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.
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.