How Do You Delegate If You Don’t Have a Staff?

Whenever I write or speak on the topic of delegation (as I did yesterday), I always get a question from someone who says, “But what if you don’t have a staff? How can you delegate?” This question typically comes from staff people, technicians, stand-alone professionals, or start-up entrepreneurs. It’s a great question.

Worker gets the squeeze from some stacks of file folders - Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/PeskyMonkey, Image #8186932

Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/PeskyMonkey

I recommend seven strategies to those who feel the need to delegate but have no one to whom they can delegate:

  1. Triage your to-do list. Go through each item and assign it one of the following four letters:
    • A—tasks that are urgent.
    • B—tasks that are important but not urgent.
    • C—tasks that are somewhat important.
    • D—tasks that are neither urgent nor important.

    Now completely delete your D-level tasks. Then go through and see how many of the C-level tasks you can delete.

  2. Use technology more efficiently. Many people don’t avail themselves of the technology that is already at their fingertips. For example, why struggle with trying to setup a complex system of email file folders and then determine where each email goes? You think, Should I file that email from Bill about the ABC account and the XYZ account in Bill’s folder, ABC’s folder, XYZ’s folder, or all three? Instead, just move every processed email to one folder called “Processed Email” or, more simply, “Archive.” When you need to refer back to the email, let your software’s built-in search function do the heavy-lifting. It will find the email in less than a second.
  3. Negotiate out of previous assignments. Yes, you may have agreed to take on a certain project, but when your boss comes back with another one, you can say, “I’d be happy to do that. Is this project more important than the previous assignment you gave me? I honestly don’t think I can do both. Which one would you prefer I do?” If she insists on both, you can at least insist she prioritize them and thus set her expectations so that you won’t have to do both of them simultaneously.
  4. Ask for some volunteer help. Believe it or not, some people may actually like the work you are not good at or don’t like. (This is what makes the world go around.) Sometimes you can barter some work with a friend or colleague: “How about if I design your new blog in exchange for you preparing my taxes?” This is a little bit of the I’ll-scratch-your-back-if-you-scratch-mine strategy. You might also consider interns or students who are desperate for the experience and a letter of recommendation. I have see this work very well, provided you are clear with the expectations up front.
  5. Use variable cost alternatives. This is a phrase your bottom-line boss will appreciate. Good leaders and managers are loath to add “fixed overhead” (i.e., permanent positions). For starters, it doesn’t provide enough flexibility if the workload is seasonal or there is a downturn in the economy. Instead, you should attempt to outsource specific projects or entire processes. Tim Ferriss, in his fascinating book, The 4-Hour Workweek, describes in detail how to use a personal virtual assistant. He recommends GetFriday.com, a company in India that specializes in this. I used them a while back as an experiment. I liked their system, but found that my own real assistant was all I needed.
  6. Appeal for more resources. Eventually, you may need to make the case to your boss (or yourself, if you are an entrepreneur) that you simply must hire someone. Before you can persuade your boss, you need to think like your boss. What is important to him? How does an additional person help him achieve his goals? I have written previously on the topic of “How to Get Your Boss’s Approval When You Need It.” While it doesn’t address this need specifically, the principles and methodology still apply.
  7. Muster the courage to say “no.” If all else fails, you may have to decline taking on other assignments and suffer the fallout. This comes down to priority management. You have to establish your boundaries and then (graciously) enforce them. There is too much at stake—your health, your family, your legacy, etc.—to do otherwise. Doing this has never hurt my career. In fact, I think it enabled me to get where I am today. It demonstrated to my boss that I had clear priorities and am willing to pay the price to live by them.

I know this just scratches the surface, but I firmly believe in the principle that “he who is faithful in little is also faithful in much” (see Luke 16:10). If you are a good steward with what you have been given, you will eventually be given more.

Question: How do you handle this issue in your job? Do you have any additional strategies to share?
Want to launch your own blog or upgrade to a self-hosted WordPress blog? It’s easier than you think! Watch my free, twenty-minute screencast. I show you exactly how to do it, step-by-step. You don’t need any technical knowledge. Click here to get started.

Watch my free screencast

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are snarky, offensive, or off-topic. If in doubt, read My Comments Policy.

