Hard-Learned Lessons in Time Management

I was in deep trouble. I added up what had to be done and calculated the time it would take to do it. My deadlines were hard. I had an appellate brief due and a trial coming up fast. There was no way I was going to get it all done. I knew I had some long nights ahead of me and that I would be working both of the weekends I had left. I also knew that there was no way I could make it happen. I knew enough to know that I couldn’t get it all done. I’d screwed up and waited too long before getting started. That was the week when I really learned about time management. It was also the week when I learned about trust.

It’s Not Just About Managing the Clock

So many of us think time management is our issue. We rank that concern very high on our list of troubles. We believe that there must be a way to get it all done in the time we have available. We’re wrong. The only way it’s all going to get done is to get some help. We’ve got to let others do part of what is required. We’ve got to allow ourselves to give up some control by delegating the responsibilities to others. Delegation is hard for us. We’re control freaks (even when we think we’re not). Rarely is anything good enough. So often, others don’t live up to our standards.

Six Lessons in Delegation

Here’s what I learned over those trying days:

  1. Settle for good enough. Being perfect isn’t required. Looking back on it, much of what I thought was perfect wasn’t that great. The more I’ve learned, the worse my old work product looks. Shockingly, I won lots of cases with something far less than perfect. Let your people get it mostly right and leave it alone. Their imperfect work is probably better than what you were putting out two years ago before you learned what you learned.
  2. Trust is essential. Trusting others to get it right is where delegation starts. When you find yourself saying “it’s easier to do it myself,” you’re probably articulating your inability to trust. Let it go. Let them learn. You’ll sometimes be shocked that they do it better than you do. Yes, they’ll screw up, but so will you. Start small and build your trust if that’s what’s required for you to release the work.
  3. Delegate the right stuff. Decide what you’re going to delegate by carefully examining the skill sets of your team members. Keep the work that allows you to add your highest value and delegate the rest. Build a system so that it becomes routine for you to let go of the small stuff plus the stuff your people are specifically trained to handle. Giving the right work to the right people makes it easier to trust.
  4. Don’t own the work. Let your team members own it. When your team members own the work, they will be certain that it meets your standard. Don’t give them the sense that you’ll finish it, edit it, or perfect it. Let them know that it’s their problem and they are the last line of defense. They need to get it right, or you all go down in flames.
  5. Make sure your team knows why. Help your team members understand how each piece of the project fits into the overall mission. They need to understand the “why” as well as the “how.” Understanding the big picture enables them to completely own the work and be certain their piece dovetails correctly with the related pieces. Helping them understand how each component relates to the project builds trust for you as well as for them.
  6. Stay on top of the work. Once you let go of the parts, your job is to get your piece done while keeping an eye on the total project. Insist on progress reports. Keep track of milestones. Make sure it’s all coming together and watch for those in need of help or resources. It’s not your job to “own the work,” but it is your job to “own the project.” Keep tabs on all of the pieces coming together without meddling to such a level that you’re perceived as a micromanager.

Letting go, trusting that it will get done, and letting others take responsibility is difficult. However, the benefits are beyond calculation. Delegation lets us grow our businesses, take back our personal lives, and find happiness in our work. Maybe more importantly, delegation helps us help others grow, and the trust we learn spreads into other aspects of our lives. Learning to delegate is powerful in ways we don’t expect. For me, facing the challenging period of work I mentioned at the outset, things worked out. My brief got done. My trial got handled. It was messier, different, and more interesting than I’d planned, but ultimately, we won the appeal and got a good result in the trial. Delegation works. Trust is hard, but it makes all the difference.

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