Episode: How to Delegate Even If You Don’t Have a Team

Michael Hyatt: Hi, I’m Michael Hyatt.

Megan Hyatt Miller: And I’m Megan Hyatt Miller.

Michael:  And this is Lead to Win, our weekly podcast to help you win at work and succeed at life. In this episode, we’re talking about delegation, one of our favorite topics, and we’re going to show you how you can delegate even if you don’t have a staff. So if you don’t have a staff, don’t be thinking to yourself, “Hey, that’s great for you guys, but I’m stuck without a staff,” because we’re going to be talking specifically to you.

Megan: This can be really hard, where you feel overwhelmed and kind of alone in your work, because you have a lot to do, but maybe you’re a solopreneur or you’re not in management, and you just find it so exhausting and frustrating and overwhelming, because you want to get some stuff off your plate, but who do you give it to?

Michael: That’s right. We’re going to fix that today by showing you seven options for delegation even if you don’t have any direct reports. We have Larry with us today to lead us through this process. Larry Wilson, welcome to the show.

Larry Wilson: Hey, guys. Thanks. When we talk about delegation, I think there are really two problems people face. One is the lack of resources, and we’re going to talk about that today, but there’s another problem in that a lot of people just don’t want to give up control of certain tasks or certain areas of their business. So, what if I’m that guy who just won’t let go of this task? What do you have for me?

Michael: I think there’s a mindset about delegation you have to overcome at the beginning. I think I’ve said that before on this podcast. There are typically some mindset issues that people have to overcome on delegation, like (and these are the sentences that rattle in their head), first, “If I want it done right, I have to do it myself.” Second, “It takes longer to explain how to do it. I might as well just do it myself.” Third, “I can’t afford to pay somebody right now. I just have to do it myself.”

The problem with that is your business can’t scale, and you’re going to be overwhelmed and frustrated if you can’t figure out how to delegate, even if you don’t have a staff. It’s still possible, and that’s what we’re going to get into in this episode.

Megan: You really bump up against the limitations of your own capacity. You can only do so much, and if you’re not willing to let go, then, gosh, there’s not really anywhere else to go besides that.

Michael: You’re kind of stuck in that situation.

Megan: Right. That’s what we want to get you out of.

Larry: You really can delegate even if you don’t have staff, and we have seven options for delegation. Let’s get right to them. The first option is to triage your to-do list. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Michael: What I mean by this is you have to go into your to-do list with a weed-whacker or a set of pruning shears and cut everything off it that you possibly can. The way I look at it is through what’s called the Eisenhower Matrix. Dr. Stephen Covey made this popular in his book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, but he actually didn’t originate it. The idea is that you’re going to evaluate every task, whether it’s urgent or important or it’s both. It’s kind of like a 2×2 matrix.

Some tasks are urgent and important. He calls those priority 1 tasks, and those things ought to be on your to-do list. Then there are those items which are important but not urgent. Those ought to be on your task list. These are the things we keep procrastinating on but are really important…getting that checkup or working on that important project you know will move your business forward. Those are the priority 2 tasks.

Priority 3 are those things that are urgent but not important, and those kinds of things sometimes we have to do, but the thing we have to question is if they’re not important, why are we doing them at all? Those are real candidates for crossing off your checklist and just forgetting about. Then, finally, there are the things that are not urgent and not important, and these are the fake work items that can take up an enormous amount of time if you’re not careful. Those need to go too.

So, you have to have an honest appraisal, going through your task list with the intention of thinning it out, just like you might do if you were doing spring cleaning with your wardrobe closet or with your car. What stuff do you still need? What stuff can go?

Larry: You used a term just a second ago. Let’s define that for everybody: fake work. What do you mean by that?

Michael: Fake work is, for me, that quadrant 4 or priority 4 kind of work that’s neither urgent nor important, but it keeps us busy. I think it’s easy for us to drift into that kind of work because it’s what other writers have called downhill work as opposed to uphill work. It doesn’t take any initiative or it doesn’t take any effort. It just kind of keeps you busy. It gives you sort of a faux productivity. You feel like you’re being productive because you’re checking stuff off a list, but at the end of the day you go, “You know what? That really wasn’t the highest and best use of me, and it didn’t really accomplish anything organizationally.”

