How EAs Can Prioritize When Everything Feels Important

Assistants have long played a pivotal role in helping their leaders make effective choices and prioritize their time.

Now, as EAs take on increasingly complex responsibilities themselves, they must navigate the double-edged sword of seizing strategic opportunities while avoiding the “do everything” trap.

Keep reading to learn about how to determine what is important to your leader, how to not let your needs be an afterthought in a support role, and finding your (and your leader’s) personal version of success.

How to find balance when everything is important

In our recent Base Live, our panel of administrative leaders who are working every day to remain focused on what matters most when everything seems important, both for themselves and their leaders, shared their expertise and tips for how Executive Assistants can find balance when everything is important and find a personal approach to productivity and success:

  • Natalie Lee, Sr. EA to the Chief Administrative & Legal Officer and Manager of Leadership Operations at Atlassian
  • Rowe Hoffer, Sr. EA to the Co-Founder & CEO and Lead of EA Cohort at Mozilla

Watch the full video below or keep reading for the highlights from the conversation!

3 ways assistants can intentionally prioritize

Here are three of the top takeaways from our conversation with Rowe and Natalie on intentional prioritization. Have any to add? Join our Executive Assistant Community and connect with assistants across the globe who are navigating similar experiences.

Determine what is important to your leader

Creating a big impact in your role is a matter of being ruthless in how you prioritize on behalf of your leader. As an assistant, you are ideally pointing the arrow that is your executive. But how do you know exactly where they need to be directed and with what magnitude?

Rowe shared that relying on your executive to be your source of truth for what’s most important is actually doing them a disservice. She explained that the best way to truly have a pulse on what’s important to your leader is to build relationships and trust with as many people around them as possible. These are the true sources of what’s going on, and you would be well served to already have a handle on these priorities before they even reach your leader,  instead of trying to ask them what they need to focus on.

Natalie gave an example of a more systematic approach she uses: agreeing with her executive on 2 priorities a week, and letting everything else be subject to the three Ds:

  1. Delay
  2. Delegate
  3. Delete

She, like Rowe, emphasized the importance of building trust in the relationships with those around you and your leader. Not only for delegation purposes, so you already know who the right person to ask for help is, but also so that you can shine when people come to you needing help because you’ve shown them they can count on you.

From an even more practical standpoint, once you determine what’s important, you can dial this down even further by knowing exactly what and why events are on your leader’s calendar and doing calendar audits. You can also share your leader’s priorities with their direct reports or other stakeholders to ensure they’re more likely to happen. Last, find an organizational system that works for you and stick with it (vs having some things on pen and paper, some things in one software, etc.), and communicate judiciously with your leader about what’s important instead of treating everything as equally important so they trust your judgment.

Don’t let your needs be an afterthought

In a support role, like an assistant, it can be easy to deprioritize your own aspirations and needs. When your literal job is to help someone else achieve their goals, the concept of work-life balance can get blurry.

Rowe shared that she looks at this as a work-life compromise. She shared that the way she knows if she’s doing this well is to check two things:

  1. How am I feeling?
  2. How are my friends and family feeling about my presence? 

She encouraged attendees to also remember that prioritizing your personal life and well-being is a requirement, not a reward – that doing that will allow you both to be the kind of employee you want to be, and having the full life you deserve.

Natalie shared that for her, when her work-life balance is off, it doesn’t only affect her; It affects her family, her friendships, her executive, her team, the company, and more. It’s really motivating when you’re aware of all the parts of your life and work you value and how they’re affected by your cup being full (or not). She went on to share that it’s imperative to know yourself and know what fills that cup the fastest and in the most fulfilling way, so you can be efficient with how you’re rebalancing it all.

Additionally, being transparent and communicative with your leader about your priorities in addition to theirs, being clear on your calendar about what you’re up to in addition to knowing what your leader is doing and why, will help both of you take a stand for work-life balance and build your trust together. Rowe wrapped this up succinctly by sharing her number one goal is always to “Keep clarity high and chaos low.”

Find a personal version of success

The promise of implementing the right system or supplement to achieve all your goals (or help your leader to do this) is alluring. You may have tried a few “hacks” with varying degrees of success, or maybe you already have a clear idea of what enables you to check things off your list. Either way, using ruthless prioritization as the filter for getting the right things done is when the real magic happens.

Natalie again shares how the key to doing this well is really knowing yourself and not ignoring what you know about yourself to fit someone else’s standard of what a good employee should be doing. You can also help your executive to determine this by asking them thoughtful questions like, “On days where you feel really good or you feel really productive, what did that day look like? Did you start with an 8 AM coffee with your family? Did you start with a 6am run and go straight to a 7:30 meeting?” and facilitating how you can build their schedule around these things.

Rowe added that equally important to knowing what your leader’s best day looks like is also picking up on the nuggets of how does this person behave, look like, feel like, sound like when they’re having a bad day? Beyond that, paying attention to the questions they’re ignoring, the things they aren’t doing – not necessarily so you can stay on top of them about it, but rather to seek to better understand their priorities, their state of mind on a given day, or as Natalie added, an opportunity for feedback on how you can better work with them.

How Executive Assistants can practically prioritize

If you’re an EA looking for more practical insight into prioritization, first, tune into the full video as our panelists shared many more tips than these highlights. Next, connect and brainstorm with other assistants in the largest group of EAs in the industry. Our community brings together assistants from businesses all over the world, so you can meet and learn from other professionals who’ve been in your event planning shoes.

You can also check out our resources for EAs, learning and development programs, and job opportunities.

Written by Natalie Turner

Natalie is a content strategist, seasoned facilitator, certified leadership coach, and formerly the Executive Assistant to the CEO and President at Base. She believes in the power of supportive relationships and rituals, both personal and professional, to change individual lives and therefore the world. She explores these concepts in Base workshops, on the Courageous Help podcast, and in her own entrepreneurial pursuits.