Quick, take a look at your to-do list for today. Two questions: First, how many of those things on your to-do list are actually activities YOU should be doing? Second, how likely is it that other things will come up during the day that will keep you from doing the things you are planning on doing?
Back in 1974, William Oncken Jr and Donald Wass published an article in the Harvard Business Review titled, Management Time: Who’s Got the Monkey? Their point is as valid over a quarter of a century later as it was when it was written: If you allow people to make their responsibilities your responsibilities, you will use all your time and energy on other people’s problems. They refer to these problems as “monkeys” and proceed, in the article, to discuss how we take other people’s monkeys, how they are passed from person to person, and how effective managers learn to deal with their monkeys.
One of the biggest challenges in managing monkeys is that they often come in disguise. The individual that asks “for feedback on this” or the one who starts the conversation with “do you have a minute” may seem harmless, but as soon as we say “sure, no problem” we invite the monkey that is on their back to slowly slide over onto ours. How long is a “minute?” How much time will be invested in giving “feedback?”
You would think, over 35 years or so, the situation might have changed. In an age of empowerment, people should feel they have the ability to deal with their own monkeys without making their problems ours. But today, monkey-passing has developed into a high-tech art form. Passing monkeys through email and voicemail has made the process more efficient but no less demanding.
What to do? Identify the monkeys that are yours and should be yours. Keep those, feed them, take care of them and then send them on your way. When others try to pass their monkeys to you, give them back. Perhaps you need to take a moment and help the monkey-passer figure out how to address their own concerns, but make sure not to walk away with their accountability. If you pay attention, you’ll find there are monkeys everywhere. Maybe you can pass a few of your own.