Time Blocking Tips for Executive Assistants and Chiefs of Staff

Executive Assistants and Chiefs of Staff are notoriously racing against the clock to pack the most important things into their day to achieve results for themselves and their Executive. The following time blocking tips offer a solution to the ever-present challenge of time management for executive support staff.

Over the past few years, our work days have gotten longer as we logged into Zoom from home before we even had our first cup of coffee. We also had more meetings than ever, which meant that our “real work” (emails, projects, copy writing, answering Slack messages, financial analysis, calendar management, etc.) got regulated to the late evening hours. Meeting creep morphed into work day creep. An article in The Atlantic even went so far as to say that “9-to-10 is the new 9-to-5.” It’s no wonder that the rate of burnout (as of January 2022) is still quite high – at 61% – according to The Hartford.

So, what are today’s professionals to do? We could cut meetings in half, create a no-meetings Friday, set clearer boundaries, hire more staff, just say no, and a whole slew of other solutions – many of which require the buy-in of your team or company.

But today, we’re going to tackle time blocking. And the beauty is, you don’t need any additional resources or anyone else’s permission to get started.

What is Time Blocking?

Time blocking is a time management technique that asks that you divide your days into blocks of time. Each block is dedicated to a specific tasks or project (and only those tasks or projects). For example, you might create a time block for checking emails, creating presentations for your Executive, or confirming all meetings for the following week. Ideally, these time blocks would be at the same time each week. However, at the very least, with a solid weekly review, you can create these time blocks on a week-by-week basis to be as efficient and productive with your time as possible.

Other similar time management techniques include task batching (such as checking all social media accounts at the same time every day) and day theming – creating themes for each day (i.e. Monday Company Meetings, Tuesday Content Creation, Friday Financial Reviews).

I like to use a combination of all of these when I talk about time blocking. Regardless of the term we use, the intention is to take control of 80% of our calendar each week, to be able to better handle whatever “fires” come up during the day, and keep our work day from creeping long into the night.

Why is Time Blocking Important for Executive Assistants and Chiefs of Staff?

Time blocking is especially important for Executive Assistants and Chiefs of Staffs because, let’s be honest, our time is often not our own. Many of our projects and tasks are dependent on the requests, priorities, and needs of others, namely our Executive. That’s the job. We are often in reaction-mode or are spending our time making sure our Executive’s days are flawless.

However, we can control much more than we may think. If we have a set structure to our days and weeks, such as time blocking, we are able to fit the majority of our work (80% of which is reoccurring tasks, meetings, projects, and requests) into pre-existing blocks designated for those items.

We aren’t trying for perfection here. Not everything can be time blocked. You don’t know when a vendor is going to unexpectedly pop into the office looking for a check. You can’t anticipate an employee leaving and an all-hands department meeting needing to be called to figure out how to cover their work until a replacement is hired. The unexpected will happen. But when you have 80% of your work time blocked, the 20% of emergencies and last minute requests can be handled smoothly. Which equals less stress and increased productivity for you.

6 Time Blocking Tips for Executive Assistants and Chiefs of Staff

As I mentioned earlier, I like to use a variety of time management techniques to effectively structure my day and get more done. Most of the following tips and techniques center around the premise of time blocking, with a good dose of planning mixed in.

I have been using the same method for over eleven years. It has allowed me to progress in my career, work more in my flow (strengths and interest zone), while subsequently working less year after year. It’s simple and effective. Feel free to take what works for you and adapt the various techniques to fit your work and life. Or give my process a try. I know it works!

  1. Complete a Weekly/Monthly/Annual Execution Plan

    If you don’t know where you’re going, how the heck are you going to get there? The Weekly Execution Plan does include monthly and annual goals; however it is completed each week, hence the name. It includes four main categories – Job, Career Development, Personal Financial, Personal. You could adapt the categories to whatever makes sense to you. However, I have found that everything I work on or want to achieve throughout the year tends to fall into one of these four categories.

    What I like about this document the most is that it is all on one page. At a glance, I can see my primary objectives for the year for my job, my career growth, and my personal life. I can also see what the priorities are for the month, as well as the exact high impact tasks I need to complete that week in order to hit my monthly and yearly goals. It all works together and keeps me focused and on track. If I’m ever in doubt about what I should do next, I just refer back to my Weekly Execution Plan (or my time blocked calendar) and get back to work.

    I complete one of these weekly/monthly/annual plans each year and review them with my Executive. I want to make sure my annual goals, specifically, are in alignment with his goals, as well as the company’s goals. In addition, this is the tool we use to guide our weekly 1:1 conversations.

    Regardless of which tool you use, make sure you are very clear on what your goals and objectives are for the year ahead. Yes, even in our roles as executive support staff. While our jobs may require we handle the day-to-day minutia, we must understand the context in which we are working and how what we do impacts the overall organization and annual objectives. Not to mention, I bet you are also working on other big projects, in addition to the day-to-day, such as an annual company meeting, vendor negotiations, moving offices, or creating a new communications plan. Those will all require your strategic time and attention, and must be accounted for.

