anything else, set aside time down the line.

If you’re wondering how prioritizing tasks helps in maintaining your time boundaries, these examples may help: you can establish farther-out start times on projects, or delay responding to email threads, for items that fall in categories three and four. This helps you to protect your time better for items that fall in categories one and two.

Routinize Your Boundaries

You have created a solid structure of your workdays, identified meetings you can skip, and delegated tasks to others in your team. This is only the first step in setting your boundaries. To maintain them, you have to have a routine. This way, other people will see your seriousness and learn to respect your time boundaries.

For example, if you walk out of a 20-minute meeting that dragged on for one hour, people will be keen to stick to the schedule next time. Similarly, if you learn to say no to distractions when they occur, others will stay out of your hair when your calendar is blocked. This doesn't mean you have to be rude; however, the art of politely saying no prompts colleagues to respect your time.

Setting and maintaining boundaries helps you manage your time better as an executive assistant or administrative professional. In turn, you have time to exercise self-care, prevent burnout, and increase your productivity in the workplace!

About the Author

Heidi Souerwine, CMP, is the Content Manager of ASAP and manages content strategy for ASAP and its portfolio of products, including the APC, EA Summit, EA Ignite, and PACE. Prior to moving to Maine and joining the ASAP team in 2017, she spent 15 years in Washington, DC managing training and events from 10 – 10,000 attendees for international membership associations, non-profits, and the federal government. Heidi is passionate about needs-based program development, purposeful event design, and cultivating active community and engagement.

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