Managing Your Monkey and Monster

“Summertime, and the livin’ is easy…”

If only. In fact, over the last few years, my summers have become increasingly busy. This is partly due to a terrific course I’m teaching at Columbia University called Collaboration at Scale. It’s also due to some speaking engagements on interesting and challenging topics like Thriving in Change (at the American Association of Law Libraries PLLIP Summit) and Sustainable KM (at ILTACON 2017). And it’s also because of some marvelous consulting clients who keep me busy and on my toes.

With this much happening, there’s a big premium on getting and staying productive. But high productivity does not happen by accident. It takes thought and planning. And, it takes careful management of your monkey and monster.

What monkey and monster?

Tim Urban (Wait But Why) brilliantly described the Instant Gratification Monkey and the Panic Monster in his hilarious TED talk: “Inside the Mind of a Master Procrastinator.” (See below) Along with this monkey and monster, he also introduced the revered figure we wish actually ran our brains: the Rational Decision-Maker. However, for the average procrastinator, their Instant Gratification Monkey has an uncanny ability to hijack the Rational Decision-Maker’s careful plans. And then you drift until an imminent deadline wakes up your slumbering Panic Monster who puts you into a state of high anxiety. This allows your Rational Decision-Maker to take the reigns of control away from the Instant Gratification Monkey — at least until the immediate crisis has passed.

And so it goes. Until you exhaust yourself or encounter a deadline that you simply cannot meet using this pattern of behavior.

If this sounds at all familiar, you will know that you have to find ways to stay focused on the things that are more important than the things that interest your Instant Gratification Monkey. The problem is that many of those important things may actually not come due for quite a while, if at all. For example, studying now for a future career or laying the groundwork now for an interesting opportunity later.  Consequently, these important things for a hard-to-see future almost never cause your Panic Monster to wake up and scare away your Instant Gratification Monkey.  As a result, you almost never achieve these important things. So what to do?


According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, to parse a sentence is to divide it into its parts and then identify those parts and their relationship to each other. Similarly, when you have a pile of things that must be done, break them down into their smallest meaningful parts, figure out which of these parts cause dependencies, and then tackle those first. The point of this exercise is to make the tasks so small that they pass under the radar of the Instant Gratification Monkey. Better still, if you can make those tasks fun (or mindless) the Instant Gratification Monkey might be fooled into thinking those tasks were its idea after all.


Stephen Covey once famously said “Don’t prioritize your schedule, schedule your priorities.” But that can be easier said than done — especially in a law firm environment where everything seems to be urgent and everyone feels overworked. S0 how do we manage this? Theoretically, your supervisor should be helping you prioritize. But there are times when your supervisor cannot see the forest for the trees and, let’s face it, there are time when you simply do not want to let your supervisor know exactly how lost you are. To help with these situations, consider developing a productivity partnership with a trusted colleague. To do this, make the following deal with each other: that you will act as each other’s lifeline in moments of stress to help the other identify which next action that would be most productive. You’ll soon discover that there will be many times where you don’t actually need someone else to tell you what to do next, you just need someone willing to listen to you for five minutes as you figure it out aloud.


Scrum software development has reminded us of the value of short sprints of work to get things done. You can use this principle to tackle the tasks you have identified through the parsing and prioritizing steps above. Take the small task you have identified and commit to working on it for a very short sprint. This is not a commitment to complete it — that might freak out your Instant Gratification Monkey, your Panic Monster, AND your Rational Decision-Maker. Rather, it is a commitment to move things forward in a meaningful way. The trick to keeping your Instant Gratification Monkey on hiatus is to make the time period of this commitment short, say 20 or 25 minutes. After all, this is such a short period of time that it’s hardly worth it for the Instant Gratification Monkey to get out of its hammock. What that monkey does not realize is that if you can build up some rhythm to these pulses, you will be able to create momentum to complete the larger tasks as well.


To create that desired rhythm to your pulses, consider using the Pomodoro technique. This gives you a structured way of doing a short sprint followed by a guaranteed rest period. Provided you honor the time commitments for both the sprint AND the rest period, you should be able focus and get a great deal done. (Admittedly, that proviso is a big one but it does get easier with practice.)


While all of this seems perfectly rational and even doable, you should be aware that this disruption of the natural order is likely to send your Instant Gratification Monkey into a tailspin. And your Panic Monster may feel a little underemployed. So you need to find a way to placate them so they are not motivated to disturb your productivity. You can help placate your Instant Gratification Monkey by ensuring that your Pomodoro breaks are spent on truly fun things or things that really make you feel better about life. And then, because you’ve had an insanely productive day, walk away at the end of the allotted time and really enjoy the leisure you have earned. As far as your Panic Monster goes, it is actually to useful to keep the monster around but on a highly reduced schedule. The monster can help keep the monkey at bay so that you can focus on getting to the end of each sprint. So while you won’t have a full-on panic attack, you will have that thrill of urgency that keeps you on your toes and focused.


If you’d love a fun and educational break from your productive streak, here are links to Tim Urban’s TED talk, as well as some terrific blog posts he wrote on the topic. Enjoy!

Why Procrastinators Procrastinate

How to Beat Procrastination

The Procrastination Matrix

[Photo Credit: Tim Urban]