I am a huge fan of delegating. Part of what makes me good is that I love time management advice, and I’m constantly asking myself what is most important to me. I keep my list to about five things, and everything else is fair game for delegation. Also, I am lucky to have many traits of a good delegator, including:

1. Little interest in details
Perfectionists are the worst at delegating. They are delusional and might die early from obsessive fixation on detail if they are lawyers.

2. Strong sense that time matters more than money
I am willing to sacrifice money to buy time whenever possible. Often, even when I overpay I feel good about not having had to do the task. And you can generally tell how much money I’m making by how many people I have helping me because that’s always the first thing I spend money on.

3. Young kids at home
There is no such thing as “free time” when you have toddlers at home. There is only time to parent and time to do the whole rest of your life. So time management is figuring out what you’ll either give up completely or delegate.

People who have a long list of things they won’t delegate are really just making excuses. I never regret having tried to delegate, even when things don’t go that well. I delegated my whole move from New York City to Madison and found out in 20-degree weather that I don’t have my winter coat. But so what? It’s worth it to have been able to do things that really matter to me instead of spending a week moving my stuff.

I delegated buying my mom flowers once. I decided that if it’s the thought that counts, it was enough that I thought to tell someone to do it. My mom wasn’t crazy about that idea, but the world is not the judge of what is okay to delegate. You are.

I got used to FreshDirect, the amazing online grocery delivery service for New York City (whose successful business model includes $600,000 in parking tickets a year.) In Madison, I was not about to start going to the store when I had already tasted the excitement of delegating the walk through the aisles. So I ordered online, but the Madison store didn’t save my grocery lists. And pointing and clicking 70 times to buy 70 items is not that fast.

But then I discovered that our local food co-op, Willy Street Co-op, has a great delivery system. No point-and-click ordering, just email them a list. So I started writing my list. But then I realized that not only does conjuring brand names and quantities takes a long time, but it takes a lot of brain power plan a family’s food for a week.

So I wrote list items like:
A few treats for kids –stuff that looks fun to eat
6 things that are microwavable that I didn’t think of.
Dinner stuff. Surprise me.
Fruit that’s in season. 4 servings

The food I got was healthy, appropriate and fun. (Thank you, Kelly). And this brings up overlooked benefits of delegating: you get to see things done another way; you learn from someone else about what is available; you get to have a surprise. If you are not a control freak, these are good experiences.

You spend so much time food shopping. Don’t tell me it is an integral part of your family life. It’s not. Sitting at the table together is what’s important. You don’t need complete control over what you eat. You probably don’t have the luxury of controlling as much as you are trying to control. And for most of us, the way to preserve and celebrate what is most important in life is to off-load what is not.

Look at your life for the things that are not at the core. Admit that the core is small. Question everything you think you need to do yourself. It comes down to how much are you willing to give up control, and how much you value your time.

16 replies
  1. Chris Yeh
    Chris Yeh says:

    I recently delegated the job of cleaning the dog poop from my backyard. A small thing, but well worth the few bucks it took to find a high school student to do it for me!

  2. Dave
    Dave says:

    I like that story of grocery store delegation; I wish I could send a generic email like that to the store. Every time I’ve looked into online grocery shopping, I didn’t go through with it because I felt it was a bigger hassle to click on 70 items.

    What they need to do is set up the grocery store like a bridal registry. Pick up a scanner and go through the store to ID everything you might ever want to buy. Then upload that to your own personal shopping list. Then, just go online and check off the things you need this week.

    Another way to do that would be if you have a store discount card, allow you to access the database of everything you’ve ever purchased and work off that list.

    Send me a weekly email with a pre-filled shopping cart, so I can do my online grocery shopping in about 5 minutes. I’d pay $10 for that. But I won’t pay $10 to sit at my computer for an hour trying to find out where the Mathews Whole Wheat bread is.

  3. Erik
    Erik says:

    I like this post a lot. I think it's a great example of something that everyone is a control freak over but shouldn't be. Raising this as something you can delegate basically puts everything on the table to be considered for delegation.

