Lists Are a Simple Yet Effective Tool for Administrative Assistants

Julie Shenkman
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To be a successful administrative assistant, you must become a jack-of-all-trades and feel comfortable adapting to new skill sets as need arises. Besides, you often have limited time for a learning curve, so effective prioritization is key. That's where organized lists come into play — they help you sort wide-ranging duties to decide which tasks require the most time and attentiveness. Lists are prone to failure if they aren't prioritized, but they can be time-saving, motivational tools when you use them to monitor your efficiency.

The Truth About Lists

In a 2015 infographic, office supply retailer Quill reported that 64 percent of admins manage calendars, 58 percent prepare reports, 55 percent plan events, 38 percent train or supervise staff and 24 percent coordinate travel plans. In addition to their typical duties, 47 percent of admins handle budgeting and payroll tasks, 45 percent handle human resources tasks and 22 percent manage social media. This shows that bosses expect administrative professionals to wear many hats, so it's essential for you to develop sustainable techniques for weighing priorities and fitting them into a rational timetable.

Opponents of list-making often recommend ditching them for more functional methods. They believe lists encourage inefficiency because most people seek short-term gratification by completing the smaller, easier tasks, instead of the most important jobs, according to Dan Markovitz, founder of business management firm Markovitz Consulting. Another common misstep is to tackle the big priorities and neglect everything else, says Markovitz, who recommends tracking progress directly in a calendar.

Ultimately, a work calendar is just another type of list. Client management programs are lists. Presentation slides and meeting agendas are lists. Payroll and event schedules are lists. Lists are everywhere in mental, physical and digital formats, but they have evolved beyond basic checklists to keep up with the expanding functions of administrative jobs. Lists are tools for remembering and processing information, and like most tools, they fail when poorly applied.

Use Lists to Narrow Your Focus

A classic to-do list can work, but it needs conditional parameters. An easy way to get discouraged is to overestimate your time and create a long list that is impossible to finish in one day, which sets you up for disappointment. Generate a realistic baseline by considering the average amount of work you complete in a typical day.

Let urgency and impact dictate what comes first. Tackle your to-do list one day at a time, and focus on tasks that bring the most value to your employer. If a venue owner needs an attendee count today, confirming your guest list should take precedence over low-priority errands you can handle at another time. Distinguish between quality and quantity to determine order of importance. Writing an expense report and negotiating with a new vendor are individual tasks, but both are more essential and time-consuming than checking email.

Once your tasks are prioritized, plot a schedule that matches your productivity cycle and deadlines. Restricting your schedule helps you avoid burnout while providing enough flexibility to deal with unexpected obligations. Think about how long each task takes and the amount of time you have available each day. Manage big tasks by dividing them into smaller components, ensuring you approach each step with the same attention to detail.

For example, The Muse suggests the 1-3-5 plan, which limits you to one major job, three moderate-sized jobs and five small jobs. You can adjust your task breakdown to fit your workday, but make sure you schedule large or difficult tasks during your high-productivity periods.

Track and Update Your Workload

When the boss starts piling on more work at the last minute, you may abandon your to-do list and overload your day with unfocused multitasking. Instead, use lists to evaluate a packed schedule and determine what you can change and what shouldn't be on your plate.

Leave yourself some downtime to stay energized, but look for schedule gaps where you frequently waste time. Skip the afternoon social media binge, and use those extra 20 minutes to respond to emails. Eliminate unnecessary follow-up meetings that are a rehash of details you've thoroughly covered.

If you never have enough time to devote to big projects, identify tasks that anyone can do. Review your list with your boss, so you can decide how to delegate nonessential responsibilities. Writing lists also helps you see which tasks are repeatedly neglected, compelling you to re-evaluate their importance and refine your priorities in the future.

Let Accomplishments Motivate You

The frustration of constantly falling behind can prevent you from starting the next day with a positive attitude. Create an "already done" list to see proof of your daily progress, says leadership development coach Wendy Capland. An accomplishments list keeps you focused on your strengths while letting you see which objectives you haven't addressed.

Lists also provide clarity when your perceptions are off-base. If you aren't seeing good results on a project, you may question your time contribution. Keeping a record of your efforts helps you rule out time as a hindrance factor, motivating you to investigate other causes, such as an unreasonable goal or vague instructions.

Lists are timeless, go-to tools for a reason: they help you turn a chaotic jumble of ideas, goals and tasks into an achievable strategy. Approach your lists with a discerning mindset to put your best efforts toward high-priority projects, and always aim for efficiency by trimming low-priority tasks that weaken your productivity.

Photo Courtesy of Stuart Miles at


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  • Nancy Anderson
    Nancy Anderson

    @Abbey each of us would have a different answer to your question. Personally I prefer to get the harder tasks out of the way first thing in the morning as I am a morning person. Some people like to be able to do the easier ones first because they can check them off their list and then it gives them more motivation to continue. Whichever works the best for you depending upon the task and the priority. I like seeing a nice fat black line over the tasks I have completed as it gives me motivation to continue.

  • Abbey Boyd
    Abbey Boyd

    One of the cons of list-making the article talks of is that people are more likely to tackle the smaller jobs first, leaving the larger tasks for the last minute. What are some tips that people have to avoid this? What motivates people to actually complete the harder tasks before the easy, small ones?

  • Shannon Philpott
    Shannon Philpott

    I use to-do lists daily, but have found that when on the go (which most professionals are), a digital to-do list works much better for me. Many mobile apps and online platforms allow you to not only itemize tasks but also create long-term plans, make notes and forward tasks to other individuals.

  • Delaney O'Neil
    Delaney O'Neil

    The idea of an "already done" list sounds really motivating, and it also sounds like a better way than memory to track what you've actually accomplished. The last time I worked in an administrative role, I started each day by creating a to-do list — all my daily tasks as well as any special tasks I needed to start, continue or complete. I had light days and very hectic days, but I generally managed my time well. Where I struggled was in being able to identify where all of my time had gone! Since I'd toss my to-do lists as they were completed, I didn't have a great accounting of everything I'd genuinely accomplished, and I sometimes found it hard to defend how I'd spent my time or recall how lengthy or detailed certain tasks had really been.

  • Jane H.
    Jane H.

    I disagree with doing away with the social media binge. Employees are so set on finding ways around social media-blocking firewall settings, they will do almost anything to get their fix. In my opinion, not only should they be allowed to if they still hit their goals, I think it actually helps them hit their goals, because it gives them a temporary diversion from the work at hand, allowing the mind to process the day's work in the background. Anything that helps employees innovate, even if it seems counterproductive, should be considered.

  • William Browning
    William Browning

    How can I apply these tools for my potential freelancing career? Many of things I do are administrative in nature, such as billing, finances, contacts and scheduling. The more efficient my list-making becomes, the more money I make because time is money. Thanks to computer technology, I could set up a system that manages my time more effectively to get more work done.

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