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Why is it that our to-do lists for work keep growing and never shrink?

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Especially as a manager, I’ve gotten used to the deeply unsettling idea that you can only do one thing a day well, or three things half-assed. I hate this constraint (as someone who begins my workday with five new ideas of how to make things better for the team or company), but it’s true.

As I’ve gotten older in ‘leader years’, my biggest area of growth has been in learning to predict what I can and can’t get to, and what I can delegate. Figuring out what to delegate isn’t easy, and usually, by the time you need to work it out, you’re already overwhelmed and on the path to burnout. So, I’ve developed a quick five-step process to help you come up with five things you can delegate today. This exercise should only take ten minutes, and it should save you a lot of time in the long run!

Step 1: Create your list of to-dos

Take a few minutes to jot down what needs to get done in the next week or month. Don’t worry, I’ll wait. Here are some prompts to help you get started:

  • What are things you or your team run into repeatedly that you wish would go away?
  • What’s something manual you do every time someone joins or leaves a team?
  • If you went on vacation next week, what is one reasonable problem you would love to be solved before you come back?

Step 2: Split your list to see your candidates for delegation

Once you have your list of to-dos, split it into two columns: (1) Things only you can do, and (2) candidates for delegation. This should take a couple of minutes.

Here are my guidelines on what could qualify as tasks only you can do:

  • Manager related: If you’re someone’s manager, you’re likely the only one who can approve or send things like expenses, time-off requests, performance reviews, offer letters, or action items regarding confidential information. (Caveat: Often, you can tap your manager or peer to do this if you’re particularly overwhelmed.)
  • Permissions and access related: Perhaps you’re the only one who can review, approve, or give access to a teammate with respect to permissions, entitlements, or anything that has a paper trail. (Caveat: Depending on the item, you might be able to expand the list of approvers so that you’re not the only one.)
  • Context related: You may be the only one who has information from a meeting or feedback from an individual that’s crucial to the outcome. (Caveat: You can type this information or context up and delegate the action items.)
  • Deadline related: If a task needs to be completed quickly, you might not have time to delegate and get it done. (Caveat: Often deadlines are more flexible than you realize.It doesn’t hurt to try first and ask if the deadline can be extended!)

Before you start putting all of your tasks into the 'things for you' column, there are a few traps to be aware of. These are the to-do items that seem like only you can do them, but are actually delegable:

  • Action items from a shared meeting: Even if you said you’d do something, if you’re unable to get to it in a reasonable amount of time, you can reevaluate your availability and delegate.
  • Feedback on things: Just because someone asked you for feedback, doesn’t mean you’re the only one who can provide it. It’s okay to delegate by providing warm intros to others who can provide the feedback (a warm intro is when you introduce both parties to each other in a group DM or meeting, rather than telling one person to reach out without you present).
  • Announcements: People might be used to hearing announcements from certain people in certain ways but it doesn’t have to be that way. In a healthy team, important news can come from many people, and normalizing this behavior starts with doing it intentionally. 
  • Opportunities where you’re requested by name: Just because someone has asked for you, it doesn’t mean you can’t delegate the work. Even if it’s a great opportunity, if you don’t have time and it’s not something you can reasonably get to, this is the perfect chance for you to suggest other great folks as a replacement!

Step 3: Move more items over to your candidates for delegation

We’re not done yet. Now that you have your smaller list of things that only you can do, go ahead and prioritize them in the order that you’ll be tackling your items. If your list is six items or more, draw a line after five items. These first five items are now your tasks, that only you can do, and everything else goes in the 'candidates for delegation' column.

Step 4: Rank your candidates for delegation by effort and impact

Now that you have your candidates for delegation, I recommend ranking them across two criteria: Least effort to do (by someone who isn’t you) and most impactful. This can easily become an unbounded exercise, so I recommend going with your first instinct. This exercise shouldn’t take more than a couple of minutes.

For me, this is easiest when I put them on a two-by-two table like this:

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Step 5: Pick your five delegable items

With all of your items mapped across the table, you can look to the top right corner to find the best candidates to delegate. Write these down in order of priority, select the top five, and you officially have your five items to delegate! If you have to order two tasks – one that’s very impactful but takes moderate effort to delegate, and another that’s moderately impactful but takes very little effort to delegate – I suggest ranking the more effortless item first.

As a bonus step, I recommend translating the information in the table back to regular lists. I like to create two lists: Tasks in the top-right and top-left quadrants become candidates for delegation, and those in the bottom-right become candidates for automation. I usually find a way to get out of anything in the bottom-left section so that I don’t have to add them to my list at all!

Next steps

If the exercise was painful for you, you’re not alone – it’s painful for me, too! Delegation is one of the hardest skills to develop as a leader. A big contributor to this is the sense of guilt and disappointment we experience when we decide not to do something we had promised or set out to do. But by learning to get comfortable with these initial emotions, you can focus on your most important job as a leader: Making your team more successful overall.

I recommend repeating the exercise once a month and easing up over time as you start to identify patterns around which to-do items are easy and impactful to delegate. No matter what, start small, and delegate more as you get comfortable.

The next steps will be figuring out who to delegate to, and how to do it in a way that helps folks to be successful. I’ll be posting a second part to this article that shares techniques for doing this proactively (rather than reactively), so stay tuned!