Larry: So, the first option is triage your to-do list. We talk about this as a delegation strategy. You’re really delegating to the trash can here.

Michael: Yeah, I love that. Take that.

Megan: That’s the easiest kind of delegation.

Larry: The second option is to use technology more efficiently. A lot of listeners, Michael, look to you for tech solutions, so I know you probably have some good tips here.

Michael: Yeah, absolutely. Technology can really help us be more productive but doesn’t require our personal attention to things. For example, with email I use a product called SaneBox. You can find out more at It basically uses (and this is kind of the techy explanation, but it’s not this techy to use) the power of rules to sort your email inbox. For example, you could tell it things that come in that are email newsletters that are not urgent. You could have those go to a specific folder you would only review when you had time to do some enjoyment kind of reading.

The nice thing about it is in the old days of email, you used to have to set this up as a rule and you had to understand the syntax of creating the rule and all that stuff that is making people’s eyes glaze over even as I’m saying it, but now all you have to do is take that email newsletter from whatever your favorite organization or blog is and drag it into the folder, and SaneBox remembers from that point forward that that email from that particular person always goes to that folder.

Megan: This is pretty cool. You’re really just training it.

Michael: You’re really just training it. Absolutely. So that’s a simple solution. We use Spark email, which I also use in conjunction with SaneBox. The nice thing about that is you can save yourself a lot of effort and a lot of back-and-forth with your teammates or coworkers by having everybody use Spark, and you can have conversations around an email message so you don’t have so much email back and forth, which ends up cluttering up your email inbox and just ends up becoming a giant to-do list. There are a lot of other things that are related to Spark that make it very easy.

I manage my calendar electronically for the same reason. It takes a lot of work out of the process. When something changes, I don’t have to go erase it in a paper calendar. We have a calendar in the Full Focus Planner, and a lot of people use that as their own calendaring solution. I think if you work with a team, though, you’re probably going to have to do what we do, which is to use a hybrid solution. I write down my appointments for another reason, but it’s not where I’m managing appointments. I use it as a way to get an overview of the quarter at the first of the quarter, but I don’t use it as a management solution going on.

Larry: Megan, we recently here at Michael Hyatt & Company went through sort of a restructure of the way we use technology, and one of the things we did was to sort of review all of our templates. How are these an aid to delegation?

Megan: Well, one of the things that can really slow you down when you’re trying to delegate or enlist the help of others is articulating your vision. It can be really laborious. It can be ambiguous, and then you don’t get a good result when you’re trying to enroll other people. Our templates help people to articulate the vision for what they’d like to delegate. The best part is that it really automates it.

In all of these templates we have, whether it’s a meeting agenda or something we have that’s called the Project Vision-Caster, which is that tool for articulating vision for a new project, or a recommendation briefing form, which is basically a proposal format you might use to get your direct supervisor to say yes to something you want, it’s just kind of paint by numbers. Templates are a way of not having to think of all of the things you need to include in a document you’re producing on a regular basis every single time you do it. You just fill in the blank.

Michael: I would say probably the biggest single productivity hack that bought me back more time than anything else I’ve ever done in the last 30 years was creating a library of email templates. I catalogued almost all of the common requests I would get. There were about 40 of those, and then every time I got one of them I said, “Okay. Am I going to have to respond to a similar request in the future?” If I did, then I took a few extra minutes and wrote something I knew I could reuse again and again and again. I saved those as email signatures. You could put them in a Word file. You could do a number of things with it…text expander for people who are familiar with that. You could create a snippet, but an email signature will do just fine.

Then when I get the request after I’ve written the template, instead of having to compose the entire thing, like reinventing the wheel at the beginning of a project, all I do is pull down the signature that has the boilerplate text for that response, and it takes me from 10 to 20 minutes to answer an email to literally probably 30 seconds. I can pull the template, personalize it a little bit, and send it on its way, and I can blow through a ton of email that way very quickly.

