Do you feel overwhelmed at work?
If the answer’s yes, don’t worry: you’re not alone. Two-thirds of employees say they’re overwhelmed, according to a Deloitte survey of 2,500 organizations in 90 countries.
For entrepreneurs and business owners, it’s often an even more serious problem. It’s your personal responsibility, after all, to make sure that the company succeeds. You probably have a lot of your own money on the line, and you’ll have a much greater share in the success if the company succeeds, or the pain if it fails.
The result is often that business owners take on too much work. A survey by eVoice found that “performing multiple roles within the organization was the number one challenge facing entrepreneurs.” In fact, 44% of entrepreneurs reported wearing five or more hats in their business at any given time.
The answer is to delegate more effectively, so that you can spend less time on minutiae and more time on strategic decisions. But that’s not always as easy as it sounds. You may need to hire extra staff, meaning more expense. And if you don’t do it right, you can end up creating problems for yourself and your business. There are some key tasks, for example, that you just shouldn’t delegate.
So in this tutorial, I’ll show you how you can decide which tasks to delegate to your staff or to outside contractors, and what you should keep control of yourself. By the end, you’ll have a list of tasks you can safely delegate, and an understanding of how to do it effectively.
1. Set Your Priorities
Start with a blank sheet of paper. Forget about all the things you’re already doing, and think about the ideal mix. If you could start over and do things right, how would you spend your time? Don’t worry about the practicalities of how you can achieve this for now. Just write down the ideal state.
Stick to broad categories for now, rather than individual tasks. In an average week (or month, or whatever period makes sense for you), how much time would you ideally allocate to each activity?
For example, if you’re running a small software company, your mix might look like this:
- Planning and strategy (30%).
- Networking and pitching to win new business (30%).
- Reviewing employee performance (15%).
- Marketing initiatives (15%).
- Accounting and finance (5%).
- Email and admin tasks (5%).
Invent your own categories, of course, and focus on the most important things you could do to move your business forward.
2. Track Your Time
When you’ve got your ideal state defined, it’s time to see how reality matches up. You may already think you have a good idea, but you might be surprised when you start tracking those hours and minutes in detail.
For one week, track how you spend your time. There are plenty of time tracking apps and software programs out there to help you, and many of them are free, at least at the basic level. Toggl and Harvest are a couple of popular options. You could also use a simple spreadsheet or pen and paper if you prefer.
Each time you begin a new task, record it using your chosen method, and then note the finish time. This may seem like a lot of work, but remember it’s only for one week. The idea is to get a clear picture of where things stand right now, so that you can begin to shift towards your ideal state.
You may find, for example, that your actual time is spent on different tasks and that it looks like this:
- Fixing bugs in the software (30%).
- Accounting and finance (20%).
- Email and admin tasks (20%).
- Writing the company blog (10%).
- Keeping up the social media presence (10%).
- Reviewing employee performance (5%).
- Marketing initiatives (5%).
Not good. You’re spending most of your time on tasks that don’t move your business forward, and not finding any time for important things like planning, strategy, and pitching for new business.
How can you move from reality to the ideal state? We’ll cover that next.
3. What to Delegate
You should now have two lists: one ideal, and one reflecting the reality. Compare the two lists against each other, and make a plan of what to cut back on and what to place more emphasis on. Then start to pick individual tasks, and people to delegate them to.
What sort of things should you be delegating?
Some things are obvious candidates for delegation. Routine administrative tasks, for example, clearly don’t take your company forward, and don’t require your attention. They’re important, but you can easily delegate most of them to other people in the company.
If you don’t have available staff, or if money is tight, consider using virtual assistants. You get more flexibility that way, and can get your tasks done at lower cost than if you’d hired a full-time staff member. The quality on sites like Upwork is pretty variable, but there are plenty of qualified people out there. You could also post in online job forums, or try a site like Zirtual, which specializes in providing companies with U.S.-based, college-educated virtual assistants.
One common task that eats up a lot of a business owner’s time is checking and approving things that other staff members have already done.
If you’ve hired good people, you don’t need to look over their shoulders all the time. Trust your sales people to communicate with key clients and prospects, for example, and your marketing staff to handle the blog and social media accounts. If a task falls into someone else’s area of expertise, you shouldn’t be getting involved unless there’s a truly unusual, critical situation that could have wider implications. Otherwise, let go of the need to approve every decision.
Things You’re Not Good At
Running a business involves a lot of tasks that probably aren’t your core strengths. Outsource or delegate as many of those as possible.
As we saw in our recent tutorial on bookkeeping basics, for example, many small business owners simply don't have the expertise or the interest to do a good job managing their accounts. You can learn the essentials (and the tutorial will help you with that), but if it’s simply not your strength, you could hire a bookkeeper and/or an accountant to take on the day-to-day management of the accounts, so that you only need to take a more high-level view.