  • http://leadershipfreak.wordpress.com Dan Rockwell

    Good Morning Michael,

    You're always leaving useful info that gives me something. Here's an idea that helps with list making. It only works for those keeping to dos on paper. Divide the paper into four quadrants. Label each quadrant A,B,C,D or 1,2,3,4. Now you can automatically create a prioritized list. I wrote about this and one other tip for getting things done at http://leadershipfreak.wordpress.com/2010/02/08/a

    Believe it or not, my new Leadership Freak blog draws a lesson on delegation from waffles.

    Have a great day,

    Leadership Freak
    Dan Rockwell

  • http://twitter.com/stepmorgan @stepmorgan

    I struggle with pairing strategies 1 and 2. Anyone care to post their favorite software or ap for keeping track of their to-do list?

    • http://www.linda-adams.com Linda

      This is a link to a place where a lot of people make their own forms. There are lots of different types of To Do forms: http://www.diyplanner.com/
      My recent post Snowzilla

    • Geoff Webb

      I'm on a Mac and use Things, iCal, and Mail all sync'd together and with my iPhone. It's bliss – when I'm on top of it. Any system you set up is only as good as you are at keeping on top of it. Be sure to check out Michael's post on weekly updates – he does a bang up job of describing them.

      The Spotlight search on a Mac is amazing – as soon as I discovered how powerful it was, I knew it was the end of filing as I knew it.

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      I am on a Mac, too. Like Geoff, I use Things, Mail, and iCal—except I just switched to Google Calendar. Love it.

  • http://bigisthenewsmall.com Scott Williams

    “Just say no!” does not only apply to taking drugs. #7 is well said, a big piece of delegation is learning that little two letter word! “No!”

  • http://www.linda-adams.com Linda

    To Do List: I've been using an idea map for a small, short term project I've been working. Been pretty handy. I drew it in PowerPoint, added boxes to check off the items as I finish them, and posted it on my cube wall. All I need to do is glance at to see what I need to. A site on idea mapping: http://ideamappingsuccess.com/

    For email: I used an idea from The Hamster Revolution, which gives a four folder system. It makes it very easy to make a quick decision. Anything that is dated material I set an expiration on (draws a line through it). Briefing scan once a week to see what's expired and delete it. A site on the Hamster Revolution: http://infoexcellence.com/hr1.html
    My recent post Snowzilla

  • http://progressforge.com/ Mark Mathson

    Michael,

    I can attest to #2, the simple use of an Archive folder to throw everything into that I've already processed. This simple change has made managing email ten times easier, and I have been able to share this method with others whom seem to suffer from ever growing sub-folder dependency. ;-)

    Also, to your point with mustering the courage to say no, thanks for bringing that up. This is something I've thought about lately, and have put in to action. Reading how you put it, especially regarding priority management, made me realize that there is a purpose behind refusing the extra, or perhaps unnecessary at the moment, and being open to going back to it again in the future.

    Regards,
    Mark
    My recent post Share Your Knowledge: Time and Place Your Ideas

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      The problem with the folder and sub-folder hierarchy is that it leads to procrastination for most people. They have to make one more decision in their workflow, and it's just enough to keep them perpetually behind.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/success2you John Richardson

    I work in a California school district with huge budget cuts. Almost everyone is having to do more with less. This is a great list to help us all out. Thanks for a great resource page, Michael. Over the last year as I have had to adjust to an increasing workload and a reduction in staff, I've discovered three things that have helped me be more productive.
    1. Daily Worksheet. As much as I like the latest technology, paper is still king in my book when it comes to planning out my day. I use a daily organizer sheet that has a place for my top six priorities and four sidebar boxes to keep track of e-mail, phone calls, meetings, and notes. I print one out each day and keep it on my desk. It helps me stay focused and has all the important information in one place. (you can download one here http://bit.ly/dAnx5U ). I keep old ones in a notebook for quick reference.
    2. Personal Recycle Bin. I have a good sized plastic bin that I keep under my desk for recycled papers. Instead of spending a lot of time filing, I just put my.. "I don't know what to do with this items" in the bin. As it fills up I take the papers from the bottom half of the bin and go through them on a bi-weekly basis. 95% end up going to our real recycle bin. This has been a huge time-saver and now my motto is… File only what is necessary.
    3. Aim for Noon. One of the best productivity tips I have ever found is to pretend you are working a half day and aim to have your work completed by noon. It's amazing how this simple technique helps you weed out the important from the mundane. When used with Michael's triage system in #1 above, your mind cuts the clutter and aims for the prize. You'll be amazed how many things get delegated or eliminated from your daily routine. (and as a bonus… sometimes you really can go home early)