Larry: So, the second option for delegating without a staff is to use technology more efficiently. In this case, you’re kind of delegating to your computer, saying, “You’re on all the time. Why don’t you do some work while you’re at it?”

Megan: That’s right. It’s never been a better time.

Larry: Let’s talk about the third option, which is to negotiate out of previous assignments.

Megan: This is a great one and probably counterintuitive for a lot of us, because it’s so important when you’ve given your word to follow through on that. However, there are often opportunities where you can negotiate out of a commitment you’ve given if you consider the interests of the person you’ve given your word to.

Here’s how you would do that. You would state, for example, to your boss or to a coworker that you’re willing to fulfill the assignment you signed up for, but you’re going to state why you think it might be best for them if you don’t. Maybe they’re more qualified or you know somebody who’s more qualified within your organization to do it. Maybe somebody else could do it faster than you could because of the backlog of things you’re working through.

You want to ask your boss to prioritize your projects. If he or she has given you a list of five or ten things they want accomplished and you’re trying to negotiate out of them, they may come to their own conclusion that, for example, number seven or number eight could easily be handed to someone else and accomplished more quickly than if they just left it to you to get to when you had time.

But you can offer alternative solutions. You could suggest someone else who could do it better than you. Again, you’re in the posture of selling when you’re doing this. You want to propose your solutions with their interests in mind. So, what do they care about? Do they care about it being done faster or cheaper or better, and how can you position it that way?

Then offer to help recruit a replacement for yourself. Don’t just leave it to them to solve. That’s not usually in their best interest, but offer to go have a conversation with a person and try to enroll someone who might be a better solution than you are to fulfill that commitment. This can actually go really well. Usually, people don’t care if you negotiate out of something as long as they don’t feel that they’re losing out. If you can make it seem either like a comparable swap or a gain for them, then usually it will be perceived positively.

Larry: You can’t just dump it back in their lap.

Megan: You can’t just dump it back in their lap. That does not usually go well.

Michael: There was a book written years ago (I think it was a Spencer Johnson book, maybe Ken Blanchard too) about you try to get the monkey off your back and put it on somebody else’s back. What bosses don’t appreciate is when one of their people takes the monkey off their back and tries to put it on their back. That’s where I think you have to be part of helping find someone else to bear the monkey.

This can go very well. I think it’s easy to shut this down before you try, but it doesn’t hurt to try. Again, your posture is going to be, “I’m willing to fulfill the commitment, because I made the commitment, but I really don’t think it’s in the best interests of you or the organization for me to do that. Here’s why. But I’m not going to leave you in the lurch. I’m going to help you find a better solution than just me,” and then you’re out of it.

Megan: By the way, when you go try to recruit someone else to fulfill this commitment you’ve made, it’s easy to think you’re imposing on them, and certainly sometimes that’s true, but there are a lot of times when it would be advantageous for them to take on the commitment. Maybe it’s an opportunity for them to shine where they wouldn’t otherwise have the chance, and that can be really worthwhile to them and something they would even be excited about. So, don’t say no for other people, because you might be giving them a great chance.

Larry: So, the third option is to negotiate out of previous assignments. This, in a sense, is delegating back to your boss or to the person who made the request, but it’s, I guess, really delegating through them. “I’m going to come back to you in hopes that we can find someone else who can take this assignment.”

Megan: That’s right.

Larry: Let’s go to the fourth option, which is to ask for some volunteer help. Does that really work in a business context?

Michael: It does, and I think for the reason Megan just articulated. Most of us don’t like to ask for help, but most people are willing to give it. I’ve experienced that time and time again. In fact, we did an entire episode on this back in February. The title of the episode was Need Help? Here’s How to Ask for It. We’ll put a link in the show notes. People love to make a contribution. Think of all of the things you’ve signed up for (all you have to do is look at your list) that you weren’t getting paid for that you agreed to do, maybe in a church context or a community service project or with friends or whatever.

Now why do we do that? We do it for our own reasons. Megan said maybe it’s an opportunity for somebody to grow, for someone to shine, for someone to exercise something they don’t get to do very often. So, this can be a great resource for us, to think, “Is there somebody else who is really good at this who would enjoy the opportunity to do this kind of work?”

