Glynis E Devine’s three strategies to help you control your workload – and regain your sanity

You spend eight, nine, sometimes ten hours a day with people you don’t necessarily choose to put in your life.

If your life is similar to mine, you come home and get a mere two to three-hour window to enjoy the company of those you did choose to put in your life who you love.  And sometimes, if those 8-10 hours have emptied your emotional and physical reserves – you have nothing left for those people.

Most assistants today are having to do (far) more with (far) less.  If you’re feeling stretched emotionally or physically – or both – there’s a real risk of burnout.

It’s not healthy!  So, what do you do?  Choose wisely.  Following are three strategies you can use immediately to help retain control of your workload – and your sanity.

1. Upwards delegation

I hear assistants in my sessions often complain that their executive has ‘no idea what I do’ – usually when they are speaking about being overwhelmed (emotional state) or overburdened (physical state).

If you’ve said this ever, the good news is, the solution is in your power.  If your executive has no idea how much you’ve already got on your plate, it’s up to you to tell them.

Rather than take on more and risk getting burnt out (emotional state) or doing a less than optimal job on each project (physical state), let your executive know the impact of taking on emergency projects.

The six most important things list

This is a technique I teach that I learned in the cosmetics industry. Assistants can design this list with their executive so that the executive is aware of the day’s/week’s priorities.  Conversations of not adding more than six items to the priority list are made at the get-go to avoid difficult conversations down the road.

When a more pressing priority presents itself, the assistant goes to the executive and asks which of the six priorities can come OFF the list to make room for the new emergency.

Here’s how you phrase it – feel free to make it your own.

Show list. “Here’s what I have as the priorities you identified for today, what would you like me to take off the list to put this emergency on?’

Expect pushback! The first few times you do this (old habits die hard) you may hear, ‘Nothing can come off the list!  They’re ALL highest priorities’ even if you remembered to have that ‘no more than 6 items are ever going on that list’ conversation.

At which point, breathe (careful it’s not inferred as a huff) and say,

‘This system assures optimal performance because it only allows 6 priorities at any one time.  Something has to come off the list.  I can add it to tomorrow’s (next week’s, next quarter’s as it fits)’.


Avoid the temptation to jump in and say that you’ll see if you finish early, you’ll see if you can try to… blah blah blah… that will ruin all that assertiveness and efficiency!

Remember new habits are hard for anyone to build – for both you and your executive.  So, keep at it and eventually you’ll both be more comfortable, and the rewards will be optimal performance and sanity.

2. Yes, No, Maybe so

Saying ‘yes’ to everything is the worst thing peak professionals can do – in any any role.

Learning to choose what to say yes to can be difficult.  The reasons you don’t want to say no come with repercussions that can include:

  • being snubbed or plain out isolated by colleagues
  • being tagged ‘difficult’ or ‘negative’ from colleagues and bosses
  • being told no when you’re looking for help (law of reciprocation)
  • being overlooked and ignored for promotions or enticing projects
  • being let go for insubordination

What does avoiding ‘No’ cost you? 

For most assistants the cost of saying ‘yes’ too often is relationships at home.  I realized one day that saying ‘yes’ to everyone in business meant (often) saying ‘no’ to my family.  I was often worn out and had no energy to do what I’d promised them, or I couldn’t be there physically because I’d promised someone else I’d be where they needed me to be.

The other fallout of saying ‘yes’ to too many things is poor results.  When I take on too many commitments and don’t have the capacity, I do a lousy job of some of those commitments.  That hurts my personal work ethic, the project itself, and the relationship between me and who I committed to, to do it.

So how do you say ‘no’ safely?

  1. Look them straight in the right eye. Direct eye contact implies assertiveness and confidence.  You are defending the integrity of the quality of your work and your sanity; be brave!
  2. Say the actual word, ‘No’. Women, in particular, have the tendency to think they have said ‘No’ when they say things like, ‘I’d love to help but I’m really swamped and I have company this weekend’. There is no ‘No’ in that response.  And your listener knows that.  What your listener selectively hears is that you want to help – you started with ‘I’d love to help’.  Instead, say, ‘I have to say No’. If you must, add, ‘I would like to say yes; I’m not able to, this time’. Note: no ‘but’.
  3. If you must, offer an alternative. If you can genuinely see a gap in your agenda where you could accommodate the ask, or if you happen to know someone who has the capacity to accommodate the ask, offer either as an alternative. It’s okay to say, ’I can’t this week; I can do it the end of next week.’ (See? NO ‘but’ in there!) Be sure that if they choose to wait for you until you’re able to do it, you must be a person of your word and do the task when they come back.  Saying, ‘No’ a second time breaks trust.  In most cases, we live in such an ‘it’s due yesterday’ world, that deferring help usually gets you off the hook.

3. The Priority Matrix

When you’re the (only) one planning your priorities, don’t fall victim to what I – and other professionals – do … start with the things you love to do and avoid the rest like the plague!

If you have lots of ‘ASAP’ tasks on your list, put them to the smart test – the matrix.  I work with executives in the luxury automobile space who use this matrix when doing strategic planning to get the biggest ‘bang’ for their buck.

After you’ve done the urgent/important matrix most professionals are familiar with, then put your to do list to this test.

Ask yourself two questions of each task on your list:

  1. Will this require high (lots) or low (little) effort?
  2. Will this net high or low value / impact?

Then put that task into one of four quadrants according to the diagram.

The results

Quadrant 4 – If it’s a ton of work and it’s not going to pay huge dividend – is a waste of time. Quadrant 3 – If it’s a breeze to do and it’s not going to net a huge reward, then you may want to defer it to lower down on the list.

Save the top of the list for high value items.  Start with the low effort / high value tasks – Quadrant 1 – they’re what we call ‘TA DAs’ (like the sound you make when you complete them – ta da!)  They’re quick and easy ways to build confidence and knock some items off your list.  It’s a similar strategy that wealth specialist use when they suggest you pay off all your small bills before tackling the hefty ones.

Save the Quadrant 2 – Priority 2 (high effort / high value) tasks for your optimal time of day.  For most professionals this is not at two o’clock in the afternoon!  Because these tasks are more arduous, it’s best you do them when you’re at your best.

So, while checking emails is easy, it may not be the best thing to do at 9 a.m.

Time and energy are currencies.  When we spend them wisely, they can buy us:

  • heart-warming experiences
  • a reputation for premium quality performance
  • deep meaningful relationships
  • the respect of those who matter
  • a sense of pride in accomplishment
  • serenity (and yes, sanity!)

In a world where every assistant is racing the clock to be the best they can be, implementing some new strategies can help reduce conflict, increase efficiency and effectiveness, and save your sanity.

And… give you better quality time with those you choose to put in your life!

Glynis E. Devine is the person organizations hire to take their female leaders to the next level. She is the President and Chief Empowerment Officer (CEO) of She-Suite Leaders, an organization of solutionists dedicated to getting more women into C-Suite ... (Read More)

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