    Sometimes the simple things can save us a lot of time and money. Back in the 60's NASA spent a year and millions of dollars to create a pen that would write in the zero gravity of space. The Russians accomplished the same thing in five minutes… they used a pencil. :)
    My recent post The Inclusive Checklist

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      Great comment and great ideas. I especially like the “Aim for Noon” tip. I take it one step further in “Slay Your Dragons Before Breakfast.” Thanks.

    • http://www.facebook.com/melody.dubois Melody DuBois

      Yes, I like the "before noon" tip, too. (Sorry, Michael — between my own morning walk schedule and getting the family out for the day, I can't quite make it before breakfast… or I'd never get breakfast!) All too often I find my morning "frittered" away with 2nd priority stuff. "Before noon" is a good marker to aim for!

    • http://www.facebook.com/tellmisty Misty Williams

      Aim for noon … I LOVE IT!!!

      Ya'll are brilliant. I love social media. :)
      My recent post How do I find good customers?

  • Geoff Webb

    Very thorough as usual; thanks Michael! You've hit what I think are the two main points: get a system that allows you to work effectively then keep that system working efficiently by only putting the important stuff into it.

    As I mentioned to @stepmorgan, I'm a big fan of Things:
    http://culturedcode.com/things/

    My recent post What’s So Important About People?

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      Exactly! Thanks for saying in two sentences what it took my an entire blog post to articulate.

      I also use Things.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/PaulSteinbrueck PaulSteinbrueck

    Awesome! And I love the conversation that's starting around this with others sharing their personal systems for delegating, prioritizing, and getting stuff done.
    My recent post 6 Ways Formulas Fail Us

  • http://twitter.com/MarkYoungBooks @MarkYoungBooks

    Great article. The biggest help I’ve developed recently is to create a comprehensive 'tickler' file that allows me divide up my time more efficiently, without carrying around a lot of things to be done in my head or on a paper calendar. Small move and low tech, but a great help in allowing me to get my job done. This way, I can focus on my writing without distractions
    My recent post Human Trafficking

  • http://twitter.com/MarkYoungBooks @MarkYoungBooks

    Great article. The biggest help I’ve developed recently is to create a comprehensive 'tickler' file that allows me divide up my time more efficiently, without carrying around a lot of things to be done in my head or on a paper calendar. Small move and low tech, but a great help in allowing me to get my job done. This way, I can focus on my writing without distractions
    My recent post Human Trafficking

  • chris

    Here's another one…stop projects that aren't fruitful. When you are a team of one, it's easy to start projects you think would be fun / benefit others / or help the larger organization. When you are a team of one, no one can tell you "we don't really need that" or "that's not as great of an idea as you think." Therefore, re-access your current projects and drop some of them.
    My recent post What I Learned From The Boy Scouts

  • chris

    Here's another one…stop projects that aren't fruitful. When you are a team of one, it's easy to start projects you think would be fun / benefit others / or help the larger organization. When you are a team of one, no one can tell you "we don't really need that" or "that's not as great of an idea as you think." Therefore, re-access your current projects and drop some of them.
    My recent post What I Learned From The Boy Scouts

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      I totally agree. I have written and spoken about “cultivating the art of non-finishing.” In the list I wrote about today, it comes under “triage your to-do list” (low-priority projects). Thanks.