Megan: For example, recently in Michael Hyatt & Company we had a consultant in who was advising us on some operational changes to our customer experience. I asked John Meese, who’s the dean of Platform University and the director of that brand, if he would sit in on that meeting and kind of act as a volunteer adviser/consultant with us in the context of that meeting.

It’s not his job description. He’s not going to get paid any more because he volunteered to join us, but he said to me later it was super rewarding for him to have the opportunity to be in that conversation and to contribute his ideas, just because it kind of gave him an outlet that he wouldn’t normally have in the context of his work with Platform University, and he really enjoyed it. I think it’s easy to be dismissive of the value of that, but people really want those opportunities, very often.

Larry: So, we’ve identified four options so far: triage your to-do list, use technology more efficiently, negotiate out of previous assignments, and ask for some volunteer help. Let’s go to the fifth option, which is to use variable-cost alternatives.

Megan: I love this one. If you can’t afford to have, for example, a full-time executive assistant or hire another full-time staff member… Maybe that’s your dream, and it feels like it’s that or nothing. You’ve never lived in a better time for there to be a host of options that are between nothing and a full-time employee. We have talked about this so many times, but I really think it bears repeating. You don’t have to hire those people full-time to get the help you need. In fact, there are all kinds of on-demand services, whether it’s getting your groceries or hiring somebody to run an errand for you or processing your expense reports.

Those kinds of things can be done on demand, where you pay either a flat one-time fee or an hourly fee, but it’s not an ongoing commitment. For example, there’s a service called Magic that is an on-demand virtual assistant solution that some people we know really enjoy, and then, of course, our favorite part-time, kind of bigger commitment solution would be BELAY that provides virtual executive assistants that are dedicated to you on a minimum of 10 hours a week.

Michael: What about Fancy Hands?

Megan: Magic is like Fancy Hands. Apparently, Magic is better, according to the people we’ve talked to lately. They have an employee team of assistants rather than a bunch of contractors, so, apparently, the results are great. Somebody was telling me recently that they registered their kids for school, they planned a birthday party for somebody in their family, they made travel arrangements.

I want to say it’s like $35 an hour if it’s a personal exercise they’re doing or $65 for business, but I don’t really think that corresponds to an individual person’s one hour, so my guess is you get a lot more time for that. The point is you could just pay $35 and have somebody plan an event for you or book your travel, and that’s kind of a no-brainer.

Michael: The thing about it is you have to forget about the time. In other words, you have to think to yourself, “What would it cost me to do that, and could I get it done cheaper?” Oftentimes… I learned this from Bryan Miles at BELAY. Somebody who is an administrative assistant or an executive assistant who’s really good can get more done in an hour than you could probably do in four or five hours. That’s why you have to think of it not in terms of what it costs per hour but “What is it going to save me if I don’t have to do that?”

Megan: Right. We’ve said this so many times. Every time we’ve hired team members (I would say that even includes contractors or, in this kind of gig economy idea, one-off solutions) our income has gone up, because our ability to use our hours, if you think about it in terms of billable hours, for the most valuable work… It’s a no-brainer.

Michael: Totally.

Larry: So, the fifth option is use variable-cost alternatives, and as you just mentioned, Megan, this is like delegating to the cloud or to the gig economy.

Megan: Right. There are so many solutions. It’s exciting.

Michael: Even grocery delivery. We’re using that all the time now.

Megan: Instacart is the one we use. I don’t know if that’s available everywhere, but there are about four or five that are like that. Food delivery…

Michael: I mean, you think about how much time the average person consumes on grocery shopping, and to be able to delegate that…

Megan: It’s probably a couple of hours a week. Handyman services… There is like an app for every kind of service provider you can think of.

Larry: People are actually doing this in a lot of areas of their life but may be slow to adopt it in their business.

Michael: Right. It’s a mindset issue.

Larry: The sixth option is to appeal for more resources.

