How to Create a System for Your Success

This post first appeared at OwnerMagazine.

This past April, my first book came out. I knew I’d be busy. But like the parent of a newborn gobsmacked by reality, I quickly understood I would be busier than I had ever been in my life.

I had always been a reliable correspondent – a zero inbox gal who responded promptly. I was horrified when my inbox ballooned to 300 and previously unremarkable tasks such as uploading a blog post to WordPress, booking plane tickets, or writing a book review suddenly seemed insurmountable given the demands on my time.

I knew I needed help.

Unfortunately, I had made the classic mistake of waiting too long to get it. As author Paul Brown has written, the mantra for startups (and owners of all kinds) should be “delegate before you have to.” Indeed, he says, “There is… a temptation to deal with pending organizational problems by saying, ‘we will cross that bridge when we come to it.’ That’s wrong, too. The odds are, by the time you get to the bridge, it will be too late.”

This summer, I hired a 15-hour-a-week assistant for the first time. It’s been a great move for my long-term productivity, but in the short-term, I took a hit: things get worse before they get better. I didn’t anticipate how much time it would take to craft a job description, screen and interview candidates, write a reference manual to help her with the job, and coach her through the early phases of learning how I worked and the kind of help I needed.

If you’d like to create a system for your success, follow Paul Brown’s advice and delegate before you have to. If I could do it over again, here are the steps I’d take.

  • Keep a time log for 1-2 weeks. Write down literally everything you do.
  • Go through the list and determine which activities only you can do, or where you add unique value (writing blog posts, playing with your kids, attending a client pitch meeting, etc.).
  • For every other activity, think about faster ways to do the task, and whether it can be delegated to an assistant or some other form of outsourced labor. You can probably find someone on Elance to do data entry for you, and folks like Gary Vaynerchuk use Mechanical Turk to transcribe interviews, recorded speeches, or monologues. If your time sinks are more personal in nature, maybe it’s time to hire a TaskRabbit to buy your groceries, feed your pet, or fix that burned-out light fixture you never seem to get around to.
  • For more complicated activities that can still be outsourced, set aside an afternoon to write a manual describing each part of the process. This will allow your assistant to follow the steps easily and minimize the chance of errors. Want an example? On page 5 of my assistant manual, I describe how to upload my posts to Owner magazine. My assistant Sue and I hope you’ve enjoyed!

What are the systems you’ve set up that have been most helpful to your professional success?

Dorie Clark is a marketing strategist who teaches at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business. Learn more about her book Reinventing You: Define Your Brand, Imagine Your Future (Harvard Business Review Press) and follow her on Twitter.