  • http://cbobka.wordpress.com Carla Bobka

    A suggestion for independent professionals who may be over committing and leaving no room to find their next project, or complete those they're taken on. Typically the independent is either more of a prospector or more of a completer, and their strength is where they keep their attention. Then they have moments where they realize a deadline is looming, or conversely they finish a big project and realize their pipeline is dry, and get into a panic about revenue stream. Take 10 minutes to figure out an "hours in my week strategy." How many hrs can you devote to production, how many must you devote to prospecting, how many for administering your business, how many for client communication, etc. When you hit that limit (based on time spent or items committed on your calendar) for a week, move on. If your production hrs run out regularly, you can't yet commit to more immediate deadline projects, and your conversation in turning them down or negotiating deadline is simpler to articulate.
    My recent post Twitter Switch

  • http://samrhall.com Sam Hall

    I've never been one to do much prioritizing of tasks — ! !! !!! kind of stuff — save for my top three to five tasks of the day, which I mark in Things. But I like the idea of going through my Next Steps and future Projects list and prioritizing with an eye toward deleting the ones I don't really care as much about.

    I'm pretty good about not adding the D-level tasks to my lists, but here and there they make it on. And over time it gets cluttered. Sounds like a good way to handle my triaging during my quarterly reviews.
    My recent post Getting Your Email Client Out of the Way

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      I don’t prioritize my tasks on a regular basis either. I used to do this, but now it's pretty much second nature. However, for those who are overwhelmed and can’t delegate, using it in a triage sitution is a good first step.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/jondale jondale

    Hey Mike,

    Great post! For anyone considering your suggestion #5, Use variable cost alternatives, I'd highly recommend Secretary in Israel (http://www.secretaryinisrael.com). I've been a client for about a year and it's been a wonderful experience. Their owner, Sarah Leah Gootnick, is amazing, and her team of virtual assistants is literally world class. I have a "full-time" assistant named Carly, but it only ends up costing me $400-$1500 a month, because I only have to pay for time she's actually working on my behalf. As you can tell, I'm a raving fan.

    Thanks again for a wonderful post.
    My recent post The new PR

    • http://www.twitter.com/danieldecker Daniel Decker

      Thanks for that link Jon. I'll pass it on to a few clients who are looking for VA's.

  • http://www.marydemuth.com Mary DeMuth

    This is exactly where I'm at right now. It's not easy to need extra hands and not be able to pay for them. So I'm saying more No. Such a small little word that yields so much power!

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      Maybe I should have started with “no.” It is a simple, powerful concept.

  • http://www.jondale.com Jon Dale

    It looks like my link to Secretary In Israel decided to include my closing “)” and doesn’t work.

    Here it is again: http://www.secretaryinisrael.com

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      Thanks for this link. I will add it to my list for others.

  • Michael Gray

    Priority management — now that's an elusive skill to master (for me at least). When I was the Director of Communications for a large church, I struggled with this immensely. I tended to prioritize based on which task was the most on fire, not necessarilly which was more important in the overall scheme of things. In dealing with people from many different departments, I realized that everyone thought their project was the highest priority, so I absorbed their urgency instead of stepping away from the micro and dealing with it on a macro level.

    I have found that the "Getting Things Done" system works well in helping me prioritize work, and in helping mee see which tasks I should tackle, and which tasks should be delegated.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/MikeHolmes MikeHolmes

    Mike,

    I'm actually glad you posted this. Because I wondering THE EXACT SAME THING;)

    Great post@
    My recent post Conventional Marketing vs Integrated Marketing: How Important is Marketing to Your Company?

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/patriciazell patriciazell

    Sometimes I think that educators should be offered professional development from business people rather than always from other educators. My biggest problem is handling all the "paperwork" (both hard copy and online stuff). Fortunately, I have an aide in two of my classes, so I have delegated some of the grading and some of the copying to her. Of course, with many of my students procrastinating like they do, keeping track of all the papers is challenging to say the least.
    My recent post #29 BECOMING A SON OF GOD: THE BAPTISM OF THE HOLY SPIRIT (1)

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/MichaelSGray MichaelSGray

      Amen, Patricia. You are fortunate to have aides to help you out. Teachers have the unique situation of having to recruit parent volunteers to help out, rather than holding on to the exciting-but-ultimately-impossible dream that we may one day have our own administrative assistants. Managing volunteers is a unique challenge in itself, but parents really tend to be giving of their time.

