Monkeys: LIBERATING Time Management Concept [Video]

Monkeys are the “leading cause of death” of new leaders.

Recent conversations with a few new(er) leaders about this common pitfall, prompted me to post this here. If you don’t have time (28 min) to watch this, then you probably really need to watch this. 😉

This time management concept saved my professional life.

After about 7 years in operations of skilled nursing facilities at The Ensign Group, a skilled nursing, seniors housing, home health & hospice, and radiology company, I spent 5 years there as the Chief Human Capital Officer. What an exciting time. Ensign’s “First Who, Then What” approach to growth meant we had to attract and train a lot of AITs into facility-level CEOs fast.  Over those 5 years, I personally participated in the training of about 100 new leaders. Week long boot camps, case studies, online tests, conference calls, assignments, analysis, etc.  I saw, up close and personal, what helped new leaders succeed … and fail.  

Monkeys has a lot to do with both.

I’ve trained the topic to groups in the hundreds at association conferences to 1:1. And, I wrote about monkeys years ago here:

But, this is the video that gives a thorough explanation of Monkeys and that my colleagues and friends have found most useful to understand the time management concept from theory to practical application.  While there are several healthcare operations and Ensign references, the principles are universal.

I hope it helps you or someone you know:


McKnight’s Guest Column & Attack of the Killer Email Monkeys

I recently wrote a guest column for McKnight’s that was apparently really well received according to their editorial staff.  You can read the article here:

McKnight’s Guest Column: The “Leading Cause of Death” of LTC Leaders

There are several really good comments at the bottom.  One comment, along with my reply, I’ll post here below.  I literally had this very same Q&A yesterday with a colleague who is fighting to get a handle on his workload/monkeys and establish a stronger method of follow-through.  Here’s the back and forth for the comment and I’ll include a little more from my email exchange with my colleague …


2 days ago
Dave, nice job. Speaking as a casualty (or fatality) of this very issue, I can attest to the principles here 100%. I’m always curious about what people use to “know” their monkeys, tasks, etc. Given the close relationship between time management & monkey management, have you discovered a great time management tool / system that effectively discharges monkeys?


A colleague of mine shared with me his secret for seeing his EMAIL MONKEYS a few years back. And this usually takes a bigger leap of faith, but it is HUGE for my ability to SEE my monkeys and act quickly on them. “A monkey is whatever the next move is when dialogue between two parties ends,” right? Therefore, emails become a massive collection of monkeys.
So, here’s what I do … I delete EVERYTHING that doesn’t REQUIRE a response. My Trash folder becomes my massive archive if I ever need to review an email from before. I TRY to keep my inbox below 10. I have 8 in there right now (I have 24,985 in my Trash Folder). Again, I delete everything that doesn’t require a response, a next move. So my inbox are only monkeys that need my attention. I’ll sometimes put on my calendar an email/monkey to address if it can’t be done immediately or if I’m in the middle of other more important things. It gives me a tremendous sense of control and organization.
I breathe/sleep easy knowing that I don’t have monkeys hidden in an inbox of 10,000 emails (those hidden/forgotten monkeys are the ones that undermine my credibility with people who are WAITING forever for me to respond). I do not use folders to organize emails from So-And-So or emails on a certain topic. I’ll use Evernote to record emails on a certain topic of a project I’m working on. Folders are just more hiding places for monkeys. It could take a weekend to thin out your inbox depending on the size. So, you may just want to rip off the bandaid and delete everything older than two months and thin from there.
I go into more depth here (caution: don’t click unless you’re really interested in the “nitty gritty” of handling monkeys AND I’m fully aware what works for me won’t necessarily fit you): Monkey Nitty Gritty or “It’s About Time”

Working-the-floor hazards

In my first facility in Glendale, AZ, I was eager to prove myself as the best leader my staff had ever seen.  One problem with that was … that I wasn’t.  But, I’m getting ahead of myself.  In my AIT program (Administrator in Training) I learned as much as I could about the departments I was to oversee.  But, I failed to dive deep enough into the nooks and crannies of the facility which resulted in insecurity in me, the new leader, when it came to supervising department heads and holding them accountable and teaching them.

