You know how to write. Should you?

I have a solid understanding of how plumbing works. I know how to use a pipe wrench and have wrapped Teflon tape around pipe threads. I’ve often explained the mechanics behind a water heater, and even taught a group of curious Cub Scouts how toilets flush and why they’re designed that way. But when a faucet breaks or a pipe leaks, I don’t reach for my toolbox. I call a plumber.

You see, no matter how much I may know about plumbing, the plumber knows more. Sure, I can install a faucet, but a professional plumber will do it in far less time, with fewer mistakes (and far fewer expletives).

I take pride in knowing how to do many things, but I also recognize that performing many of those tasks isn’t making the best use of my limited time.

It goes back to that concept I learned in an Economics class – the one called “opportunity cost.” The simple definition is what you give up when you make another choice. For example, if my billable time were worth $200 an hour, and it took me six hours to install a faucet (including the two inevitable trips to the hardware store), my opportunity cost was the lost opportunity to bill my clients for $1200 of time. If a plumber charged $350 to install the same faucet, I end up with $850, compared to $1200 in lost potential revenue. 

It’s a tough concept for many people to grasp. Even among those who understand it, it may be difficult to practice. People misguidedly believe that doing things themselves saves the company money. That’s why the CEO doesn’t think twice about stopping by the store to pick up some office supplies, instead of having them delivered. But the few dollars they may have saved by not opting for delivery are more than offset by the loss of their work time. (It’s right up there with that goofy neighbor who drives ten miles across town to save 3 cents on a gallon of gas.)

You use your time most efficiently when you use it to do what you’re best at, which is presumably how you earn your living. That’s why most companies prefer to have employees serve in specialized roles. You don’t expect your sharpest sales rep to balance the books. Put marketing in charge of logistics, and you’d have lots of attractive signage to cover up the chaos. Tell your engineers to make travel arrangements, and they’ll hand you an incredibly precise itinerary two days after the plane departs.

Generally speaking, specialization increases efficiency. It holds true for tasks such as writing and graphic design. You may have the basic skills, but it’s going to take a lot longer for you to develop materials than it would for a professional who focuses on that kind of work. And what happens to the rest of your workload when you’re spending hours trying to string the right sentences together?

I’m not questioning your ability to write. You may be quite skilled. But just as the CEO probably isn’t making the best use of their time by comparison-shopping printer ink, the time you spend writing would probably be better used performing your primary job function. Your plate is already pretty full, and writing your own copy may not be the most efficient way to empty it.

Time isn’t the only reason it may not make sense for you to handle your own writing, particularly if you’re developing something for the outside world. That’s because you’re too close to what’s going on. You know all the inside information, and your view is shaped by internal attitudes and concerns. An outsider will bring more objectivity to the process, pointing out how your audience might not come away with the same impression of what you plan to say.

Being somewhat detached also helps in another way. When an outsider does the work under your direction, you can review and edit it with more objectivity. You don’t have to worry that your critique will reflect negatively on the person in the next office or department. And if someone else finds fault with it, you can deflect those criticisms.

One other reason it makes sense to look to outside help is that your particular skills may not be the best set for the nature of the project. For example, the style of writing most of us learned in school falls flat when it comes to communicating with key stakeholders. An outside pro will know how to present your messages in the most effective and impactful ways.

The greatest benefit of turning to an outsider is you still get the credit for the finished work – along with the recognition you made the best possible use of your time. That makes you look no less industrious, and a heck of a lot smarter!