Here’s a TL;DR highlighting the key insights of the Management Time: Who’s Got the Monkey? a HBR classic on Time management.

I couldn’t resist but nod and say ‘yes, been there and struggled’

  • Managers often run out of time due to demands from their bosses (boss-imposed time), their peers (system-imposed time), and their own goals (self-imposed time), which includes both subordinate-imposed time and discretionary time.
  • Boss-imposed and system-imposed times are non-negotiable due to potential penalties for neglecting them, leading managers to focus on optimizing their self-imposed time to gain more control.
  • A significant portion of a manager’s time is unexpectedly consumed by addressing subordinates’ problems, often referred to as the “monkey-on-the-back” metaphor.
  • When managers take on their subordinates’ problems (monkeys), they inadvertently become subordinated, leading to a cycle where more time is spent juggling these issues rather than focusing on managerial responsibilities.
  • To break this cycle, managers should work on transferring the initiative back to subordinates, ensuring that problems (monkeys) remain with them, and only providing guidance rather than taking on the problems themselves.
  • Managers can control their time more effectively by setting clear rules for the “Care and Feeding of Monkeys,” including scheduling problem-solving meetings and requiring subordinates to take the initiative.
  • Ultimately, the goal is for managers to increase their discretionary time, allowing them to better manage both imposed and self-imposed demands, and thereby improving their effectiveness and the overall productivity of their teams.

As a manager, here are the 2 key takeaways one should take away – but get the context first before jumping the gun. No books or blogs can teach managing teams while being productive as a leader.

“At no time while I am helping you with this or any other problem will your problem become my problem. The instant your problem becomes mine, you no longer have a problem. I cannot help a person who hasn’t got a problem”
“When this meeting is over, the problem will leave this office exactly the way it came in—on your back. You may ask my help at any appointed time, and we will make a joint determination of what the next move will be and which of us will make it.”

All managers would have experienced the managed or being managed phenomenon when trying to be helpful and “be there” for their team in challenging times. This phenomenon is all the more acute when you have a large team to manage especially when the teams are given the open-door privilege, or call it culture, to bring every small-big issue to their manager in every 1:1. As a manager who used to directly manage a large team of 15+ members at its peak, have felt burnout for not getting the monkeys off their back on a daily / weekly basis.

People are at the centre of every successful organization and the most valuable asset. Learning to manage this asset is a skill everyone should learn.