  4. Diana
    Diana says:

    Question, though… as someone who has attempted being a manager earlier in my life with little success, I found that delegating was a risky venture. Some backstory…

    I was what I guess you would call a “middle manager”; I had no authority to hire/fire, but I did have authority to write people up, and I had alot of projects/task on my plate handed down from the upper manager. Obviously, it was sometimes necessary for me hand down some of these tasks to non-manager employees in order to get everything done and make our boss happy. For almost everyone who held a position similar to mine, it brought alot of unpopularity and accusations of power-tripping. The most popular people (and the ones who were “likable” enough to get employees to do what they asked), were often the same ones who didn’t do the rest of their real job (not the managing part) very well.

    The problem was, if the people I was managing didn’t know what all I was doing that was more important than what I was delegating for them to do, they would get fussy and say (amongst each other) that I was a bad manager because I never did anything myself, I just pawned things off on them. Gross generalization, of course, but it made my life more difficult because I didn’t want to to risk losing everyone’s respect because I chose to delegate something and didn’t have to time to explain to all of our 140+ employees what I needed to do instead.

    This is an extreme example, because at the time I and the people I was working with were pretty young (18-20s), and they had very little respect for the job they were performing in general. But still, I’d like to know how it is possible to delegate to people (and trust them to get it done!) without breeding disrespect and “unlikability”?

  5. Mike Duffy
    Mike Duffy says:

    Jeez, Pen. This is amazingly on-target. I was reading your post in Bloglines, and I was compelled to come over here and comment.

    The shopping list was pure brilliance. It speaks to our yearning for connection, of someone to take care of us.

    Madison must agree with you – your writing is better than ever.

  6. Emily
    Emily says:

    Great post, Penelope. I love the way you’ve broadened the scope of what can be delegated. Personally, I love grocery shopping, but there are lots of things I could (in theory) get someone else to do.

    Now, learning not to be a control freak – that’s the hard part! But I will make it a goal.

  7. Debi
    Debi says:

    I’ve seen that many people would pay to have their grocery shopping done for them. What if someone wanted to begin doing this in an area that it is not offered?

    What would be the best offer to the purchasers that I could give? Starting out, of course, would be more difficult since I wouldn’t have a history of their prior purchases.

    Any suggestions are appreciated, I am seriously considering offering this to my area.

    * * * * * *

    Not that I know a lot about the grocery business. (Especially since I don’t even do my own shopping :) but here’s what I do know:

    In New York City, online grocery shopping, like everything there, is complicated and specialized becuase of the density of people and the incredible amount of money there is to be had.

    In Madison, WI, I have found that the grocery stores that already exist simply offer delivery options. It is pretty easy for them to make a profit on this service — they already deliver groceries, and they already have employees who know the stock very well.

    Outside of NYC or maybe San Francisco, I can’t really imagine anyone who doesn’t  already own a grocery store wanting to go into this business.

    –Penelope

  8. just me
    just me says:

    The grocery store delegation.. just awesome. I’d try that at the Shoprite, but they wont even let me use my girlfriend’s price plus card without giving me the 3rd degree. (Yes Mr. Cashier, she lives in my house and sleeps with me. Now swipe the damn card.)

  9. Resume Writer
    Resume Writer says:

    As a small business owner, I can attest to the fact that time is more important than money. I will pay a premium for a device, service, or person that will give me extra time to devote to marketing efforts because it is the only way for one’s business to reach the next level.

    I thought about trying the grocery delivery but hadn’t yet convinced myself to pay the premium.

    Willam Mitchell

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    Kathrynborlandbest says:

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  11. Brady Bagwan
    Brady Bagwan says:

    There are still a lot of people that haven’t discovered the value of delegating personal errands. This frees time for life’s more important pursuits (spending time with your kids, exercise, leisure travel, etc.). For those that don't have a staff, who do you delegate to? One way to overcome this is to use a personal assistant service. I just started a company called Delegate Source based in Denver. While there are quite a few concierge services out there, there are very few who approach lifestyle and household management broadly. It really is simple math. If a professional’s hourly cost is more than the cost of outsourcing personal services, why not achieve a better work/life balance by delegating errands and tasks?

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