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Delegation – What Value Do You Place on Time?

The Passage of Time
Credit: flickr / ToniVC

My friends and some of my colleagues have been mocking me for “outsourcing my life”. I don’t think that expression is accurate though – it’s more that I’ve been outsourcing details in order to enjoy life more (and achieve more). For me, it’s all about leverage. How can I leverage myself in order to do more?

Relinquishing Control

My dad is a wonderful person and I love him so much, but he has a terrible problem delegating. He takes on too much and agrees to do things that he should have someone else take care of, and it drives my mom crazy. I worry that I have a tendency to do this too, so I’ve been forcing myself to give stuff away to other people. I tell myself that even if I don’t think they will do as good a job as I would, at least I don’t have to do it – in the worst case, I just have to fix it and that will take less time than actually doing – because starting is the thing that takes most time. But it turns out, I rarely have to fix things I delegate.

Sometimes it’s easy. If you’ve been shopping and taken advice on what to buy from your friends, a personal shopper is not a great leap (I did this when I had only a couple of days to get the right clothes to wear for my internship in the UK between 3rd and 4th year). If you do group exercise classes, a personal trainer is not so bizarre (I’ve been training with one in order to recover from my recent injuries). Outsourcing my resume was harder, but I had to acknowledge that it did not work to my strengths and so Maureen McCann of MyPromotion wrote it and she did a much better job.

Now, I’m outsourcing details. I have a PA for a couple of hours a week and she’s mostly been taking care of insurance stuff and scheduling things. It’s great, because I gave her a stack of insurance nonsense and she’s taken care of it (if I was going to, it would have happened sometime in the last 6 months that it’s been on my desk). Also, for scheduling something often I don’t really care when it is, as long as it fits within the current commitments I have. She can pick Monday at 5, and that’s fine. If I have to decide, I’ll end up agonizing about the difference between Monday at 5 and Tuesday at 5. The truth is, there probably isn’t that much of one.

Working to Your Strengths

My teammate and I were talking about being detail oriented – and I am, in terms of programming. One of my friends gave me a little trick the other day, why would you do:

if (myString.equals("something")) { myString = "something"; }

(clue, it involves immutability). I find that fascinating – I just don’t find details elsewhere that interesting. In fact, I find them draining.

Technically, my PA knows a little bit of programming (I would know, I taught her most of it). But if I have a script to write, it would be useless to delegate it to her when I can do it, and have it working in a fraction of the time it would take her to even get started. I could delegate some research stuff, but again – it would probably take her much longer. What I’m finding, though, is the things I give her to do are the things that take me a really long time and make me stressed and/or miserable, and she gets them done really quickly. This means I can get on with the tasks that give me energy, rather than drain it.

Whilst my resume was being written, I read Effective Java (Amazon). Now which is really the more productive thing to do? By doing my own resume, I save some amount of money. By reading Effective Java, I develop my expertise in my field (it is an amazing book) – to me, it’s obvious that is a better use of my time. As a bonus, I have a better resume for it.

Two weeks ago, I was in the wilderness. Last week, I gave a talk. This week, I have a terrifying job interview. All this is on top of my internship. Could I cope without a PA? Yes. But I would be more stressed out and have less time to devote to the things that matter most to me.

Putting a Value on Your Time

It seems like people sometimes think it’s arrogant to suggest that your time is worth more than someone elses. But – we all place value on our time. If you’ve ever opted to pay more for the direct flight rather than the one with multiple connections, you placed a value on time, and perhaps the stress of trying to make connections. It literally had a $ value. At work, my time is worth a fraction of that of a Distinguished Engineer. So we’re going to meet on his or her schedule, not mine. When working, we exchange time for money. So our time has a monetary value, and it varies person to person.

When I was TAing, students would sometimes send me all their code with a description of the problem that basically amounted to “it’s not working”. As a result of this, we had a chat about “iPhone optimizing” their emails. Initially, all I want is the error message. After that, I will accept the small section of code that is the problem. If we still have a problem, it’s most likely a design issue, and I expect them to come in person to see me. Yes, I can compile and run their code, but I would maintain that is not a good use of my time, and is not educational to them. By teaching them to respect my time, I’m also teaching them to debug better. And hopefully disabusing them of the notion that I’m a compiler, which, worryingly, I had to tell more than one of them.