So, instead of investing in building a relationship of trust with my department heads who could then, in turn, do the same with their staff, I felt much more comfortable working out on the floor with the line staff.  I would show how much I cared for them and the residents by staying out of my office and walking around.  I would be visible.  I would get to know everyone by name.  I would get to know their lives.  It didn’t occur to me at the time but my department heads resented my behavior.  I’m saying they resented me being visible and out of my office.  We all should do that.  The ED who’s stuck in his office all day becomes out of touch, ineffective, and won’t be employed very long.

BUT … what they resented was that I was spending the necessary time to hold them accountable, invest in our relationship, and help them succeed.  Some of them felt like I was ‘going over their head’ or ‘undermining’ them.  What I learned, the hard way, was that when the ‘line staff’ feel so comfortable with you/me as the administrator, that can threaten their direct supervisor’s relationship with them.  And, their supervisor (your department head) feels it and trusts you less.

It happened to me.  Don’t let it happen to you.

Of course we should know everyone by name.  We should have an open door.  But, we should direct them to talk to their supervisors first before rushing in to solve problems.  And, we should make time, at least once a week, to have a meaningful status review with each department head.  That tweak to my management approach made a huge difference in my effectiveness and results in my next two facilities.

#1 Cause of Death or Monkeys: A How-To

I recently trained many of our leaders on Monkey Management.

I’m convinced that this principle is the #1 cause of death in new leaders.

So … how do you recognize the problem & overcome it?  Let’s go through it.  Unless, of course, you don’t have the time 🙂

Take a minute to look at this To-Do List.  It’s not uncommon from many leaders’ lists.  It contains things that came up today (on the left) and things to do from yesterday and before on the right.  Normally, one’s list is spread out on Post-it Notes, 3×5 cards, Notepads, Computer To-Do lists, Calendars, and email In-boxes.

To-Do List

Do you see the MONKEYS?!  They’re all over the place!  Remember, ‘a monkey is whatever the next move is when 2 parties end a conversation.’  Whoever has the next move has the monkey.  If you have to respond to an email, memo, or voice mail, you have a monkey.  If you’ve agreed to do something for someone else (buy, research, analyze, look into, make, meet with, write, etc.) you have a monkey.  Unless you’re paranoid about attracting monkeys, you likely have A LOT of them …


Remember the Monkey Gospel Truths:

Procrastination vs Insubordination
Possible Insubordination = Getting work done

Hopefully the reasons why you must destroy monkeys from your plate before they destroy you are obvious.  But, in case you’re skeptical.  Let’s reason together …

  • If you are doing work others could/should be doing, then you are, by definition, NOT DOING work that only you can do.
  • Monkeys keep you from working on what Steven Covey illustrates so masterfully in 7 Habits of Highly Effective People as Quadrant III stuff (next slide below).  The Non-Urgent/Important quadrant of our to-do list.
  • Regardless of your motive, you are stunting your direct reports’ ability to grow and develop by doing things for them.  Stop it!  Let’s see if they can sore.  If they fail (which is practically guaranteed eventually), teach them and help them grow.
Monkeys laugh when they keep you from Quadrant III

Take your ‘Total Plate’ which, again, includes your to-do lists, post-it notes, voice mails, emails, projects, etc. and strike a line through everything that doesn’t ABSOLUTELY have to be done by only you.  Look at my list below and notice in the next 2 slides how I identify other people’s monkeys that landed on my back and how I returned them to their rightful owner.

What can you – AND ONLY YOU – do?
Kill the Monkeys before they kill you

Wow.  Compare my list now (below) to my original list.  FREEDOM!  Freedom to finally lead.  Freedom to run my operation instead of being run by it.  If you don’t take a stand against monkeys and commit to a discipline of spotting them before they land on your plate and deflecting them, you will NEVER get to quadrant III.  If you’re too busy for quadrant III then, SOONER OR LATER, you will fail.  You will get burned out.  You will be frustrated.  You will remain miles away from your potential.


