Let The Monkey Go

Oh, the holiday season! How many of you are like me- trying to close in on work goals, select gifts, plan celebrations, and, yeah, then there’s life? Martha Stewart and your calendar should both come with a warning rating this time of year. For example, starting performance reviews, planning the neighborhood open house, anticipating in law visits and navigating air travel could be Threat Level Orange: Melt -down likely.

Monkey Brain and Holidays
The Buddhist concept of monkey brain is a brain that swings from idea to idea. Like the lovable apes, we land on an idea only to be distracted to a new one. Here’s how the monkey showed up in my brain this week: I have a great idea for the Performance Management presentation. Wonder when the compensation info will be ready? I must send that package to Rick. Don’t forget to send out the team reports!Talk to Peter- do we really want to have two parties? What do we do about cards this year?

The drawbacks outweigh the benefits of monkey brain. First, any focus on things I really need to do is interrupted. The must do’s take longer. Second, monkey brain simmers a low level of anxiety as a result of its nagging reminders of what I haven’t done or could do. It damages the clarity of the present. Finally, monkey brain uses energy that could be put to productive use.

You may be better than me at focus and discipline. If yes, I admire you. It’s difficult for me all the time- and more so at this time of year. That’s why I was fascinated by the ideas in Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength by Roy Baumeister and John Tierney (2011).  It’s full of useful and proven insights. But when hectic meets end of year crazy; I found the chapters on monkey brain and what to do about it to be particularly helpful.

The Zeigarnik Effect
The Zeigarnik Effect is named for a Russian psychology student you may never have heard of -Bluma Zeigarnik. You may have heard of her famous mentor, Kurt Lewin. Together, they investigated a question: Does the human memory draw a distinction between finished and unfinished business?  Their result is known as The Zeigarnet Effect: Uncompleted tasks and unmet goals will continue to pop up into human minds.  It explains why the project you completed last week does not continue to pop into your mind, but the one you did not complete does.

What To Do About Monkey Brain
If you want to be like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, you don’t have to do anything to keep the screen crawl of ideas coming.  Zeigarnik and Lewin proved uncompleted goals and tasks will pop up uninvited on a regular basis. But if you don’t like the I Got You Babe type of thought interruptions, Roy Baumeister and his colleague, E.J. Masiacampo, have research that may offer a solution.

Baumeister’s and Masiacampo’s research showed that subjects who had a plan suffered less monkey brain than those who did not. Their theory is that uncompleted goals and tasks go into the subconscious. The subconscious cannot plan; only the conscious can plan. So, the subconscious acts like your mother. It picks up the clutter and reminds your conscious to put it somewhere. The subconscious does not need to complete the tasks, but it needs them to be put away in an orderly manner. And when they are, the nagging stops.

There are steps Baumeister and Tierney suggest we take to send monkey brain on a nice holiday trip. Most of these ideas are sourced from efficiency expert David Allen.

Make a Do, Delegate, Drop  or Defer decision for every task that comes across your desk or through your mind. Don’t postpone this decision. I personally favor delegate or drop during the holidays, but make the right decision for you.

Make a plan for the Do decisions. Your subconscious is a nag; it will keep reminding you that it needs a plan until you have it.  If you can complete the task within two minutes, do it now. Otherwise, put the task on your calendar now or in a daily folder for when you need it. Do not leave it unattended on your desk. Every Do must have a place.

For every Do decision, identify a specific next step. Think critically of the exact next step you need to complete the task. Write the specific next step and what you’ll need to do it. For example, if you have to write up next year’s goals before you leave for the holidays, don’t write: Next Year’s Goals on a list.  Break it down to: 1) Seek Input from Manager. Start there. Once completed with that step, ad the next logical one.

Add a Dream folder. Monkey brain also reminds us of our unfulfilled life and career dreams. So, when these pop up thoughts remind you that you want to change careers, move to the beach or learn a new skill, write it down and put it in your dream folder. Occasionally set aside time on your calendar to review your dream folder and identify the next steps for the dreams you wish to pursue.

I’ve been following the advice of Baumeister and Tierney. It makes a positive difference. I get more done with a clearer mind and have less guilt that I “should be” doing the thing that’s popped into my mind.  If you want to give up monkey brain for the holidays, or forever, give it a try.


Baumeister, R.F. and Tierney, J. (2011). Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength. New York: Penguin Books.

6 thoughts on “Let The Monkey Go

  1. Thanks, Susan. I am going to give this a try – right now! I need to get some sense of focus just to deal with what is on my desk, never mind the busy-ness of the season.

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