Why is that relevant? Because all the time we make judgments as to whose time is worth more. We just express it in a different way.

Delegating Details, Not Responsibility

I’ve been embroiled in a disagreement with Goodlife, because I want to work out with a trainer once a week just to make sure that I’m realigning myself (I dislocated my right knee, right shoulder, twisted my right ankle, and messed up my right hip – bit of a disaster zone) and I don’t want to commit to 9 months of 3 times a week, which seems to be their (utterly ridiculous) minimum. So I negotiated, or rather, I convinced my trainer who then negotiated with her manager. And then they backed down a little, to 2x a week for 6 months and they would sell any that I had over. I explained that I would be gone for about 2 months out of the next 6 and countered with 2x a week for 4 months and this was refused because they “couldn’t guarantee results” with that many sessions.

This really frustrated me, because I don’t want to delegate the responsibility for me to get back into shape after this many injuries. I just want to delegate the details of what exactly I should be doing to rehabilitate. I also see PT as a complement to the other exercise I do (kickboxing, swimming, rollerblading, body pump, yoga, cardio…) rather as the exercise I do.

Likewise with my PA, I don’t tell her “plan my life after graduation and decide where I should apply for jobs”, I give her concrete tasks like, “please deal with this pile of insurance stuff as per this form”, and “I have to be in location X for an interview on date Y at Z time for a duration of i minutes – please work out how and when I’m going to get there and where I’m going to stay”.

Things We Don’t Do

In North America, it’s normal to have an automatic car. This makes sense to me, because the car does a better job of changing gear than most people do. For the most part, we don’t cut our own hair (if we have any sense – this applies to dramatic eyebrow reshaping too), grow our own food, or produce our own electricity. It’s not productive to implement our own source control systems, or test runners. We don’t create our own crawl of the web, we Google.

Obviously this can go to far, if we say “I don’t need to know how to entertain myself, I have a TV for that”. But one crucial thing that I get from other people is confidence – I get driven forwards because other people believe in me, even when I doubt myself.

As part of this minimalism malarkey that I’m not such an aficionado of, I’ve read a number of times “Don’t outsource – if you don’t want to do something, just stop doing it”. I don’t really understand how that works, I mean what if you don’t want to do your taxes? Will that hold with the IRS?

Delegating does force me to evaluate things though. If I don’t want to give up responsibility, then I actually need to get it done. If I’m going to pay someone else to do it, it should be something that it’s really worth doing.

It also helps me with saying no, which I’m not great at doing. Someone asked me to do something the other day that I really wanted to say yes to but would have been really difficult and caused a lot of stress. Rather than saying yes and trying to make it work logistically, I just delegated it. But if someone’s asking me to do something and I’m literally going to pay someone else to do it so I don’t have to, it had better be a reasonable and worthwhile request that I really want to accommodate.

It’s not Minimizing “Work”, it’s about Maximizing “Great”

I read the book The 4-Hour Workweek (Amazon) and it is a really interesting book that helped me evaluate where I’m spending my time, but I agree with Penelope Trunk – the thrust is not about just “working” 4 hours a week, it’s about making the vast majority of what you do not feel like work (she represented that a little more negatively).

Another book I read recently is Do More Great Work (Amazon). I was working through the exercises in it, and it was great because I realized that Extreme Blue is all about Great Work.

The thing about Great Work is that it’s easy to get caught up in Good Work and not get to it. So delegating good work helps me move forward with great work. Managing my email might be good work, but it’s time consuming and rarely as rewarding or useful as a blog post or a piece of code.

Really, what it comes down to is that there are only a finite number of hours in a day. Delegating is buying a little more time and energy to make a little more progress on the things that matter most to you.

Time Flies
Credit: flickr / h.koppdelaney

8 replies on “Delegation – What Value Do You Place on Time?”

Delegation comes up a lot at Grace Hopper and similar conferences, especially delegation of house work. I used to think it was better to get things done yourself and save the money (it takes time to shake the poor student frugality), but I'm more and more convinced.

So true on the poor student point – but there definitely comes a point where having someone help you provides a much greater return to you than the cost!

Outsourcing tasks is not so uncommon, there's a number of services set up for providing personal PAs. I guess if all I did was intern I wouldn't need her, but I have a number of other things I'm involved in and so it helps.

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