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Outsourcing your chores is a good thing (nytimes.com)
49 points by gbvb on Nov 5, 2013 | hide | past | web | favorite | 56 comments

At one point I hired a personal assistant through oDesk. I took this idea from Timothy Ferriss's 4-Hour Workweek, but I hired someone in the US. I wanted to get a landscaping project done (that was required by the environmental regulators in Tahoe), but I didn't have time to track down the contractors, do background checks, make sure they showed up, and finally get the regulators to sign off on the project.

The contractors thought it was pretty strange to have to deal with someone in a different state, but it worked out pretty well. Our culture (at least here in the US) doesn't appreciate outsourcing day to day tasks (and I felt embarrassed telling people I had an assistant). Maybe this comes from our Protestant roots.

It reminds me of an episode of Garrison Keillor's Prairie Home Companion. Some of his characters from Minnesota visit California and find out one of their relatives has a gardener, and they ask if the relative is having any health issues, because they couldn't imagine having someone do their gardening for them, unless they were severely ill.

Update: The poster above mentions getting what you pay for if you pay $2 per hour in the Philippines for instance. I agree with this. I payed significantly more, but I feel as though I got my money's worth. It isn't that expensive to hire in the US if you look to lower cost areas like the Mid-west.

For this project, I felt it was worth it to have someone who understood the problems of hiring and managing contractors in the US. The person I hired was a homeowner, understood what I wanted to accomplish, and did an awesome job. It turned out to be a fraction of the cost of the overall project, and was money well spent.

I'm not sure it's related to work ethic or religious roots but it's certainly true that there was never a particular culture in the US of service whereby even people of fairly middle-class backgrounds had servants. And this has probably carried over to modern culture whereby people probably outsource fewer tasks like grass cutting, housecleaning, and so forth than they arguably should (whatever that word means in this context).

That said, a lot of people do outsource tasks like cooking--but they do so in different ways (like going to restaurants) rather than by explicitly hiring help.

It's a good point about eating at restauranta vs. hiring a chef; in my limited norcal experience, it cost less to have a come-and-cook chef weekdays than it did to routinely eat out, and it was substantially more awesome in several ways.

Despite it costing less, though, several of my fellow Americans thought the chef was like, bourgeois, or pretentious, or something.

(I would still do it, except now I have a wife who cooks, and resists my lobbying to outsource this function...)

My college-age daughter LOVES to cook and finds it relaxing. I call her my "personal chef" and have basically turned over all household food stuff to her, freeing my time for other things.

Tell her it will free her up to spend more time on other wifely tasks.

Outsourcing by eating out has become much more acceptable in the past few years, but I can remember growing up that eating out was considered a luxury. But restaurants can achieve economies a scale that are difficult to get at home, especially if you don't have a large family. In many cases, eating at a restaurant or having food delivered isn't that bad of a deal.

Yeah, I think it definitely has a "weird things aristocratic British people do" association: job titles like au pair, chauffeur, butler, chef, governess, etc. don't seem like something that would fit into a red-blooded, down-to-earth American household.

Housecleaning and grass cutting are really common to pay people for in the U.S., though. I think in the neighborhood I grew up the same large company must've had at least 20-30% of the lawns, because they basically came through with their big trailers of equipment and went house to house marching through their customer list.

> Housecleaning and grass cutting are really common to pay people for in the U.S., though.

I don't know the numbers but it likely varies a lot even among those with houses and decent-sized lawns. My guess would be that in upper middle class developments where this sort of thing is more or less the norm, people will be more likely to avail themselves of these services. If all your neighbors cut their lawns on the other hand, I can see able-bodied people feeling funny about hiring someone.

The best advantage I have found with our VA is having them listen to all the podcasts I want to listen to, summarize the articles and send me the transcript. Then I can skim in 30 seconds what use to take me 45-60 minutes to listen to.

Also, I have found Odesk very helpful when our sales people ask for custom demos for clients. Instead of distracting our team I hire someone on Odesk to reskin our demo app. The best part is I know exactly how much that demo costs and like to let sales know so they can decide for their self if a demo is warranted in each situation.

As for personal tasks, I love using the concierge service attached to my credit card. Just recently I had them research all the candidates up for local election for me, find out how to return a jacket I bought on a business trip across the country, and suggest some recipes for a halloween party.