  • Pingback: links for 2010-02-11 : The ChipCast || by Chip Mahaney()

  • Anna B

    This might be too simple of an idea but the one thing that has helped me is developing the habit of finishing a project before starting or working on a new one. "Finishing" may be a daily commitment to getting closer to the end result but working on 5 projects at one time offers us the opportunity to get extremely distracted (and discouraged). Finish your project, your email, your chapter before working on the next one. If you get off the phone and promise to send something, send it then. If you need to check on pricing to answer an email, check on the pricing, answer the email and get it done with. Procrastination (i.e. multitasking) hurts business and relationships.

  • Pingback: Most Tweeted Articles by Leadership Development Experts()

  • http://www.likeawarmcupofcoffee.com Sarah Mae

    I am putting into practice that to-do list ASAP! I always listed things in order of importance, but I never considered "traigeing" it (yes, just butchered that word…completely). I really never considered just deleting a task! Will begin…NOW. thank you!
    My recent post Want to See What I’ve Been Working On?

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/dewittrobinson dewittrobinson

    Thanks for the post Michael. Very timely!

  • Pingback: 5 Steps of My To-Do Lists Revolution()

  • Pingback: 3 ways to delegate when you have no RCIA team - Team RCIA - FREE RCIA resources and support()

  • Bianca Juarez

    This was brilliant! Thanks for linking it from your most current blog post :)
    My recent post 100 words on the granola syndrome…

  • Pingback: Managing Email with an Assistant()

  • Duke Dillard

    Another good resource ishttp://www.odesk.com. For basic jobs like internet research, data entry,… it is great – think ebay for outsourcing. You get a job done cheap and help out someone in the developing world.
    We used it for an MBA project in which we needed info from different countries whose language we did not speak. Some was done well and some not, but overall we were pleased.
    Note: I have no connection with this site but thought it fit this post.
    peace,
    Duke Dillard

  • http://iChilly.com Chilly

    This is so practical. I've always found that 'authentic leaders' always have 'staff' (perhaps non-paid). My team is ALL volunteer – at two inner-city church plants in Detroit – they are amazing! We are thriving and our 'staff' grows weekly!

    Glad I found your blog – I'll be back!

  • Alan Yu

    I think strategy number 4 is very useful. In the modern work environment, we can't expect work to be channelled directly in a "chain of command" fashion. We should think of "delegation" as persuading other people who have more expertise or are better equipped to do a task for us. Admittedly, when we have staff, it's a little easier to do, because of the "authority" we wield over them, but to be successful in the 21st century, we all have to learn how to influence others to help us without the direct authority over them. Remember Dale Carnegie's "How To Win Friends and Influence People"?

  • http://www.kathyfannon.com Kathy Fannon

    I've used the A,B,C, 1,2,3 system for years and it is helpful. I was also a Mary Kay consultant many years ago and she taught the "6 Most Important Things To Do" method, which is also fabulous, easily prioritizing the important tasks for the day.

    As someone who will be in business for myself soon, I appreciate the tips. Not all will apply to me, but I do like the idea of finding a student who is willing to intern in exchange for recommendation letters, etc. I know I will get to a point where I won't be able to do everything, but can't afford to hire someone.

    And THANK YOU for the email 'search' tip! I see the search box in the upper left, but never thought about how to put that to use. I implemented the "Processed Mail" folder a few weeks ago, but the 'search' will save even more time! I'm giddy about that one! :)

  • Pingback: Tweets that mention How Do You Delegate If You Don’t Have a Staff? -- Topsy.com()

  • Pingback: What to Do When You Find Yourself Over-Committed?()

  • Pingback: Over-commited « The Quiet & The Quirky()

  • http://www.embracepositivepassion.com Georgiana

    Making a list of priorities that are in order of highest priority is the primary way that I delegate tasks to myself. By making a daily to-do list I have a set agenda of what my day’s tasks consist of and this definitely helps me keep on track. :-)

  • Abhishek Kumar

    nice information. thank you for sharing it.

    thanks

    Packers Movers

  • Curt Erb

    Thanks for the great help on delegation. Here’s a quote that has impacted and directed me: “Why am I doing what others can do and leaving undone what only I can do? As I answer this question, my purpose is brought into focus and my commitments get prioritized. My response to this question is what gives me the power to say yes and the freedom to say no.” Bruce Bugbee from his book “What You Do Best In The Body Of Christ”