02 Aug 2016 19:44 IST

How to handle the 'monkey business' and 'got a minute?' time traps

Procrastination is self-inflicted, but evading shifting monkeys and idle chatter needs effort

One of the most common issues managers face is handling time effectively. There just does not seem to be enough time to do the things they plan to do. Looking at it objectively, all of us have the same amount of time. However, some are able to accomplish more, while others feel stretched and have an ever-growing to-do list. Almost every manager has time management put down as an improvement area, whether it is in their self-assessment or feedback in their 360-degree report.

There are many reasons why managing time is such a big challenge. Some of the most common reasons are: procrastination, ignoring the important issues, engaging with day-to-day fire-fighting and inability to delegate what can be done by direct reports, to name just a few. Training programmes often focus on addressing these common issues.

What most managers often do not recognise are the two traps that lead to many woes associated with poor time management. Understanding these and addressing them can help us gain better control of our time.

Monkey business

The first of these is to do with how we manage subordinates, or direct reports. Research by Willian Onken has documented an interesting everyday phenomenon called ‘monkey business’ that managers have to become conscious of and manage out of the way. Managers have limited say over the time demanded and taken by their bosses and, to some extent, even their peers. What is left is called discretionary time, and this is where all the monkey business happens.

Juniors have their delegated tasks and the initiative to start and complete these tasks fully rests with them. However, when something interesting happens, these initiatives are shifted from the juniors to their managers. This is what is referred to as shifting of the monkeys.

As managers are busy from moving from one meeting to another, , juniors often approach the manager with “I just need a clarification” type of requests. The manager’s typical response is “let me come back and talk to you.” When the unsuspecting manager says this, the monkey gets shifted from the back of the employee to that of the manager.

So, instead, a more appropriate response would be to ask the junior colleague to come back to them in half an hour and seek the clarification. Then the monkey is returned to where it belongs: the subordinate’s back! Often, when the subordinate, knowingly or otherwise, tries to shift the monkey, the manager often accepts it. This is because the manager has enough information to get involved, but may not have adequate information to take a decision on the spot.

Once the monkey has shifted backs, the boss now owes the subordinate a progress report. This answers why managers are typically running out of time while the subordinates are running out of work!

Idle conversation

The second opportunity to manage time better is to reflect on the response to colleagues at work. Several times a day, the following happens. As they cross our office, they give us a smile and ask, “Got a minute?” And of course we say, “Yes, come on in.”

Before you realise it, this “got a minute” has eaten a good chunk of your time. Your colleague might have begun this benign chat with you because he or she may have nothing to do, but it takes away much of your valuable time. A more appropriate response would be: “Hi, I am a bit busy now, can we catch up later?” This would have saved you an hour of unproductive time.

Procrastination and lack of prioritisation are habits that are self-inflicted and can be unlearnt with effort. What managers must learn to manage better are the monkeys from juniors, and benign chat sessions with their colleagues.