Marketers often lament, "If only I had more time." Improving your productivity by using something like GTD (Getting Things Done), which I have written about before, will take you part of the way there. But you also need to become "ruthless" at delegating.

The more effectively you delegate, the faster you will excel in your career. Even if you don't have any direct reports in your job function—perhaps you are in an entry-level marketing assistant position—you can still delegate by having one or more virtual assistants, or "VAs."

There is a veritable army of MBAs in places like Bangalore who are ready and waiting to assume the role of your outsourced virtual assistant. Offload as many of your professional and personal tasks as possible, and it can lead to improved productivity, less stress, and a better financial position for you personally—as long as you are able to acquire their services for less than half of what you earn per hour.

That's according to Tim Ferriss, author of New York Times best-seller The 4-Hour Workweek and guest lecturer in high-tech entrepreneurship at Princeton University. Ferriss never had any intention of writing a book. Founder of two companies, one in pharmaceuticals design and the other delivering over-the-counter sports nutrition products designed for elite athletes in 15 countries, he had cause to invoke the busy executive's lament.

Working 80-90 hours per week and checking his emails 100-200 times per day (no exaggeration), Tim even admitted in my recent interview with him (available here as a 25-minute audio podcast for your listening pleasure) to sleeping under cubicles and in his office.

During a four-week decompression trip to London, Tim set a rule to check his email just once a week and fully expected his company to fail without his constant management. Instead, within four weeks, the profits at the company went up close to 30% after a redesign and fat-trimming.

Yes, he was no longer the bottleneck for decision-making and information flow—an eye-opening revelation that blew all assumptions about work/life/career/entrepreneurship out the window.

In fact, after unchaining himself from the urgency addiction and being on constant call with his business, he ended up traveling the world for 15 months to see how far he could push the concept of outsourcing and automating his business, and outsourcing and automating his life.

So how does outsourcing work?

"Outsourcing" equals "delegation." The first step is to calculate the value of your time. "Annual income is a very deceptive number that people use to justify unsustainable workloads," Ferriss says. A raise doesn't make sense if it means putting in 30-40% more hours. The resulting hourly earnings are actually less.

If you are making $25 an hour and can delegate time-consuming/unpleasant/boring tasks to someone else at $12.50 an hour or less, outsourcing is a concept worth considering.

According to the "80/20 Rule"—the "Pareto Principle"—20% of our activities consume 80% of our time. What are those activities? If they can be done in front of a computer or on the phone, they can be outsourced, providing you find the appropriate person/people to outsource to.

There is no secret to hiring the right people. The first rule is to never hire a single individual—you don't want your project to fail because someone got sick, took a vacation, or quit on you. Look to hire multiple virtual assistants.

Turn to Web sites like or to help you acquire these VAs from India or elsewhere overseas. Expect to receive 20-30 proposals. Immediately delete any boilerplate form responses. Then assign an easy 20-30 minute task to the top 3-5 candidates to test for reliability. This will eliminate around 50% of them. Then, if your project takes 20-30 hours, assign the task to all three and ask them to stop after three hours and send you what they have done—and you will know who performs best.

How do you know the person will follow through with the project? Tasks that don't seem easy to delegate are usually those that require a clearer brief. Tasks that have resided for eons on your "to do" list are an indication that you are not prioritizing properly. You haven't identified the steps for their completion. "That is the reason why people don't have enough time," Ferriss says, whereas a proper brief forces you to describe exactly what needs to be done.

Ask for updates soon after the task has been assigned. This is just as important for an English speaker as a non-English speaker to ensure that nothing is lost in translation. Ask for confirmation that they understand the task and ask them for a report a few hours into the task.

What tasks can be outsourced?

Opportunities abound for every comfort level and price range. Business tasks like product sourcing, manufacturing, quality assurance, shipping, customer service, and regulatory/compliance tasks can all be outsourced domestically. Administration tasks like prospecting can be outsourced too. Compiling a spreadsheet targeting 300 blogs may well take over 200 hours, but could be assigned to your people in Bangalore at $4.50 per hour who would have it ready for you the next morning. Using a 24/7 digital concierge available for holders of an American Express Platinum card, things like travel arrangements can also be assigned cost-effectively. If it is a repetitive task, delegate it. Any type of analysis that doesn't have a creative element can be outsourced. In fact, there are very few limitations, and a surprisingly few tasks that can't be outsourced.

