The Monkey’s Dilemma

Have you ever worked so hard that you didn’t get anything done?

The monkey’s dilemma is a well known story about how hunters figured out a way to capture monkeys in the jungle.  They would place some food that appealed to monkeys, like peanuts or a banana, in a box with an opening in the top just larger than a monkey’s hand.

A monkey would come along, stick his hand in the box to grab the food and be unable to get his closed fist through the hole.  Hunters would be able to catch the monkey because it stubbornly would not let go of the food even to save its life.

This fable is normally told as a metaphor for people who hold on to bad habits – or bad people – refusing to let go of the status quo in order to make their lives better. I’ve recognized this situation in another, perhaps less negative situation.

Working as a consultant in the Chicago area, I’ve had my share of long commutes.  Whether traveling by plane to other cities, taking the commuter train into the city, or driving from my home to a distant suburban client, commuting to and from work has taken a fair amount of time from my daily routine.

As one who generally tries to maximize productive time, I’ve tried to always have something to read when someone else is doing the driving or flying for me.  When I’m in my car, I’ve always got some form of audio book or podcast loaded on my phone to make the time productive.

The non-fiction self-improvement category is the one to which I’ve generally been attracted. This has included books on topics like investing, leadership, management, fitness and memory improvement.

I found at times that I had difficulty listening.  I’d space out and realize I missed the last minute or two.  After backing it up a minute or two at a time until I got to a point of recognition, I’d realize that I sometimes missed ten minutes of content. 

Every once in a while, I’d get a book that just wasn’t interesting to me.  Some were interesting but the reader was so monotonous, I had trouble concentrating. Other times, it wasn’t clear why I couldn’t focus. 

I finally made the realization that I was trying too hard to make my commute time productive.  I was holding on to the food, but not able to get anything out.  It was all work and no play. 

I learned that if it got to a point where I couldn’t concentrate, I would turn off the book or podcast and turn on some music.  I started alternating the non-fiction genre with fiction.  After taking a break from learning and listening to something for pleasure, I was more refreshed.  Giving my mind a break allowed it to absorb more information.

In addition to the business and self-improvement books that I enjoy, I listen to some music from my iPod and have an occasional listen to a suspenseful John Grisham novel.

I found that by “letting go of the banana” and not trying so hard to make every minute count, that I could make more minutes count and be more productive with my commute time. 

The same applies when people work weekends for their “catch up” days.  They fight fires Monday through Friday and use Saturday and Sunday to catch up on other less-urgent issues from the week. They never give their mind the rest it needs to recharge its batteries and get a fresh start on Monday.  Perhaps if they did, there would be fewer fires to fight during the week.

As always, I welcome your comments and criticisms. 

About the author: Lew Sauder is the author of Consulting 101: 101 Tips for Success in Consulting.  He has been a consultant with top-tier and boutique consulting firms for seventeen years.  He is currently a Senior Project Manager at Geneca.  Lew can be reached at


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