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To Do or To Delegate: Which Tasks Are Worth Your Time?

Nicole Fallon

As an entrepreneur, you're probably juggling a whole lot of different tasks on a daily basis. Marketing, business development, customer service, accounting, Web design and more all fall under your purview — but maybe they shouldn't.

According to a survey on time management by The Alternative Board, the majority of small business owners work more hours per week than they'd like to, and most of those hours are spent working in their business rather than on it — that is, wasting valuable time on day-to-day minutiae instead of advancing and growing the business. Some things that survey respondents said they lose the most time on include:

  • Emails
  • Administrative responsibilities
  • Unscheduled communications
  • Waiting for information
  • Tasks that have been "upward delegated" to them by employees

Like the surveyed business owners, Nancy Hua, CEO of mobile app optimization company Apptimize, used to spend most of her "work" time on these types of tasks, and saved the important tasks for her personal time, after business hours.

"I used to do my daily tasks — meetings, hiring, administrative, emails —  during normal working hours, and then 5 p.m. to 1 a.m. was when I worked on anything that required harder, extended planning and strategizing," Hua told Business News Daily. "The cost of this approach is that you're working constantly, and you're often not in peak condition when doing the most important, uniquely valuable work."

Even if they're running a well-staffed business, entrepreneurs tend to let a lot more work land on their plates than is necessary. Why does this dilemma affect so many business owners? TAB's vice president David Scarola believes it's a matter of failure to delegate.

"Most business owners do not delegate as much as they should," said Scarola, whose company offers business coaching and advising services. "They spend a lot of time doing things that they could pay something a much lower salary to do. They [also] have no one to answer to. That is, they don't have anyone [above them] to hold them accountable. This lends itself to working hard, but not [working] smart."

So how do you decide which tasks to hold onto and which ones to delegate or outsource? Business leaders shared their thoughts on prioritization and figuring out what's really important enough to spend your time on.

Paring down your responsibilities

If you're serious about cutting unnecessary tasks from your day, the first thing you need to do is get comfortable with delegating.

"Sooner or later, all tasks not explicitly delegated end up on the owner's plate," said Geoff Woo, CEO of nutrient supplement company Nootrobox. "There's a ton of corporate housekeeping for keeping the doors open, not to mention the new initiatives needed to grow the business. Because there's so much on the plate, it's easy to feel like [you're] running on hamster wheel of tasks."

Hua noted that in many cases, you're the only one who has the full business context, and some decisions may be blocked pending your input. But you need to be able to trust your team to think like you, and learn how to communicate — or even overcommunicate — with one another to keep the ball rolling when you're not the one handling a task. This is especially true if you know there's something another person has more expertise in than you, Hua said.

To start this process, you need to identify what Scarola calls "platinum" activities — the ones you know you should be spending the majority of your time on, and that only you can do. Once you've figured out what you absolutely need to do, Scarola advised creating a "to-don't" list to help you decide what needs to be delegated to a trusted team member or third-party company.

"Start to record the non-[essential] activities you are spending time on," he said. "You can start to hand these off over time."

Allison Maslan, a business coach and serial entrepreneur, said that any tasks that involve micromanaging (e.g., frequent performance reviews or status update meetings) should be trashed, as well as any communications that don't actively bring in new business or build relationships that help the company grow. Instead, she said small business owners need to see themselves as a bigger company, regardless of their true size, in order to narrow down the "big picture" tasks like new business calls, public relations and trends research.

"The founder needs to spend time working on the vision of the company, building key relationships, growing the team," Maslan said. "If they are still trying to do everything to stay lean ... they will either burn out quickly or spin at the same level for years." 

Tackling your daily tasks

Wondering where to begin on your to-do list, or how to get it all done? Here are a few tips that will help you make progress without feeling too overwhelmed.

Create a daily and weekly plan. The entrepreneurs who create and stick to a schedule are the ones who are able to get the most accomplished during their day. Scarola recommended that you make a list of the most important tasks you intend to do for the entire week every Monday morning. From there, you can build daily plans and fill in other tasks around the critical ones.

"Don't just start reading emails and responding to interruptions when you get into the office," Scarola told Business News Daily. "Work off an intentional task list each day. [When you] commit to doing something, block off time on the calendar specifically to work on that task."

Keep your space organized. Organization and efficiency go hand in hand. Take the time to clear out any physical and digital "clutter" in your workspace. Then, commit to keeping it that way to save you time and frustration when completing your tasks.

"There is a real relationship between clearing clutter — both internally and externally — and [productivity]," Maslan said. "After all, how can you return a phone call if you can't find the info?"

Understand the threats to your business (and act accordingly). When you're trying to figure out which task deserves your attention first, Hua recommended thinking about your main strategic threats — that is, ask yourself what will hurt your business most if you don'tattend to it promptly.

"When there are a dozen fires around you, it's hard to resist the temptation to start whacking at the nearest blaze," Hua said. "But ... you need to focus on the main threats, even if they're not on fire yet. I constantly remind myself to disregard the million suboptimal problems around me to make sure I'm charging in the right direction."

Limit the number of "key" to-do's per day. Now that you've cut your task list down to the essentials, it might seem like every single item on the list needs to be your top priority. The trick is to further prioritize that list, and keep the number of "must-do's" to a minimum. Woo advised picking just one task that absolutely must be done per day.

"Every day, there's a volley of demands coming in externally," Woo said. "It's easy to be overwhelmed, causing you to only make marginal progress on each of those tasks. It's worth setting aside a few minutes at the beginning of the day to come up with the one, single most important thing to get done for the day, and then executing on it."

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Nicole Fallon Member
Nicole received her Bachelor's degree in Media, Culture and Communication from New York University. She began freelancing for Business News Daily in 2010 and joined the team as a staff writer three years later. Nicole served as the site's managing editor until January 2018, and briefly ran's copy and production team. Follow her on Twitter.