virtual asst

Would you delegate all of your decisions to someone else?

Would you pay someone in the Philippines to answer your email for you — even your personal messages? Or hire strangers on the internet to plan your spouse’s big birthday party? Or throw meat, vegetables, and butter into a blender and call it dinner?



These are just some of the actual “life-automating” techniques of busy entrepreneurs today.

Consider the case of Maneesh Sethi. Perhaps best known as the easily-distracted man who paid a woman to slap him in the face every time he checked Facebook, he is now working on a product that will let your Facebook friends zap you, via a wearable device not unlike a shock collar, if you don’t follow through on self-appointed goals. He spoke at South by Southwest in Austin, Texas about how he’s now hired a man in Manila (Caleb) to check his email for him. Caleb, who Sethi found through, goes through Sethi’s email — both work and personal — every morning and flags important messages for follow-up, as well as categorizing and drafting responses for the rest. By the time Sethi wakes up, his email has already been sorted; and by the end of the day, every message has been answered. And Sethi never had to write a single response himself.

Sethi was on a panel called “Life Automation for Entrepreneurs” that also included podcaster Veronica Belmont, a Getting Things Done devotee. She uses productivity apps (like TripIt and Things) and virtual assistants (such as Fancy Hands) to stay organized and efficient. For instance, she hired temporary assistants on Fancy Hands to plan her husband’s recent birthday party. These “virtual assistants” brainstormed themes; found a venue; planned the party; even devised thoughtful extras she said she’d never have come up with.  “I thought I’d never need to outsource these kinds of actions,” she explained, “But frankly, none of us have the time we need.”

And yet perhaps the most radical life automator is Dave Asprey, whose website describes him as “a Silicon Valley investor and technology entrepreneur who spent 15 years and over $300,000 to hack his own biology.” He lost a hundred pounds and raised his IQ 20 points, among other achievements, and now runs a coaching firm called The Bulletproof Executive. His life-automating secret? “I have one API… and her name is Nikki.” Yep, that’s right: an old-fashioned personal assistant. And despite all the time she saves him, he’s the one who advocates blending your dinner so that “you can drink it while you’re doing something else.”

That might not sound healthy, but these workaholics were quick to point out that they don’t sacrifice their health for their work — because then, of course, they couldn’t work. All three entrepreneurs scheduled regular time for exercise and doctor’s visits, even the occasional massage. Belmont acknowledged that “this sounds like a luxury.” But, she argues, “If you don’t take time to take care of yourself, you will not function at the level you need to.” Asprey puts it more bluntly: “you need to take care of your meat.” (And he’s not talking about the kind that goes in the blender.)

We’re guilty of the same ROI-maximizing impulses at HBR, I readily admit — most of what we’ve published on getting enough sleep and exercise, and maintaining reasonable hours, has focused on the bottom-line benefits: greater creativity, fewer mistakes, improved communication and delegation, and so on. And yet I find myself a bit disturbed when this approach is taken to its logical extreme, where everything — taking a walk, even having kids  — becomes justifiable by virtue of increasing one’s economic output. We’re meant to be homo sapiens, not homo economicus.

The result of this extreme devotion to work is that we overwhelm ourselves, to the point where even the most trivial decisions become a source of stress. “Even small decisions like replying to an email or forwarding an email or returning a phone call, each of those stresses you out a little bit and wears you down,” argued Sethi. Asprey agreed: “There’s a stress for 40 different apps, choosing which one to use.” To a degree, they’re correct. Decisions do cause stress, and willpower does decline if you overtax it (this is why habits are so powerful — because they move important tasks out of the realm of conscious effort). And in truth, being a high-functioning executive has often required more than just a personal assistant to manage the complexity of work — it’s often alsorequired a spouse who doesn’t work to manage the complexity of life.

But while I acknowledge that the pressure — both external and internal — to devote everything to work is real, I also think it’s vital to resist it. Isn’t making decisions (and dentist appointments) just part of being an adult? Part of living?  As Sethi reminded the crowd, “The word decision literally means ‘to cut off.’” While there is something freeing about delegating your decisions to others  — dropping those stressors like a hot-air balloon releasing its sandbags — if we pare back too far, we may find that we’re the ones who’ve gotten cut off.

We’ve all got different ideas about what’s reasonable. I think drinking a meat smoothie is a sign of the impending end of civilization, but I’m totally fine with wearing the same thing every day — a la Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, or Barack Obama — in order to save time. And we’ve all got a different appetite for work, a different sense of where to draw the line. However, as James Allworth pointed out in our own SXSW panel on why men work so many hours, it’s tough to stick to those limits when the rewards of work are immediate, and the rewards of life accrue more slowly. (To some parents of teenagers, these rewards may seem practically glacial.) It becomes tempting to reserve the best of ourselves for the short-term gains of work and “automate” the long game of life.

Still, I do think each of us has a Rubicon — wherever it is, and whenever we find it. On crossing it, we may start to see luxury not as having a personal assistant or a weekly massage, but as doing something useless simply because we felt like doing it — not because it made us smarter, or thinner, or more productive.

So the next time your instincts are telling you to press on, to climb higher, to put one more piece of your life on autopilot, consider: even Sisyphus got to walk downhill half the time.

Photo credit: Project Life Mastery

Via Harvard Business Review