What does the “ideal” work week look like for an executive assistant? Is there any such thing?
“Ideal” means different things to different people, but for the sake of this post, we’re defining it as your most productive, least-stressful work week. That means your work hours and what goes into your work are ideally structured to meet your client needs and your own at work.
As you can probably guess, there are different theories as to what constitutes an ideal structure for productivity, and the same strategies won’t work for everyone. Here, we’re writing about what works based on our own, and our EAs’, experiences:
Theories of productivity and work hours
There are several theories of productivity out there that have gained popularity as people try to structure an ideal work week. Here are just a few:
- Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs Theory. When applied to work days, this theory suggests that employees will be most productive if their basic needs are met in the work environment. This means stability and self-esteem needs being prioritized. Negative work environments are productivity killers, which suggests the work environment should be a top priority.
- “Do all the hard stuff on Tuesday.” This is an idea that by tackling the big tasks on a Tuesday, it gives you the rest of the week for tidying up any loose ends. It ties in with theories of achievement or accomplishment which suggest that having productivity “wins” early on can make us more productive.
- “Do the most important things first each day.” This could work if your most productive times are early in the day. That’s not the case for everyone though…
- Block out time for “deep work.” This is based on Cal Newport’s theory, that if we can get into a state and environment conducive to deep work, we can focus better and accomplish more demanding tasks.
One thing is common across most theories - that putting in more hours at work doesn’t make you more productive.
We live in a culture of the “work martyr,” where people see time put in at work as a sign of how hard they work. The truth is, no one is handing out certificates for time spent at work, and not only is excess time unproductive, it means you’re missing out on other important things - like life!
We wondered then, is there a scientific answer for how many hours you should be working? There are actually a few. One piece published by Atlassian found that in order for people to not feel time-starved (and to therefore be less stressed over time pressure), a 7.6 hour day, or 38 hour workweek is ideal.
Looking at work hours and productivity, Stanford researchers found that people who work 70 hours in a week get the same amount of work done as those who work 55 hour weeks. Not only that, productivity per hour declines sharply after 50 hours of work.
Okay, but how much of a workday is actually spent on productive work? We found an answer for that, too. The average American is productive for about three hours of their workday. The rest of the time is filled up with things like checking news sites and chatting with colleagues. It’s not that everyone is lazy or finding ways to avoid work, it’s that our brains only have so much “juice” for those really productive tasks.
Here at Worxbee, our executive assistants work based on “active hours”. This is usually determined to be 3-4 hours per day. “Active hours” means just that - it’s time doing productive work. We also advocate that everyone spends time every now and then assessing just how they spend their time. There are often patterns that people fall into at work which could be better-managed or streamlined for efficiency.
Structure for you and your client
In a sense, executive assistants do double duty when it comes to productivity because it’s not just about their own schedules, but about their clients’ as well. When looking at an ideal work week, executive assistants need to take an approach that sets both themselves and their client up for success.
Workload is an important factor to assess. You don’t want so much on yours or your client’s plate that either of you miss things, burn out, or make mistakes. Having too much work on the schedule can also set you up to be in a reactive environment, where decisions must be made on the fly, rather than being thoughtful and intentional.
With that in mind, you need to know your own most-productive schedule as well as spend time to understand your client’s. That means getting into a groove with your executive to figure out how they operate and what they like and don’t like.
Check through their email and calendar to see what priorities are and to ensure that their schedule aligns how they need it to. Talk to them about what their best, most productive week looks like.
Time management tips
Are there any tips or theories we specifically subscribe to? Yes! In an ideal work week, we like to use Monday as a “ramp up” day. This means meeting with clients, getting all the details of what they need for their week and making any necessary plans and to-do lists. This is also a good day to prioritize all to-dos and figure out what achievements or checked-off tasks would make the week a success.
From there, Tuesday through Thursday are the main days to get all priority tasks done, as well as any of the second-tier tasks. Friday is then “ramp down” day - a day to tie up any loose ends and potentially put any wheels in motion that will be needed for next week.
Another strategy we follow is for EAs to plan their schedules to be flexible and adaptive to what their clients need. Sometimes urgent matters come up and the executive needs the EA to be able to step in, without dropping the ball on other important things. At the same time, figure out what they need in terms of flexibility in their schedule. Include buffer time for planning, for example.
On a daily basis, we slot in 30 minutes for anything that needs inputting on the task list, or reprioritizing. For anything that involves project management follow-up or data entry-type work, we suggest breaking it up throughout the week.
Is there such a thing as an “ideal” work week for an executive assistant? Yes! However it probably looks a little different according to each individual situation.
The big takeaways here are to spend the time on assessing and prioritizing your schedule. You will need some flexibility built in, but you don’t want to miss anything important, or be so busy that you’re always in reactive mode.
The ideal work week will be harmonized with how your executive prefers to work, too. Getting to know them well and understanding their own needs and priorities will help you to create the most successful week.