A New "D" Word For Time Management

Harvard Business Review's The Management Tip had a fantastic post last week. Adapted from Elizabeth Grace Saunders Blog Post, How Office Control Freaks Can Learn To Let Go, the idea was that we need to focus more on "deferring" more than "delegating" to improve our time management The post goes on to describe the difference between deferring and delegating as follows: Delegating is handing off your responsibilities, while deferring focuses on passing activities on to someone else before they ever hit your to-do list. What a powerful thought!

We hesitate to even think of involving someone else in the task, because we rationalize they are already too busy. So, we hold on to it while our higher priority assignments struggle to see the light of day.
— Jones Loflin

I frequently find that when teaching about the need to delegate, one of the most difficult obstacles is to get the person to let go of the emotional connection they have to something they should delegate. They have started the task, and want to see it through to the end, even if it's something of a low priority. Wanting to finish something you start is admirable, but with our resources so limited, it doesn't always make sense. And we hesitate to even think of involving someone else in the task, because we rationalize they are already too busy. So, we hold on to it while our higher priority assignments struggle to see the light of day.

A prime example is agreeing to attend a meeting that is only of marginal importance to you and your role within the organization. As Saunders writes, If someone else will be providing similar insight to yours, don't agree to attend. There's another factor at play if you do attend the meeting-you're involved. And just being present at the meeting shows you are willing to commit some level of support to the outcomes. As action items grow out of the meeting, it will be emotionally difficult to say "No" if you are there. None of us want to let others down-even if we are letting ourselves down by burdening ourselves with another task or to-do item that doesn't advance our highest priorities.

To me, some key elements of deferring to improve your time management would include:

  • When you see a potential new low priority assignment or responsibility coming your way, make statements like, "Sounds interesting. It's not something I could give time and energy to right now," or "If you are looking for people to ______________, I wouldn't be your person. Right now I have _________________ (list some of your highest priority assignments). Have you considered asking _______________?"
  • Start with "No." Too many times we say, "I'll think about it." What the other person hears is, "It will be a 'Yes' in a few days." Starting with "No" removes any false expectations, and limits your emotional involvement. Remember, most of us give an emotional "Yes" when we would give a logical "No."
  • Clarify the request and your available resources before accepting any new responsibility. Scope creep is all too common in today's corporate environment. What starts out taking an hour per week grows into three, and then to eight. Force the other person to clearly articulate what they expect from you, and be ready to offer exactly what you are willing to commit. Also let them know that if it grows outside these parameters someone else will have to take on the assignment. Be prepared to stand by your comments, and put it in writing in an email at some point. You may need it later.

The main benefit of deferring versus delegating would seem to be the significant amount of physical, mental, and emotional resources you free up to stay focused on your highest priority tasks. And isn't that the goal anyway?