Who’s Got The Monkey Now? How to find out how well you manage your time

Copyright 2006 The National Learning Institute

Are you a manager? Would you like more available time? Yes, then read on . . .

How come you’ve worked hard all day but haven’t started the one task that was most important to you? As a manager, how come your daily work schedule often falls in a heap by mid-morning?

Who’s got the monkey? The answer is, you have – probably several!

“Management Time: Who’s got the Monkey” has been the second most popular management article ever published by the Harvard Business Review (“Management Time: Who’s got the Monkey”, by William Oncken and Donald Wass, first published by Harvard Business Review, 1974) and has been reprinted several times. Thirty odd years later, the message Oncken and Wass sent us on management, still holds true today.

They suggested that there are three types of management-imposed time pressure – Boss, System, and Self.

Boss-imposed time pressure Activities, which must be accomplished, or we’ll suffer the consequences!

System-imposed time pressure Those activities/requests which come from peers and colleagues. The penalties are not so severe or as swift, but we may still suffer if these things are not done.

Self-imposed time pressure Those activities we ourselves initiate or agree to do – particularly those things which have been upwardly delegated from people who report to us. As managers, these activities impact heavily on our discretionary time, and the penalty for not doing these is stress.

Oncken and Wass used the monkey analogy to make their point. As the manager, when someone in our team talks about a “problem” they want to “run past us”, the monkey (in other words, the problem) is very clearly on their back. But when we respond with something like “Well, I haven’t got time right now, but leave it with me”, the monkey immediately leaps from their shoulders to ours. We have just been on the receiving end of an excellent piece of upward delegation!

If this happens to you every day (or at least more often than it should), you’ll soon be carrying a cagefull of monkeys on your back. Not only have you reduced your discretionary time, you also must feed and care for the monkeys you’ve acquired. For example, your people are probably pretty good at keeping track of their delegated task, when they say things like “Hey boss, how’s that issue going that I told you about the other day?”

The secret is to reduce the pressure of self-imposed activities to give us more discretionary time. You can then use this time to become more productive with your boss and the system and in the process, a better manager.

How do you avoid catching monkeys and give yourself more discretionary time? The first step is to recognise that the monkeys are jumping onto your back!

Use the following checklist to see whether as a manager you are a collector of monkeys. Answer each with “Always”, “Often” or “Rarely”.

How often do I say . . . “Leave it with me” “Can I think about that?” “I’ll get back to you on that” “I’ve seen something like that a thousand times. I’ll look after it for you” “I’ll get Bob to look after that” “Send me an e-mail on that will you?” “Don’t you worry about it”

If you found yourself answering “Always” or “Often” for most of these, then it’s probably too late. The monkey has just jumped! There’s a very good chance that you are taking on the problems of your people, rather than helping them solve the problems themselves and in the process, further developing their own skills and knowledge. In thirty years of running and designing management training programs, managers tell me that the one thing they would like to do better or more of, is delegate!

Want to try again? Use the same “Always”, “Often” or “Never” on the following questions.

How often do I say . . . “Let me know if you have trouble” “You know you don’t have to do it that way” “That’s interesting. I’ve never seen anything quite like that before” “I remember when that happened to . . . ” “I think my last boss had something like that happen to him/her”

If you found yourself answering “Always” or “Often”, then the result is not as bad as the first list. However, beware! The monkey is about to jump! While the responses sound very supportive and helpful (which they are), starting out like this invariably ends up with you, the manager, taking on the problem to solve.

How did you score on both lists of questions? Do you use similar phrases to some of the ones in the checklists? If you found yourself ticking a number of “always” or “often” columns, or you use similar phrases regularly, then chances are you need to be careful about taking on too many monkeys. Think about what: – you should and can do, – then, what others could do for you.

What you “should do” is all about setting your priorities and sticking with them. What are the two or three things that you must achieve today, “come what may”. Do not be swayed from these!

What you “can do” has nothing to do with your ability, rather it is about the amount of time you have available and how you use that time – in other words, effective time management. As the manager, you are the “expert” – your people know that there are lots of things that you can do. Do not be trapped into doing things just because you know how. While it may take a little bit of your time to teach or coach someone else, in the long run doing so will save you heaps of time.

What “others can do for you” is about your willingness and ability to delegate. Remember, developing your people to take responsibility will provide you with more discretionary time to devote to other activities.

More tips in future articles on how to limit boss imposed time; how to distinguish the important from the urgent; how to delegate effectively. In the meantime if you would like more information on any or all of these, or any aspect of managing more effectively, please contact me via www.nationallearning.com.au for free advice.

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