One last thought about Monkeys.  They hate you.  They will only be happy when they not only destroy your professional life, but your personal life as well.  Talk about Non-Urgent/Important!?: date night with your spouse, being home for dinner with your kids/family, family vacation, personal fitness/health, reunions with friends, community/church service, etc.  All these things are, to a degree, sacrificed when we lack the discipline and understanding to treat monkeys as the enemy they are.  You could have all the talent, charisma, & smarts in the world.  But, none of that matters if you’re spending 75% of your time on monkeys others should be doing.

Remember …
Managers Do Things Right.  Leaders Do The Right Things.

Take Monkeys personally.  If they could, they would spit in your mother’s face.

No more monkeys jumping …

As a follow up to A Leader’s Downfall, I want to comment on one of the most common mind sets that new leaders lack – to NOT take on too much themselves.  There’s several reasons why we try to tackle too much ourselves.  Here’s what we normally tell ourselves:

  • My direct report(s) are incompetent
  • I can do a better job than they can
  • I need some hands on in this department to completely understand our current situation so I can better supervise in the future
  • My direct report(s) are too busy to pile on them more stuff
  • I’m afraid that if I ask them to do this stuff they’ll burn out

So the big question … are those legit?


They may be true.  But that’s irrelevant.  They are self-deceiving, self-aggrandizing excuses for not doing your job as a leader.  Your job is NOT to do everyone else’s work.  Your job is to assemble, inspire, measure, coach, and train leaders who can take your shared vision to produce incredible results.

I can hear your protests now …

  • Dave, you don’t get it.  I’m a servant leader.  I don’t ask them to do anything I wouldn’t do myself.
  • Dave, you don’t understand my team.  We have some serious weak links right now and if I didn’t take on this stuff (that they should be doing) it wouldn’t get done.

I do get it.  And, I do understand your team.  Perfectly.  I understand the stress, the frustration, the underachievement, etc.  And, I’m telling you, you’ve got to wake up and do your job!  One of the reasons this is so tough for newer leaders, in particular, is because we feel so much insecurity during the beginning of our leadership.  There’s so much we don’t know.  And, everyone knows it.  Since we don’t have the instant credibility that years of doing this provides, we try to gain it the only we know how … becoming superman for our staff.

  • Dave, we need a HMO contract with XYZ company.  Can you get one for us?  Sure!
  • Dave, I’m having problems with 2 of my staff.  Can you talk to them for me?  You bet!
  • Dave, we need some new landscaping out front.  What do you think?  I’ll go to Home Depot!
  • Etc …

What’s the problem?  Every one of those things (and probably 50% of your to-do list) are things your people should be doing.  After a few years of struggling to become superman for my staff to make up for my own incompetence and lack of experience, I finally took the leap of faith to adopt the mind set taught by Bill Oncken, described as Monkeys.  I’ve posted here a long excerpt of Oncken teaching it himself.

A couple of the main principles:

  1. An inferior job done by your subordinate is 100% better than a superior job procrastinated by you and never done.
  2. If you don’t complete a task you’ve given yourself (or accepted to do for your subordinate), it’s called … procrastination.  If you don’t complete a task your supervisor gave you, it’s called … insubordination.
  3. So, if there are tasks (monkeys) on your to-do list that have been there for a couple weeks that you haven’t had time to get done (procrastination), give it to your subordinate so it becomes insubordination if it doesn’t get done.  Guess what.  It will get done.
  4. This is not a lazy or selfish act.  I had an allergic reaction to this talk of ‘subordinates’ and insubordination, and giving people work that I normally did.  But, then I woke up.  It empowers them!  I pushes them to grow.  It removes you as the constraint in your operation!  Progress speeds up.  Change happens.  Because your doing your job … not theirs!

It saved my career.  I hope you can make time to listen to it.