Accomplish More Each Day: Four Steps to Easy Delegation

By Ali Luke

February 23, 2009   •   Fact checked by Dumb Little Man

You could spend two hours every evening reading tips on efficient working. You could then implement every last one of them so that you’re working as efficiently as possible, every minute of your working day.

And, all too often, you’d find that you’ve become very good at Getting Things Done. But the “things” you’re doing could be done by pretty much anyone and you’ve not made yourself any more effective. You’ll be racing through work, but, like Alice, you’ll be running hard and going nowhere.

Once you’re past the most junior level in your company, you can vastly improve your effectiveness by being willing to delegate. Even if you’re a freelancer working solely for yourself, there are tasks you can pass on to someone else (what about using a Virtual Assistant?)

So why do so many bosses end up trying to micromanage? Why do so many managers waste their time on work that a kid fresh out of high school could do? It’s often because they’re not willing to delegate – or not confident enough about it.

Delegating typically brings up some tricky issues that you might rather not face, like:

    • Needing to clarify a hodge-podge procedure before attempting to teach it to someone else 
  • Spending time teaching someone else to carry out the work (when you could just’ve done it yourself) 
  • Accepting that you’re not the only person who can do a good job of this task – forgetting the silly proverb that “If you want a job doing, do it yourself” 
  • Needing to spend your time on real work, which only you can do. You may find you’ve been bogged down in trivia because it’s easier than tackling hard, creative tasks.

Here are some of my tips on getting through these problem patches.

  • Clarifying Procedures
    Whether or not you plan to delegate work, you should have a written procedure for any regular task that you carry out. (Keep it as simple and step-by-step as possible.)

For example, if your job involves hosting websites for a number of clients, there are probably some simple steps you go through for each one:

    • Buying the domain name
    • Setting up hosting
    • Setting nameservers and other technical details 
  • Creating email accounts… 

..and so on. Do you really want to spend ten minutes figuring out what you did last time, in what order (and looking for account names and passwords) every single time? If you’ve got a straightforward document which lists, step by step, what you need to do, you can run through it without room for error and without much need for thought.

Most of us have a number of routine tasks that we “bodge” our way through; things which we do on a semi-regular basis but can’t be bothered to sit down and work out a system for. When you next come across one of these in your own work, create a simple set of instructions there and then. It’ll take you a few minutes now, but it’ll save you time from now on. (Think of it like insulating your home: you pay up-front, but then you save on heating and air conditioning bills for years to come.)

  • Training Others
    When I worked in tech support, one of the reasons I often avoided delegating work was because of the need to train someone else how to do it. When you’ve got a lot on your to-do list, it often seems more sensible to spend 30 minutes getting a routine task done, rather than spending an hour teaching somebody else how to do it. 

Of course, this is a poor way to approach things. A one-off expenditure of an hour today could save you thirty minutes every week for the next five years.

When you pass on a routine task to a colleague, make sure that:

    • You allow sufficient time to show them what to do – don’t rush this, and remember that a task that seems completely straightforward to you (because it’s so familiar) might be confusing to someone else. 
  • You check their work the first time they carry out that task, and give corrections and feedback if necessary. 
  • You make them fully responsible for the task: avoid having any blocks on them completing it. For example, if a client emails every few weeks asking for particular information to be compiled, ask that client to email your colleague in future – not you.

In some cases, you’ll be passing on a one-off task. The best way to do this is to give clear written instructions (probably in an email) and to ensure that you’re available to answer questions if necessary. Don’t just dump work on someone and tell them to “figure it out”: you’ll cause them stress, and you’ll probably be unsatisfied with the results.

  • Other People Can Do A Good Job
    If you’ve got a straightforward procedure, and you’ve trained your colleague to follow it, there’s absolutely no reason why they can’t do as good a job as you. 

Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that you’re the only person who’ll check things properly, or that you’ve got a good eye for detail whereas others haven’t. If you find that work isn’t being completed to a satisfactory standard, it’s probably because either the procedure isn’t clear, or you haven’t clearly explained what needs doing.

For some people, this is particularly important in their personal life. Don’t get hung up on being the only person in your household who can do laundry, clean the bathroom or iron clothes “properly”. If you take the time to teach a partner or child how to carry out simple household chores, you might find that you’ve freed up a lot of time for yourself. You might also consider hiring someone to clean once or twice a week – or even paying someone else to cook your meals. (It could be far cheaper than you’d think.)

  • Avoiding Busy Work
    “Busy work” is stuff that you get involved with because it’s easy, because it makes you feel productive and efficient. Typically, busy work:

      • Doesn’t make any real difference 
  • Could be done by anyone
  • Makes you look or feel productive
  • The biggest challenge with delegating is to accept that a lot of the work you’re doing isn’t really work – it’s just “stuff” that clogs up your day and your mind. There can be challenges involved in stepping back from the daily busyness and looking at the big picture. You might need to think strategically about the direction of your business, or your career. You might need to tackle a major project that you’ve been putting off for a long time (that very overdue re-envisioning of your company website perhaps? – This seems to be a favourite “I don’t have time…” project of many company owners, in my experience!)While you’re at work tomorrow, keep a list of all the tasks you carry out, from when you get into the office until when you leave. How many of them absolutely need to be done by you? Which could you delegate to someone else? If necessary, schedule half a day next week to work out simple procedures and train others to carry out your busy work. 

If you’ve had experience of delegating work to others, whether in a professional or personal context, what tips do you have for our readers?

Written on 2/23/2009 by Ali Hale. Ali runs Alpha Student, a blog packed with academic, financial and practical tips to help students get the most out of their time at university. Photo Credit: Or Hiltch
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