Michael: Yeah. Sometimes you just need more resources. You need more people. You need more money, whatever it is, in order to deliver on what you’ve promised to do in your business. One of the things that’s helpful to do is learn the skill of getting your boss to say yes. This is sales 101. Most people don’t think of this as sales, but if you’re going to get anything out of your boss… I got very good at this, honestly. This is one of the reasons I think I was so successful in my corporate career. I was able to get my boss to say yes. Here’s how I did it.

Larry: I’m taking notes right now.

Michael: Yeah, you can use this on me. I never tried to get my boss to say yes to me; I tried to find out what my boss wanted and get him to say yes to himself or herself. That’s the thing you have to think of. You have to think, “Okay. How is this…?” This is how you do sales. “Why is this in my prospect’s best interests? Why is this in my boss’ best interests? How is this going to help him or her achieve their goals?” If you can do that, you can secure their resources. Did we do a series of podcasts on this?

Larry: I think we have a series of blog posts that are out there.

Michael: Oh yeah. We definitely do. We’ll link to that in the show notes. How to Get Your Boss to Say Yes. Again, it’s about helping your boss reach their goals, and that’s how you have to pitch it. That’s where you have to start. You have to get them to affirm that this is their goal. Then you say, “Well, hey, I have another way to accomplish this, and here’s what it’s going to take.”

You can think of it in terms of the speed with which the goal is going to be accomplished. In other words, “If I have additional resources, we can get it done faster.” Or “If I have additional resources, it may sound like we’re going to spend more money, but it’s going to actually save us money,” and you have to be able to demonstrate that. These are the sales techniques for getting your boss to yes when you need additional resources.

Megan: Speaking as someone who is a boss who is constantly being pitched by my team on things they want me to say yes to, the difference between… And they’re all, honestly, really good at it at this point. This is a big area of focus for me. When they come to me and pitch me something that’s in my best interests that supports the goals they know I already have… First of all, it makes it way easier to say yes.

One thing you may not know is that if you’re a boss, you really want to say yes. It’s exhausting to try to figure out if it’s the right decision and all that kind of stuff, but if you can make the line of sight clear between what you’re asking for and why it supports the things they’re already pursuing, not only are you going to make it easier to get a yes, but you’re going to make it enjoyable for them, and that’s an amazing skill to have.

Larry: So, the sixth option is appeal for more resources, and you’ve heard it from a couple of bosses here. It actually works.

Megan: It totally works.

Larry: This is kind of delegating to the new guy that hasn’t been hired yet.

Michael: That’s right. Perfect.

Larry: Okay. That brings us to our seventh and last option for delegating when you don’t have staff, and this one may be the hardest: muster the courage to say no.

Michael: I have an entire chapter in my new book Free to Focus about this. It’s under the chapter called “Elimination.” The best way to eliminate anything from your to-do list is never let it get on your to-do list to begin with. That means you have to learn to exercise your no muscle. For most of us, that’s difficult, because most people I know who are in business who are successful in part got there because they’re so likable, and the reason they’re likable, or at least the reason they think they’re likable, is because they say yes a lot. They try to please other people. I myself am a recovering people pleaser.

One of the ways I talk in the book about how to say no is this principle I learned from Dr. William Ury, The Power of a Positive No, where you follow this framework of yes-no-yes. This makes it easy, even for people who hate to say no, to learn to say no and to do it with grace. It begins by affirming the request. You’re not trying to shame the request or the person making the request. You’re not trying to ignore the request and let the request languish in your inbox, because that is a good way to tick people off. If you don’t like to say no because you don’t want to tick people off, this will tick them off. So, you’re going to say yes, and you’re going to affirm the request.

Then you’re going to give an unambiguous no, and I’m going to show you an example of how you would do this in just a minute. You don’t want to beat around the bush or say, “Hey, check back with me in a couple of weeks,” because that’s just a boomerang situation, where you’re going to boomerang the task right back to yourself in a couple of weeks. Then you want to conclude with a yes. You want to affirm them again and send them off feeling good about the interaction even though you had to say no. So, yes-no-yes. Here’s an example.