The things you don't outsource are the things you really enjoy doing or which require a high proficiency in English that is hard to replicate overseas. That doesn't mean you can't delegate these tasks to someone in an English-speaking country.

Ferriss likes to keep all high-level marketing and budgeting decisions in-house, also back-end analytics and creative decisions about print advertising or radio. Because he enjoys copywriting, he keeps that in-house. Blog-post research, forum moderation and blog-post comments can be outsourced, as can the drafting of press materials, although these will require that you to choose your VA more carefully.

Staying current on everything in your field can be an addiction too. If you prefer to keep your core competencies to just 2-3 activities, you can actively hire or surround yourself with people with expertise in your field to sift through and sort information for you, alerting you to the key things you need to stay on top of.

Ferriss even had a bet with a friend that he could outsource his online dating life and admits he couldn't have gotten the resulting 50 dates on his own. "It is all about defining precisely what you want," he says.

Unshackle yourself

Sara Holoubek, now a "free agent" consultant, knows all about the high-stress, taking-on-too-much-yourself lifestyle. Previously serving as the chief strategy officer at a large firm, iCrossing, Holoubek's day ran from 8am to 8pm most days, then several hours of email at home after that.

It wasn't the life she wanted, so Holoubek resigned and hung out her shingle as an independent. She quit on the Friday before the ad:tech New York conference in 2005; she started getting offers that Saturday. Unshackled from her 100-hour per week corporate existence, she's now free of "time-waster" tasks such as justifying her job, justifying her team, digging out of the many useless emails to which she was cc'ed, and filling out paperwork.

Starting her consultancy initially as a one-woman show, Holoubek was hired for her strategic thinking and paid by the hour; but, over time, as her consultancy grew and larger projects started coming in, Holoubek tapped her favorite freelancers and served as project manager, outsourcing the bulk of the projects to trusted colleagues.

For maintaining communication with clients and outsource partners, Holoubek relies heavily on technology. Her tools of choice include eFax for inbound and outbound faxes, Skype and a headset for VoIP-based phone service so she can appear professional if working from home, and free conference calling using She made her cell phone her primary number, but chooses not to answer calls off-hours. She isn't addicted to her email, restricting the bulk of her emailing to early morning and nighttime hours. Holoubek admonishes, "If you're going to be on call 24/7, you might as well be paid by the hour."

Financially Holoubek is doing much better now. In fact, she cleared her 2005 salary (the last time she was employed full-time) within the first six months of 2007. By delegating much of the work rather than doing it herself, she maintains her sanity while maintaining the profit margin. And she's putting in the hours on her own terms, taking time off in the middle of the day if she wants for cooking and grocery shopping. This flexibility is aided by the fact that she has a home office.

By living some of the principles espoused by Ferriss in The 4-Hour Workweek, Holoubek has improved her quality of life. However, she admits there is still room for improvement: more she could delegate, less she could take on herself.

In addition to outsourcing as much as you can, Holoubek offers these practical productivity tips:

  • Meet in person—you'll get a lot more done.
  • Think about emails before you respond to them.
  • Smart is better than fast—don't sacrifice quality.
  • Don't let yourself get interrupted. The average American employee is interrupted every 11 minutes. It takes a lot of time to get back in the flow, so avoid those interruptions.
  • Have meeting-free days. Ensure there are workdays when you don't schedule meetings and instead hunker down and get things done.
  • Don't take things so seriously. If everything's urgent, nothing's urgent. Prioritization is critical.
  • Put boundaries around your email. It's okay not to be in constant communication. If you email in the middle of the night, you are letting the recipient know that you are available in the middle of the night.
  • Get out of dysfunctional environments. If you're not in a position to effect change, then leave. Otherwise, you are choosing that environment.
  • If you are a manager, you should set the example and encourage your reports to act independently.

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image of Stephan Spencer

Stephan Spencer is the founder of Science of SEO and an SEO expert, author, and speaker.

LinkedIn: Stephan Spencer

Twitter: @sspencer