Setting boundaries in administrative roles – how to be everything to everyone without burning out

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​They say you can’t be everything to everyone, but as an administrator, that’s kind of the nature of the job. I’ve been in some form of an administrative role for most of my working life, and I know how overwhelming it can become when you’ve got tasks flying at you from every direction and they all seem to need to be done right now!

So, from one administrator to another, here’s my advice on how to be everything to everyone without burning out!

1.Set clear boundaries and expectations

I know it’s hard. If you’re anything like me, you’re a people pleaser and you want to say yes to everything. You want to wow people with your efficiency and “no problem” attitude. But failing to set clear boundaries around what kind of timeframe tasks can be expected to be completed and how much capacity you have to take on extra work won’t end well for anyone. Not only is it exhausting for you (which usually leads to burnout), but it can trap you into feeling like you constantly need to live up to high expectations that are unsustainable and demoralising. Managing expectations shows self-awareness, time management, prioritisation, and communication skills.

2.Communication is key

“When is this project due?”

“I am working on other projects right now, but I can get this back to you by X time/date”

“I don’t have time to do this today, but I can work on it tomorrow”

Most people won’t think to pre-emptively tell you when a task is needed by. Just ask. It’ll save your time and your sanity. Then you can plan out your work and prioritise tasks that need to be actioned first. Save yourself the trouble by not assuming that the task needs to be done immediately and stressing out about it when it’s not needed until the end of the week (or worse, assuming it’s a low priority and not having the work done by the deadline that you didn’t know existed!)

3.Make lists

I know – such a cliché. But people (including me) say it because it works! When you have so much to keep track of - what you have done, what you haven’t done, what needs to be done today, what can be done later – keeping a list will not only help you plan out your day in terms of workload, but will also give you a sense of accomplishment when you see how many tasks you’ve ticked off the list at the end of the day.

My favourite method of list writing is organising tasks into categories à la Eisenhower's Urgent/Important Principle – Do, Schedule, Delegate, Eliminate. Adapted to my own needs, of course, because as an administrator, I’m typically the one who tasks get delegated to, I am not typically delegating my own tasks to others. But I digress. Figure out what’s important and urgent, important but not urgent, urgent but not important, and not urgent and not important – and use those categories to help determine what needs to be prioritised or not.

4.Give yourself a break!

I mean this both literally and figuratively. When you’ve got a lot going on, taking a break can be the last thing on your mind, but make sure to take some time away from your desk throughout the day (whether you’re working from the office or from home). Get up and have a little stretch, make sure you’re drinking enough water, go for a walk at lunchtime, make time for a quick chat with a colleague every so often. These little breaks will serve as a “reset” and help you to be more productive and feel less overwhelmed.

Setting boundaries at work can feel scary, especially if you haven’t been firm about this in the past. However, through managing expectations, honest communication, self-organisation and self-care, you will be better set up to be the most productive version of yourself – which benefits you and your company. Always remember that you need to take care of yourself to thrive at work.

Lisa is our Receptionist/Administrator in our Auckland office, with over 8 years experience in various administration capacities.

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