15. Three Crucial Skills for Staying on Schedule

In Chapter 8, I discussed how you should aim for “all or nothing” time management: devoting a lot of time to the things that are important, and as close to “0” time as possible to everything that’s not. Or, looked at from a slightly different angle, you should come as close as possible to only spending your time working on things that advance your Mission.

One of the toughest challenges you will face, as you work toward that goal, is eliminating tasks you don’t want to do or shouldn’t be doing. There are three main techniques for doing so—Discard, Delegate and Say “No”—which I discuss individually below. They work well even when used in the absence of a formal time management system such as the one described in the previous chapters, but they work even better when used with one.


Personally, I could never understand time management systems where everything is ranked A . . . B . . . C . . . 1 . . . 2 . . . 3. . . . In my mind, I rank everything into two categories: Important and Unimportant. And then I immediately discard everything Unimportant and try not to think of it again.

Is this method flawless? No; sometimes, in my rush to Discard, I throw out something valuable. I’m speaking figuratively, but I also sometimes do this literally: throwing out an important envelope with a pile of junk mail, or losing track of an important article someone leaves on my desk. None of these errors has been “fatal,” however. (If an envelope or article is truly important, someone will usually get in touch with you about it.)

You don’t want this kind of thing to happen too often, of course. But far better to occasionally Discard something important than to spend your whole life doing stuff you shouldn’t because you don’t Discard assiduously enough.


We tend to think of delegation as a hierarchical activity—something bosses do to subordinates. I see delegation as non-hierarchical, however: it’s about asking for help and reciprocating with your own help when and where appropriate. It’s also about sharing responsibility with others, often in a way that provides a learning or growth experience not only for those with whom you share, but for yourself.

Delegation, in short, builds community. It also implies responsibility and a relationship. You need to generously support those persons you delegate to with whatever information, training and other resources they need to get the job done.

You can, and should, delegate to all kinds of people in your personal as well as professional life, including (judiciously) those “above” and “lateral” to you in whatever hierarchies you happen to find yourself in. Delegation is ultimately a way of leveraging your time, talents and energies with those of other people; it’s something that anyone in a position of leadership or influence, or with an ambitious Mission, must learn to do.

Many people say they “can’t delegate.” What most of them really mean is that they are reluctant or afraid to try. Delegation isn’t difficult, although there are some tricks to it that I explain below. But there are lots of people out there who are afraid or unwilling to ask others for help.

Other non-delegators often use one or more of the following excuses:

• “It’s easier for me to just do the thing myself.”

• “No one can do as good a job as I can.”

• “It will take less time to do it myself than to explain to someone else how to do it.”

And my favorite:

• “I don’t have time to delegate.”

These excuses almost always fail to hold water. Most time-management experts agree that if you have to do a “delegate-able” task or project more than once, you should, in fact, delegate it. They also agree that you should delegate most tasks outside of your core competence. In other words, you should be spending most of your time doing the one or two things you do best, whether it’s managing organizations, organizing demos or creating Web communities; and you should delegate as many of the other tasks as possible to activists who excel at them. (See the related discussion on “focus” in Part I, Chapter 8.)

Sometimes people fail to delegate because they underestimate the amount of time it will take to complete a task. A task that might have looked trivial before you started it can sometimes quickly expand to take up much more time than planned. Better to delegate from the outset.

Non-delegators also commonly use the excuse, “If I delegate, the task won’t be done the way I would do it, or as well as I could do it.” The first part of that statement is certainly true—the task won’t be done in exactly the same way you would do it—and the second part may well be true, since often a “delegatee” does not do as good a job as a “delegator.” Sometimes, it’s because the delegatee doesn’t know as much as the delegator, and sometimes it’s because he or she doesn’t care as much.

You know what? It doesn’t matter. You have to delegate anyway—being careful, of course, to choose the right delegatee so that even if the task isn’t done to your high standard, it’s done adequately.

If you have trouble delegating, the solution is to practice: on colleagues, coworkers, classmates, volunteers, roommates, neighbors and family. Delegate, even, to the dog or cat—he or she may not obey, but the important point is that you will have tried! (Not all the humans you try delegating to will cooperate, either. . . .) If you can’t bring yourself to delegate the big, important tasks, then practice delegating the small, trivial ones. (“Would you mind doing the dishes?” “Can you pick up the mail?”) Eventually, you’ll get more comfortable delegating and be able to move up to the big stuff.