Similarly, if you’re not particularly technical, don’t try to design and run your own website all by yourself. Hiring help is an expense, of course, but add up all the time you save, and often you’ll come out ahead.
Things You Are Good At, But Have Hired Someone Else to Do
In our example above, the software company CEO spent 30% of her time fixing bugs in the code. If she started a software company, it makes sense that coding is something she’s good at. But is it a good use of her time?
Assuming she has other people on staff who could handle it, clearly the answer is “No”. As head of the company, her time would be better spent on things like planning and strategy, as outlined in part 1.
But what can often happen is that people jump in to work on things they know how to do. They know they should delegate tasks like that, but think, “It’s quicker if I just do it myself.” All that does is eat up time, and take responsibility away from the person you’ve hired to do the work.
Bottom line: Even if in the short term it might be quicker to do it yourself, in the long term it’s better to help someone else learn how to do it.
4. How to Delegate Effectively
If you don't do it right, delegating can actually create more work, because you spend more time correcting other people's errors and clearing up misunderstandings than you've saved. The danger is that you end up thinking it's not worth it, and take the task on again yourself. So here are some guidelines for doing it right.
If you don’t delegate to the right people, you might suffer from what this Wall Street Journal article called the “boomerang effect”. You delegate lots of tasks, but then find them coming right back to you because the people you assigned them to couldn’t complete them.
To avoid this, make sure that you manage your resources properly. If the people you delegate to are already swamped with work themselves, the task won’t get done—or at least it won’t get done well. So check their workloads, and hire extra help if necessary. And consider the strengths and weaknesses of the people you’re delegating to, to make sure they’re equipped to do what you’re asking of them.
Give Clear Instructions and Support...
A crucial element of successful delegation is giving clear instructions. Time study consultant Mark Ellwood suggests starting by clarifying the desired outcome and the amount of decision-making authority the employee will have. Explain what resources are available, and ask if there’s anything else they need.
Then set milestones along the way, and ask for progress reports to make sure things stay on track. Be sure to give praise and feedback as the project progresses, and when it’s successfully completed.
... But Trust the Employee to Manage the Task
Although you should be involved and help the person you’ve delegated to, don’t micro-manage. That defeats the object of delegation. “Delegate the objective, not the procedure,” says Ellwood. “Outline the desired results, not the methodology. What needs to be done and when should it be finished?”
After that, leave it to the employee to achieve those results. You may have your own way of working, but delegation is about relinquishing control over the details. So step back and let them get on with it.
5. What Not to Delegate
There are some tasks that a business owner should never delegate to anyone else. Here's a rundown of things you should always keep control of yourself, or at least monitor very closely.
Monitoring Financial Health
As we saw in part 3, day-to-day bookkeeping can safely be delegated or outsourced. But you should always have a clear picture of your company’s financial health, and a forecast of how things are set to go over the next year. Regularly monitoring your finances and knowing what state they’re in is something you simply can’t delegate. Get help with the details, by all means, but be sure to monitor at least the high-level numbers. Here are a few key profit metrics to focus on, for example.
Hiring Key Personnel
A business lives or dies by the people who operate it. As your company gets larger, you’ll probably delegate some hiring tasks to an HR manager. But when it comes to key personnel, it’s good to stay involved. Steve Jobs used to take potential hires at Apple for long walks around Palo Alto so that he could get to know them and see if they’d be a good fit. Mark Zuckerberg later adopted the same approach at Facebook.
So your customer database just got hacked, potentially compromising their passwords and financial data. The latest release of your flagship software product is full of bugs. Your HR manager is being sued for sexual harassment.
These are all major threats to your company’s reputation, and need your full attention. You can delegate some individual tasks, like preparing press releases and dealing with customer complaints, but you’ll need to be very hands-on in managing the crisis as a whole.
Just remember that not every “crisis” is business-critical. Some things your staff can handle by themselves. But if it’s a serious threat to your business, don’t delegate: get involved.
In this tutorial, you’ve seen how to identify tasks to delegate, and have got some tips on doing it effectively. Now it’s time to take action. Make that list from part 1, showing how you think you should spend your time, and then track your time for a week. Compare the two lists, and come up with a set of tasks that you can delegate, using the guidelines from this tutorial.
You may never reach your “ideal state”—there are always compromises to be made, and unexpected events can derail you. But with a little planning and some well-thought-out delegation, you can free up valuable time in your schedule, allowing you to spend more time on things that will truly take your business forward.
Editorial Note: This content was originally published in 2014. We're sharing it again because our editors have determined that this information is still accurate and relevant.