If You Want It Done Right, Don’t Do It Yourself

It’s not just laziness. Collaborative platforms that maximize comparative advantage can increase productivity and boost local economies.

Time is our most limited resource, and knowing how to maximize it is imperative. Successful people across the globe have clearly figured this out, deliberately deciding to concentrate on tasks where they are most productive, while outsourcing the tasks where they are less so. This results in higher productivity (and well-being) for everyone involved. To achieve the highest productivity and well-being for society as a whole, we must focus on honing our strongest skills instead of spreading ourselves thin by trying to do everything.

This piece is part of a Collaborative Fund-curated series on creativity and values written by thought leaders in the for-profit, for-good business space.

Consider this little parable: Two men are alone on a deserted island. To survive they must undertake a few basic activities like fetching water, fishing, cooking, and maintaining shelter. The first man is young, strong, and educated. The second is older, less agile, and uneducated. In general, the first man is faster, better, and more productive at all these activities; he has an absolute advantage in everything. The second has an absolute disadvantage in everything. In some activities the difference between the two is great; in others, it’s small.

Despite the fact that the younger man has an absolute advantage in all activities, it is not in the interest of either of them to work in isolation; they both can benefit from specialization and exchange. If the two men divide the work, then the younger man should specialize in tasks at which he is most productive (let’s say fishing), while the older man should concentrate on tasks where his productivity is only marginally lower (let’s say cooking). Such an arrangement will increase total production and benefit both of them.

Although it’s clearly oversimplified, the idea of the two men on the island can help to illustrate the economic theory of the law of comparative advantage. In essence, the law of comparative advantage states that two parties—countries, companies, or individuals—can gain from trade or exchange if they have different relative costs for producing the same goods.

Comparative advantage means focusing on what you are comparatively good, skilled, or efficient at—and working with others to take care of the rest. If you do so, society as a whole will be better off.

In 2008, when I founded a company called Task Rabbit—which allows you to hire others to perform simple tasks—I wasn’t thinking directly about comparative advantage. I just wanted to build a platform that could help me get dog food for my 100-pound yellow lab while simultaneously making sure I was on time for dinner. In developing the idea, though, I quickly realized the power and potential of comparative advantage in making everyday life better and more efficient. There is tremendous power in focusing on the things you are most skilled at, while relying on others to do the rest; it creates jobs and reduces stress. You, your community, and society are definitely better off when you do.

It’s necessary (and a real skill) to acknowledge where your time is best spent and make conscious decisions to focus on those areas. You know the old adage, "If you want it done right, do it yourself"? I certainly do. My mom used to say it all the time, when dishes weren’t washed properly or clothes were put away in the wrong drawer. But, according to the law of comparative advantage, this is fundamentally untrue. Even if I am marginally better at doing something, it makes sense to outsource it if my time can be better spent doing something else.

Unfortunately, this common misconception often gets in the way of the efficient use of our limited time and resources. So, the next time you have second thoughts about delegating something on your to-do list, think again. You, and society, will be better off if you do.

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  • Kevin Crenshaw

    ... and inside a business, it also builds the company. (Builds yourself, your people, the firm, and society a s a whole as you delegate effectively. Four wins!)
    But managers are usually afraid to delegate (losing control, missed deadlines, following up, poor results, needing to take it back and rework).TaskRabbit helps solve those fears with ratings and reviews--public accountability. For larger businesses, where delegation is so crucial, I helped create Donedesk (http://donedesk.com).When you make delegation natural, accountability is built-in, and follow-up is automatic, when re-delegation, discussion, and clarification is built in to the process, managers naturally delegate a lot more, their people do and develop more, and the organization thrives.

    Thanks for pointing out the law of comparative advantage.

  • Next Office Pty Ltd

    It's nice to know that you've pointed out this economic theory that brings out the best in outsourcing. Outsourcing has had intrusive thoughts from many. Most protectionist would always say "keep businesses in our country", but little do they know, they are missing whole heap of opportunities to grow. It can be the biggest opportunity that they can ever capitalize

  • Robert

    Excellent article.  Makes me reconsider our business service model.  Kudos

  • garethg

    How does a concept like Task Rabbit work in an economy with high taxes? These can be both purchase/value added taxes and income taxes. If I pay someone to do a task they are obliged to add a value added tax to the bill and they pay tax on their income  (or profit). If we all do these small tasks for ourselves the price is lower. If we "specialise" the State takes a share of the gain.

  • Noah Krueger

    I imagine since most of the tasks are paid in cash, there is now way to track taxes. Also, you aren't technically required to report income below $600, so if you performed only a few jobs during the year, you wouldn't have to pay anything. The payer is also not required to pay taxes. I know people that babysit several times a month and I imagine they make several thousand per year from that. However, since it's all in cash, there is no way they are going to report that income.

  • David Kaiser

    First, speaking as an entrepreneur, I cannot agree more. I may be able to save a few bucks by doing my taxes myself, or not, the CPA may get more deductions than I would on my own, and I can use that time to sell or to deliver service, thus bringing in more revenue. (not to mention, I hate doing taxes...) Everybody wins, me, the CPA, my new clients. Yay.

    That said, I need to learn more about Task Rabbit.

    David Kaiser, PhD
    Executive Coach