Years ago, I attended a leadership workshop at which one of the participants claimed she couldn’t delegate. During the afternoon exercises, the facilitator literally tied her to a chair so that she had to ask others to do every single thing she wanted done. By the end of the afternoon she was an expert delegator. So, practice does work.

Here are some other tips to help you become a good delegator:

When to Delegate: If you have an ambitious Mission, you should be delegating constantly. Again, the goal is to delegate as much as possible that’s not related to your Mission or that’s outside your core competence.

Whom to Delegate to: As many people as possible.

Professionally: not just your colleagues, employees and volunteers, but people in allied organizations. Members of your target audience. Members of the media. Even members of the opposition, if you’re particularly clever. If someone asks you to mail them some documents, tell them that you’d like to e-mail them instead. That way, you will have delegated the printing and collating chores to them, and eliminated the mailing chore altogether.

At home and in your personal life: spouse or partner, parents, friends and kids. Neighbors. People you hire to help with the housework.

Many people who are bad at delegating look around them and don’t see anyone they can delegate to. “This person” is too busy; “that person” doesn’t know enough; and “the third person” has some other stuff going on. Expert delegators, in contrast, view many of the people they come in contact with as potential delegatees. When in doubt, they at least try asking for help—and if the person they ask turns them down, they ask someone else. And someone else.

How to Reciprocate: Say you delegate a big project to a colleague, employee or volunteer, and they do a good job. You reciprocate by being there for them when they need help. They may need it in the form of advice, a letter of recommendation or assistance with a project. If the assistance they need is not within your core competence, you should try to help them find someone else to do it.

In other words, reciprocation doesn’t mean an exact exchange of services or time. It means an exchange of value. Someone may do ten hours of volunteer work for you, and then you might make a phone call that gets them a good job. Even though your call only lasted a few minutes, the recipient of your services will probably feel that she received a service of equal or even higher value for her ten hours.

Conversely, there are probably people for whom you would gladly work ten hours in exchange for them making a single phone call on your behalf. So it all cancels out.

A good rule of thumb is to always seek to give a bit more value than you receive in any exchange of services. If you do this, besides accumulating good karma, people will be anxious to work with you, and you’ll always have lots of people to delegate to.

Say “No”

You can Manage Your Mission and Manage Your Time perfectly. You can be great at Discarding and Delegating. But it still isn’t enough. Sometimes, you just have to say “No.” As discussed in Chapter 4, this is hard for many people to do, and harder still for many activists, because the things people ask us to do often tend to be urgent, if not life-or-death. But you’re still going to have to say “No” if you hope to achieve your Mission.

Successful people have lots of ways of saying “No” without actually saying “No.” They will:

• Postpone. “I can’t do that now; maybe in a few months?”

• Swap. “I’m really busy, right now, but if you could help me with my project, I could help you with yours.”

• Delegate. “You know, I would love to help you out, but this kind of work really isn’t my strong point. Have you asked Susan Jones? She’s really good at it.”

• Punt. “I can’t do the whole project for you, but I would be happy to make a few calls.”

But sometimes you just have to say “No.”

As with Delegation, the solution, if you have trouble saying “No,” is to practice. The more you do it, the easier it gets. Practice saying “No” to everyone around you, in big and small ways. (Tell them what you’re doing ahead of time, so they’re not caught off-guard.) Remember, the goal is not just to say “No,” but to do so in a way that doesn’t damage the relationship. As demonstrated in the examples above, there are plenty of ways to say “No” that respect the other person and offer him or her alternatives.

If saying “No” seems selfish to you, then talk to a mentor or just watch one. Successful people in any field are very good at saying “No”; they say “No” all the time, and in a myriad of ways.

Practice the three skills outlined in this chapter—Discard, Delegate and say “No”—and you’ll quickly notice several positive changes in your life:

• Your schedule will start to clear.

• You’ll have more time to do the things you need to do for your Mission.

• You’ll rush around less.

• Your stress level will drop.

All from three simple skills!

Chapter 16 offers a few more skills and pointers that will also help you Manage your Time.