Managing Requests for Your Time

How many emails and phone calls do you get a day asking you to do something? I bet it is over a dozen. Maybe a lot more if you are the go to man. A big problem in many work places is how to sort through all these requests, many of which are outside normal everyday core duties, and do them in priority order (or not at all if they turn out to be red herrings). Mismanaged tasks cause lost productivity and inefficiency.

A colleague of mine that I worked with some years ago had a scheme to help with prioritising tasks, which I have since adopted, called Monkeys and Gorillas. This is a way of simply determining what needs to be done now; a Gorilla, and what can be left; a Monkey. The clever part is in how a Monkey becomes a Gorilla in order to get done. Let’s use email as an example, and keep in mind that this technique is for your non-core tasks, the little extra things that you are asked to do each day. Yes – you still have to do your proper job.

When an email comes to your inbox you should classify it as a Monkey or a Gorilla. A Gorilla is something that demands your attention immediately and so you place it on your todo list. A Monkey is anything else. The aim is to kill off the Monkeys, which make a lot of noise, but are annoying, and deal with the Gorillas, which are quieter, but more serious. If we can, we make Gorillas into Monkeys (just in case it is a Monkey in a suit). Create a Gorilla and a Monkey folder in your email reader.

How do you know what is a Gorilla? Well, unless it is obvious, how about we let someone else make that call? If someone sends you an email asking for something to be done or floats an idea then treat the email as a Monkey and ignore it – put it in the Monkey folder. Make them come back to you a second time. That seems a bit harsh, you might think, but you will surprised how many Monkeys will die off sitting in that folder. The reason comes down to human nature. When someone thinks of something their initial reaction is to tell someone about it or, in the case of manager types, get someone else to do something about it.

Requests are often sent without thorough analysis of the issue. They jump the gun. Often, later they will abandon the idea or change their mind. In either case, immediate action will waste valuable time and resources (money). Let them have some time to refine their request. They will send you a second email if they think it is really important and that second request will be better analysed. It will usually be a have you looked at … Oh, and also …. type of message. Rather than you try to decide if it deserves Gorilla status or not, they’ve done it for you, so you move it to the Gorilla folder.

If you don’t hear back from them for a few days then it becomes increasingly probable that a Monkey will meet its demise and be killed off. Maybe it wasn’t so important after all. Don’t be sad though, ignoring Monkeys saves time and resources. Be happy. You will soon find a balance in your decisions as to what are Monkeys and Gorillas, but be ruthless and treat everything as a Monkey until it earns the right to be a Gorilla.

Many everyday requests will be Monkeys, it’s just that the requester thought otherwise at the time. Delete old Monkeys from the Monkey folder.

You can modify this process so that it is not as extreme as the example here or to suit your work environment. For example, you can make every request from certain people Gorillas either because you know they are analytic types who would not ask you to do it if it wasn’t actually important, or you know that they are the ones doing your pay review! You might only invoke the scheme in periods where you know you will be flat out, say end of financial year, for instance.

By employing this scheme you will find that the amount of time you spend on miscellaneous tasks will reduce, and with that, your stress levels. You will also appear to be more productive. This shouldn’t come as a surprise, because you are more productive!

Thanks to Stuart Clement for this idea and for his explanation of how he uses it (parts of which I shamelessly reproduced here).

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