Published on Tue, 05/04/2022 - 09:09
Anita Sheehan

It’s a Friday afternoon in July and I was reflecting on another busy week. The sun is shining but I feel tired and grouchy, never a good combination. My two boys and dog are watching me, waiting for me to turn off the laptop and spend quality time with them. All I wanted to do was slump on the sofa and watch TV. I wanted to change, get one step ahead of the hours that seem to slip away so quickly, but how could I win this race for time?

My calendar had been completely full (as usual), and I had made a to-do list for the next week that felt endless as I had little time to action things. The balance wasn’t right. In this virtual world, it seemed that my calendar had got painfully full. All the quick conversations or questions that would naturally happen in the office were now meetings. At this point, I am up to my eyes in ‘things to do’ and time is still leading this race.

With an infinite to-do list, something that from module 2: getting the balance right, stuck with me. “You can never be your most effective if you take on too many commitments”. I realised I hadn’t put anything into practice since the module so with the help of my mentor, I implemented these strategies:

Effective monkey management –Who’s got the monkey?

After describing the feelings of being pulled in different directions my mentor asked me, who’s got the monkey? My brain was struggling to catch up, “monkey, what monkey?” My mentor then recommended a book entitled: Managing management time: Who’s got the monkey? by William Oncken.

William Oncken gave a simple but effective metaphor. Think of each item on your to do list as a monkey on your shoulder. The monkey is something you need to take care of and feed however, you only have space and time for a few.

What so often happens though is someone else coming along with their own monkey asking you a question and you say something like “it’s ok leave it with me”. Often this is just reflex and can be triggered by many things, including expectations,and not wanting to let anyone done.

Sounds helpful, right? But it isn’t. By doing this, you have given yourself more to do even though the responsibility of that task belonged to the other person. In time, the weight of all the additional ‘to-do’s’ you have collected during the day weigh you down and it becomes hard to care of your own responsibilities as your time is being taken up caring for other people’s work. 

Our intention when we behave like this is good as we all want to be seen as helpful and supportive but by taking on more than we can manage, we are only adding to an already long list of things to do. 

The power of delegation

Delegation in leadership not only helps get things done but empowers the team by giving them greater autonomy. It maximises the team’s contribution, builds skills and increases productivity and at the same time gives leaders time for other important roles like strategy, and coaching.

Hold on though. I’ve just spoken about team members taking responsibility for their own monkeys. Is delegation compatible with monkey management? Absolutely. Delegation is more than just dishing out tasks. 

To effectively delegate, you need to consider the following: what, why and who. I find it helpful to categorise based on urgency and importance. Tasks that are less important but urgent I find ideal for delegation. I still delegate those more important tasks but am on hand to support – it provides a great stretch for the team.

Being more mindful of delegating worked well for me, especially for meetings. I took a fresh look at my calendar and thought about the meetings purpose, my team’s role, and other attendees –and I found that most could be covered. I did a lot of reflecting on this and made some changes to how I interact with my team.

1) Not to automatically say those magic words ‘leave it with me’.

2) When I am asked a question, I listen and ask a few questions to establish in my mind what the next step is and who owns it. If it’s right that that monkey now belongs to me, I welcome it but if it’s still within their responsibility it remains with them.

3) I ask the team member to come up with suggestions on what the next steps are or how they can move that forward. Initially when I did this, I was worried whether this would come across as being unsupportive, but the opposite has proved true. 

4) I always check in for a progress update. That way, I can check whether further support or direction is needed. 

The benefits are two-fold – the team are empowered and more confident and less reliant on me, and my to do list is more manageable; I have more thinking time and don’t feel like I’m constantly being pulled in different directions. I am in control.

The overall resultssince implementing the simple strategies have been profound. It’s now March and I feel like a different person. I look forward to the weekends as I feel more refreshed and energised. 

The simple strategies have made such a difference to my life that can now say I have a good work life balance. I can now give much more focused and quality time to both my team and my family. I have become a better leader and there is a renewed sense of purpose and energy in the team. Whenever you feel like you’re taking care of too many monkeys, see if any if these tips make managing your to-do list easier.


alarm clock and words