I Could Teach A Monkey

Some time ago, my daughter had to do some trivial task at work. She was not happy. According to her, “I could teach (her nephew, then 14) to do it in 5 minutes. I could teach a monkey to do it in an hour. Well, maybe not a juvenile monkey.”

Sometimes, your job is like that too. Tedious and trivial but some things just need to be done.

Job satisfaction is a strange thing. Many years ago an organizational psychologist told me that people who do things they love doing, and things that challenge them and promote personal growth, are happy in their job if those things occupy 20% or more of their time. That does not seem like a stretch goal.

I have heard and believe that a high school senior could make, successfully, 95% of the decisions that a Fortune 500 CEO makes.

What does all that mean. Two things

1) Every job has a “maintenance” component. Tasks that just need to get done. Things a monkey could do, but there is no monkey present. Not what you are here for, but if you stop doing these tasks, bad things will begin to happen. Recall Herzberg’s motivation-hygiene theory. Strangely, these tasks can lead to higher job satisfaction if the incidence and time is not too high. Why? They allow you to decompress. Some good thinking is accomplished when doing a mindless task. Driving is a common example. You need to decide what the right amount of tedious work might be. It is different for everyone and it varies from time to time. Sometimes retreating to the familiar saves your sanity

2) There are some things that only you can do well. Like the other 5% of CEO decisions. Things that require skill, experience, relationships and judgement. The thing you must be very vigilant about is that as the mundane becomes more common, these high level tasks sometimes get squeezed out.

In the accounting business, people make a distinction between compliance work and special work. You tend to get new clients with special work. However, after you have explored, recommended and implemented everything you can find, the fun stuff, you then have a commitment for routine financial statements and tax returns well into the visible future. Other people’s deadlines become your reality. Eventually you don’t have time to do the special work you like. You have to find people to do the compliance work or you will become decidedly unhappy.

There is a simple rule to notice. “The important is seldom urgent and the urgent is seldom important.” Business people fall into personal trouble because they have not clearly stated what the important looks like.

It is a bad strategic mistake to ignore the important just because it is not urgent. Work at fixing that perception. Put it on your to do list and see if that helps you.

You should fill your own calendar. Take charge of the things that take your time and attention. When others can commit you, they tend to commit you to stuff not to substance.

Focusing on the important means that for a while you will need to deal with urgent. The plan is to minimize and recognize that you cannot eliminate it. Usually the urgent goes away once you observe that most urgency arises from poorly implemented decisions you made in the past. Learn from your mistakes so they do not become chronic. Better still, hire a firefighter.

The best job is one that you are both motivated by and skilled at doing. And you would not like it as much if everything was exciting and challenging.

Don Shaughnessy is a retired partner in an international accounting firm and is presently with The Protectors Group, a large personal insurance, employee benefits and investment agency in Peterborough Ontario. don.s@protectorsgroup.com

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