Because I spent the majority of my career in the book publishing business, I used to get and continue to get requests from people who want me to review their book proposal. Well, I don’t have time to review book proposals anymore…ever. I just don’t have time. I would like to. In a perfect world I would be able to do that, but here’s what I say in an email template when I get that kind of request. I say (here’s the yes part of it, one short paragraph), “First of all, congratulations on completing a book proposal. Very few aspiring authors ever get that far, and it’s one of the most important foundational elements of writing a book. So, good on you.”

Second paragraph. This is where I’m going to say no. I use very specific language. “Unfortunately, in order to be faithful to my other commitments, I have to say no.” I’ve given them a context. It’s not just because I’m being a jerk. It’s not just because I think I’m more important than to do that kind of work. No. I’m trying to be faithful (and this is really true) to the other commitments I already have, and I already have more on my plate than I really probably should have, and I can’t accept a project from somebody else without compromising my existing commitments. So, that’s the no part of it.

Then I want to conclude with something that’s a yes. So I might say, “All the best for your continued progress on your book,” and in my case I can refer them to some resources on publishing. But I could at least say something like, “I look forward to hearing about your publishing success. I might even pick up a copy when it comes out,” whatever. That’s something they can feel good about and I can feel good about, and I’ve had so many people write me back and say, “Hey, I totally get it. Thank you so much for getting back to me so quickly.”

Megan: So, two other ideas if you’re having to say no to your boss, because that can be difficult sometimes if something is coming your way but you really have a full plate. One of the things we do at Michael Hyatt & Company is we use the Scrum methodology for project management. That has an aspect to it where you’re basically completing projects in a defined period of time called a sprint. You might have a one-week sprint or a two-week sprint, and you’ve defined the scope of work you’re going to be working on during that time.

You may have 10 or 15 projects you’re working on in that time. You can do this company-wide and align a whole team around it, but you can also do this as an individual. Then what happens is when requests come in during your sprint time, you would put them on what’s called a backlog for consideration for the planning of the next sprint. You can do this a little more informally and maybe have it on a weekly basis.

If your boss asks you to do something and you have a full plate already, you can kind of develop a language around, “I’d absolutely love to get to that. My plate is full right now, but I can put it on my backlog to be done in the next sprint,” or use whatever language feels good. What that communicates is it’s still important to me. I’m not just saying no. I’m just saying, “Yes, but later.” It gives you a way to contextualize that you already have a full plate.

The other thing you can do is say, “Here’s a list of my priorities you’ve already given me. Here are the projects you’ve given me that I’m working on, and I have a full plate. I’m happy to do this, but how would you like me to rearrange these priorities, because it’s not possible to do them all right now?”

Larry: So, the seventh and final option is muster the courage to say no. This is kind of delegation back to the person making the request. “It’s not up to me to find a solution; it’s up to you.”

Michael: It’s the Teflon solution. It just doesn’t stick to you.

Larry: Well, today we’ve learned you really can delegate even if you don’t have a staff. It’s really more about mindset. There are solutions to getting the work off your desk yet still getting it accomplished. There are seven options we’ve identified today.

  1. Triage your to-do list.
  2. Use technology more efficiently.
  3. Negotiate out of previous assignments.
  4. Ask for volunteer help.
  5. Use variable-cost alternatives.
  6. Appeal for more resources.
  7. Muster the courage to say no.

Guys, any final thoughts for our listeners today?

Megan: Even if you don’t have a staff or not as much staff as you would like, there are so many options for, like you said, getting the work off your plate. The key is thinking out of the box. If you kind of get into that black-and-white thinking of either “I have nobody to delegate to” or “I need a whole staff,” that’s going to set you up for failure, but there are a lot of options, and if you only took away two of the things we talked about today, you’d probably feel far more resourced than you were at the beginning of the show.

Michael: This really is a mindset. I think so often in life we shut ourselves down before we give ourselves an honest chance to consider the possibilities. So before you say, “I don’t have anybody else to delegate to,” ask yourself if you could apply something here, because it’ll get you from being overwhelmed to a sense of momentum and more control over your life.

Larry: Great stuff, guys. Very practical advice here. Thank you.

Michael: Thank you, Larry. And thank you guys for joining us for Lead to Win. Join us next time when we’re going to tell you three questions every leader must ask to avoid the deadly drift. Until then, lead to win.