I have a running list of my favorite things I have sent to my concierge on Quora: https://www.quora.com/Concierge-Services/What-are-some-good-...

I also have a running list on my blog: http://delegnation.com/

A presentation I did at a Product Camp recently about using outsourcing to support product management: http://www.slideshare.net/russjhammond/product-camp-nashvill...

>> The best advantage I have found with our VA is having them listen to all the podcasts I want to listen to, summarize the articles and send me the transcript. Then I can skim in 30 seconds what use to take me 45-60 minutes to listen to.

If you could produce a complete transcript, I bet the podcast hosts would be delighted to post it for each episode. Not only would it be useful for listeners, but it would help them show up in web searches on their topic.

Perhaps the hosts or other listeners would even help pay for the transcription.

For the podcasts - have you tried listening to them at 1.5x or 2x speed? I started doing that & it's saved me tons of time & I can get through way more content (doesn't sound that weird once you get used to it either).

On your credit card - is that the Amex Platinum? I have a friend that uses them as a personal assistant basically.

I do use the 1.5x feature but save that for the podcasts I actually listen to. By reading the transcripts I can "monitor" 3-5 weekly, hour long podcasts in 15 minutes.

As for the card, yes I use an AMEX Platinum but believe Visa Signature and MasterCard World Elite also offer a similar service.

Looks like AMEX Platinum is getting rid of their Concierge service


I've used the Visa Signature service a few times from my Chase Sapphire Preferred. They've gotten me reservations at restaurants that had often claimed to be booked full.

Can you remove the chat widget from your blog? It makes reading the site impossible on my phone.

I got a VA from the Philippines earlier this year & it's changed my business. I spend less time doing basic research, and repeatable tasks that I can do - but is simply not a good use of my time.

I finally sat down, did a few of my tasks & documented each one, step by step, creating SOPs (standard operating procedures) for each one. It was a little tedious as first, but once my VA got after it - it freed up tons of time for me (but almost more importantly - head space & energy).

Most people who have bad experiences with VAs either don't have a good idea how to manage them or don't have a budget to get someone competent for the tasks they're requesting (paying people $2/hour & you'll get what you pay for).

Go in with reasonable expectations, good systems & processes in place & you'll have a great experience.

I keep wondering what my repeatable tasks are. I suspect I just don't recognise them because I don't have documented procedure.

I don't suppose you'd elaborate on some examples of tasks you give to your VA?

Data entry & research. Used to spend hours for lists, contact information, etc. Can be done automatically. Lead sourcing is another big use here.

Competitive research. Having your VA research these tasks & put together a database of information becomes a 1-day task that has immense value down the road.

Customer Service - haven't done this yet - but having them take messages, be my secretary, handle refunds & answer 80% of the support messages that come in (usually variants of the same problem with a fixed, simple solution).

Basic writing skills (non-native english is tough here, but if you want just a paragraph or so written, they can usually do a pretty good job here - after which I have an native-english editor / copywriter go back through & clean up any leftover artifacts).

True, we decided to outsource, at least partially, lead sourcing for http://codedose.com, as it was just way too much time consuming and steering away from other more strategic tasks, like e.g. "processing" these leads.

I use mine to research all the conferences & trade shows for the upcoming year that I might want to go to. They find out the price to sponsor as well as the price to attend. They even go as far to look for flight and hotel costs.

Also (and I wouldn't have guessed this) but my VA at least is pretty fantastic at handling various social media outlets. Almost zero input from me & she "gets" it. Fantastic.

How much do you pay then?

$6-$10 for a high-quality level Filipino agent.

Lots of people try to skimp by by paying $2-$5 (I've tried this) but if you take into account extra time correcting, supervising & fixing their work - it simply isn't worth it. Outsourcing is supposed to make less work for you - not more!

Where did you hire them from?

what does VA mean in this context?

Virtual Assistant

Sorry - VA = virtual assistant.

Thanks for sharing your experiences. I had not considered having a VA at all but am now going to give it a try.

What about the social and psychological impacts of doing chores for all of those old-timey reasons like "learning the value of an honest day's work"?

I would say this kind of behavior has pretty big social implications that everyone seems to be glossing over.