    Click here to download a template of the Weekly Execution Plan.
  2. Schedule Vacations, Holidays, Company Events, & Reoccurring Meetings

    Once you have established your goals and priorities for the year, it’s time to get the most important items on the calendar. Many of these will be pulled directly from your Weekly Execution Plan. For example, if one of your personal goals is to go on three, 5-day vacations, then get those blocked in the calendar. You don’t need to know where your are going or have all details, just set aside the time and know you can plan it later. When it’s in the calendar, it becomes real.

    Go through your Execution Plan and do the same thing for training events you plan to attend, holidays, company retreats, or annual meetings.

    After that, make sure all weekly, monthly, or quarterly meetings are on your calendar. This will look different for each Chief of Staff or Executive Assistant, but common meetings may include weekly 1:1s, weekly team meetings, monthly board meetings, weekly podcast recordings, monthly all-company meetings, quarterly volunteer days, etc. Whatever they are for your company, get them into the calendar on a reoccurring basis.
  3. Create Your High Impact & High Priority Time Blocks

    Now it is time to do a little analysis of the work that you do. Are there certain days where certain requests tend to come your way? Do you know that you will need to work on the annual company retreat a little bit every week for six months? Are you responsible for gathering and synthesizing data from the leadership team each week? Does your Founder own five companies that each need your attention on a weekly basis?

    After this strategic planning session you can start to set aside larger blocks of time to focus on these specific tasks. For example, every week I know I need to spend at least three hours writing content. So, I set aside time on Tuesday from 9am-noon to get that done. I don’t necessarily know what I need to write each week – it might be a memo, a blog, answering interview questions, drafting an eBook, or some combination of the aforementioned. But the important part is that I have time set aside to do whatever writing I need to do each week.

    Similarly, my role involves high impact projects for each of our companies. So, I’ve time blocked my week so that I have at least two-hour blocks of time set aside for each initiative or company. Again, I may not know exactly what I will be doing during those blocks, but I know that each week it is important to get my hands on something within that initiative to keep pushing it forward to achieve our annual goal. For example, every week I have two hours set aside on Thursday to work on Project | U (our year-long leadership coaching program). I may use that time to review a BEO for an upcoming event, check-in with participants, or reach out to potential speakers.

    The important part here is that I know I have the time set aside to handle to high-priority projects. When new ideas or projects come across my desk, I know that they will likely fall into one of those pre-existing categories (blocks) and I can table them until that time. Which then frees me up to either handle more urgent matters or focus on the other time block I was already in.

    I’m sure this sounds familiar: emails are coming at you all day – from clients, board members, the leadership team, vendors, etc. But if you take the next week or two to start to categorize what types of questions are being asked or what kinds of projects are being thrown your way, you will be able to start time blocking for these in the future. Then, as long as it’s not a true emergency, you can confidently and strategically let the requester know you will handle it on X day at X time that week.

    Every Executive Assistant and Chief of Staff’s time block categories are going to look a little different. The point is to create some sort of placeholder (block) for the most frequent and highest priority projects or responsibilities in your role.
  4. Review Your Execution Plan Weekly

    The Weekly Execution Plan only works if you are actually reviewing it every week. My recommendation is that you are reviewing this on Friday before you wrap up for the weekend. Or, if you tend to work a bit on the weekends, like I do, Sunday afternoons work (2pm is my preferred time). As I mentioned, even though I know I need to work on Project | U each week, what I am working on will change. I then lean on my Weekly Execution Plan to map out the what. I will add a note to my Project | U time block on my calendar of the project I need to accomplish that week. Then, what the time block comes around, I don’t have to think, I just get it done.
  5. Schedule Your High Impact Projects (and Other Tasks) During Your Blocks

    Repeat the above process for each of the items on your Weekly Execution Plan. Eighty percent of the items on the plan should be able to fit within one of your pre-established time blocks. Remember, the Weekly Execution Plan is not a to-do list. It is a strategic outline of the top 3-7 priorities that you need to accomplish that week to move the needle forward for the business or your Executive.

    If there is a project or task that needs to get done that doesn’t fit within a time block, then create one. It may not be a reoccurring time block, but you can at least set aside the necessary time to make sure it gets done.
  6. Block Time to Prepare for Tomorrow

    I highly recommend that one of your time blocks each day be for 30 minutes at the end of the day to plan and prepare for tomorrow. A quick review of what you got done (and didn’t) is important. Anything that didn’t get done, you can decide if it is truly a priority for that week or not. If it is, then put it in the correct time block for that week (or create a new one). A good rule of thumb is that if you erase (don’t do) one of your time blocks, then you must replace it later in the week. This way, you never get too far behind. After all, if it made it onto your Execution Plan for the week, then it must be important and should be completed within those seven days.

    I also take that time to jot down any “to-dos” for the day ahead. This is a bit different than my Weekly Execution Plan and time blocked calendar. My to-do list are those small items that must get done, that I just don’t want to forget, but that are not necessarily time sensitive. Items that make it on to the to-do list include, returning a phone call, reminding our EA about a book to put in our Executive’s Audible account, or putting up an out of office message for my upcoming vacation.

While these time management methods have been quite effective for me, it really is less about the exact method and more about thinking critically and strategically about how and where you spend your time. Executive Assistants and Chiefs of Staff may be in support roles, but we can, and must, take control of our calendars and ownership over how we spend our time. Time blocking is a great place to start.

Have you effectively used time blocking in your role? What other time management techniques work well for you?

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