Totally agree. As a kid of course I hated having to do all the work I was told to do. Now I much more appreciate it and have my own son mow the lawn, etc. I see my neighbors kid not wanting to mow the lawn (and they let him) and instead plays call of duty all day. Will it make any difference - I don't know, all I can continue to rely on is my own experiences.

Outsourcing meals and cleaning is pretty common. Yet another economical article which discovers america.

BTW: when we had first baby, we hired doula for several weeks. Very good investment.

sigh...If I could only outsource my HN reading I would be so much productive.

Why can't you?

I for one am reluctant to entrust somebody else with posting as angersock... I don't want to dilute the brand quality, the meticulous posting, the careful planning and forethought that goes into each bespoke communique.

For some things, if you want them done right, you have to do them yourself.

I doubt actually posting is the bulk of the time you spend on HN, though. Paying someone to filter a bit could make sense. Possibly.

I will say I would never hire anyone to do work I can accomplish myself - I don't care if it makes sense or not, I just couldn't do it. Why? Because I and I would say most people that hire people to take care of their lawns and clean their toilets aren't then using their time more wisely or getting that oh so amazing hour of family time they could never have. They just don't feel like doing the task.

> Because I and I would say most people that hire people to take care of their lawns and clean their toilets aren't then using their time more wisely or getting that oh so amazing hour of family time they could never have. They just don't feel like doing the task.

This is an emotional response to the economic mindset that the article purposes. In the article - the entire point is that it doesn't matter what you do with that extra time, but if you value your time at $100/hour and you do a task that you can pay someone to do for $10/hour, it's not an efficient use of your resources. That's the economic theory - whether or not you do anything with that extra time is up to you.

How do you value your time at $100/hour, though? If it's because you subjectively place $100 value on that hour of doing nothing, then that's fine, and it's true that you should in that case pay someone to do the hour of work. But if it's because you earn $100/hour when you're working, and therefore infer that your time is generally worth $100/hr, that is a somewhat questionable inference unless you are actually going to do paid work in that hour, i.e. you will actually incur an opportunity cost of $100 by mowing your lawn instead of doing an hour of contract work.

If it's not displacing paid work, then it becomes a matter of subjective valuation of your time, which depends not only on the time, but the task and what you would do instead. In that case, you really have to place a subjective value on how much you like or dislike mowing the lawn, and how much you like or dislike what you would do instead. Since you're just displacing one kind of unpaid time for another kind of unpaid time, there's no objective economic basis for determining what the delta value between "sitting in a chair" and "mowing the lawn" is. I personally put it fairly low, because I don't mind mowing the lawn (plus it's exercise, something I'd have to find time to do anyway).

I think you're right that it's more complicated than just assuming every hour of your life is worth whatever your day job pays you per hour. The point in the article was that what you do in your non-work time still has an affect on your work, and that's where the opportunity cost comes in. If mowing the lawn is stressing you out, then you're going to perform worse at your job and potentially impact your career in the long term. Or if you could instead be researching or practicing something that would make you a little bit better at your job, then you're missing out on potential future earnings as well.

Of course, the question then is how do you value that time? I don't think there's any objective answer to that, but it's probably more than zero.

EDIT: Of course, I just re-read your comment and see this is basically what you just said. I'll admit I got distracted and misunderstood your point the first time I read it.

This seems like a bit of a puritanical viewpoint. Taking a nap for an hour can be more productive than raking leaves, if rest is what you need most.

But there you use the word 'need'. If you have been working 48 hours straight and want to hire the neighbors kid to mow the lawn that's now a foot high, fine.

It's just my viewpoint, I know how much time I waste (heck I'm wasting it right now) and how much time I have to take care of the lawn, etc. I don't need to add to the waste because I don't feel like doing it.

If you don't do anything physical at work then raking leaves might actually be good for you. It's exercise, fresh air and I find these kind of chores somewhat tranquillising to the mind. Same with other chores, but I'm sure there are ones I hate more than others. If there are physiological and psychological benefits of doing these chores, then it might be costing you more than the $10/hr of hiring someone else to do them. Sure you might be able to get some of the benefits by say going to the gym, but paying someone to do your gardening while you go to the gym to get the exercise you missed from doing the gardening seems a bit insane.

> They just don't feel like doing the task.

Why is there something inherently wrong with that?

The reality is that pretty much everyone outsources some tasks that they could in principle do themselves. Could I learn to be a passable car mechanic? Probably but I don't care to make that investment of time. On the flip side, could I eat out more? Sure. But I generally enjoy cooking.

"Could I learn to be a passable car mechanic? Probably but I don't care to make that investment of time."

I would take minor issue with that advice because "we" live in a downwardly mobile society where the median is poorer every year, and upward economic mobility is immensely less likely than downward economic mobility. Its much easier to learn how to change your oil when you can trivially afford substantial backup labor from tow drivers and pro mechanics if it all goes bad, up to and including simply buying another car, than trying to learn how to change your oil after you've been downsized and ageism means you'll never work above $10/hr again, medical induced bankruptcy and job loss, etc etc. Also its easier to learn "poor people skills" at 25 than 50 or 75.

Yes, yes, it only happens to other people, not people like me, or us, because I / we are special. Sure. Culturally, poor americans consider themselves merely temporarily inconvenienced millionaires. Anyway, learning/maintaining skills is exactly like buying insurance when you might need those skills.

There is also an aspect of management where learning/maintaining skills makes you a better consumer. How do you intend to manage your relationship with your mechanic if you intentionally have no idea what you've hired him to do for you? Oddly enough business relationships based on unidirectional blind trust never work out very fairly.

This doesn't mean you have to do everything. Last time my thermostat failed (open, thankfully) I learned how to replace it and whats involved and basically threw away $200 on labor to have a mechanic do it, because I can easily afford it and there was no way I'm doing this in six inches of snow and slush in February. If I couldn't afford to throw around $200 like pocket change, and maybe some time in the future I won't be able to, I could have done it. May have ended up with frostbite or pneumonia but I could have done it. On a nice sunny 70 degree day in May I'd probably have done it myself for fun.

If you have a truly busy life and just really need a break, I've got no issue with that. I just surmise from my own observations that it's not how much time people have to do nothing, it's that they are getting more and more sucked into that mindset of doing nothing. Think Wall-E :-).

True story: I got my first industry job, out of college - at Apple - by hiring a VA to iterate through all open jobs that met a list of criteria I gave them (years experience, skills listed, etc), and submitting my resume to them.

Talk about degrading family value.

Doing chores is beneficial and a nice way of taking a break.

I don't think you read the whole article or you would have caught this:

> (Oddly, it’s perfectly fine if leisure time includes those inefficient D.I.Y. household tasks that some people find rewarding and fun, like pickling beets or knitting.)

If you find it fun - do it. If not, outsource it as fast as possible.

I see things other than quirky "fun" tasks like pickling beets (?!) as also a valuable part of a regular life. To me it'd be sort of weird to have a life that is made up of nothing but 1) paid work; 2) fun/relaxation/leisure; and 3) sleep. I like to do some productive things for myself, as opposed to saving all my productivity for an employer.

To me, at least, part of the satisfaction of being a regular adult is that I take care of myself to some extent. I can't do everything of course (e.g., I'm no doctor), but I usually cook, clean up after myself, do laundry, sort my recyclables, sew on buttons, the usual stuff. Cooking in particular I like to do, partly because I get better at it, which means I can do things like cook for friends, and partly because I understand food better by doing it.

I tend to hire people for things that are non-routine and where a specialized professional seems like they'd be much better. For example I do have someone come and clean a few times a year, because while I can generally keep things reasonably clean, a professional cleaner does it to another level. And of course I eat out sometimes, and have professionals do home repairs (that's one area people traditionally knew more about that I know virtually nothing about... I can barely use a hammer).

So if it's not fun, don't do it. Does that sound like a healthy philosophy to pass down?

How bout:

If you want to or have to do it - do it. If you don't want to do it & absolutely don't have to do it - then outsource it.

Depends on what you like doing. Some people find cutting the grass relaxing. I find it's just a chore that needs to get done on a schedule. So I have someone else do it.

The third option is I find it to be an excellent source of light exercise.

So I could pay someone to mow my lawn so I'd have the spare time to take a short nature hike as exercise ...

It was a chore until I got a lawn big enough to need a ride-on :-) Now I just go up and down listening to podcasts (whilst convincing my wife I'm doing important gardening)

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