What are Your Three Monkeys?

Ages ago my dad told me a story of one of the other executives in his office, who had a peculiar method of dealing with the problems of his department. Outside his office door was a small shelf and on that shelf were Three Monkeys. The traditional hear-no-evil, see-no-evil and speak-no-evil trio. I believe they were plush toys of some description.

When an underling was reporting a problem to the executive, they had to pick up one of the monkeys and take it into the office with them while they presented the problem. If the executive accepted the problem as something he was going to work on… he kept the monkey on his desk.

Which left just two monkeys sitting on the shelf outside his office. When he accepted a second problem, there would be just one monkey. After a third problem was accepted, the shelf would be empty of monkeys.

No monkeys meant underlings weren’t to bother him as he was already busy and a fourth problem would reduce his problem solving effectiveness. So in all likelihood, bringing a fourth problem to him would simply result in the fourth problem taking longer to solve. The rationale being simple – people can only work effectively on changing about three things at once.

As a problem was solved, the associated monkey would return to the shelf outside his office. This was the signal for the availability for a new problem.

I tell this story because it’s one of the first concepts I tell my 12-Week Guided MAP coaching clients. Part of that process is identifying twenty-four different things to work on and improve over the 12-week period. The twenty-four things to do come from four things in each of the six spheres from the new book: Physical, Money, Displays of High Value, Relationship Comfort, Personality and Sexuality. I rank them all in a priority list. I could explain how I prioritize the list, but it’s rather arcane and the description resembles a recitation of Vogon poetry.

So far everyone’s eyes bug out at the mother of all to-do lists I create. Except each week, we’re just going to work on three things starting at the top of the priority list. As something gets mastered / completed, we cross it off the list and add a new monkey.

This overwhelming sense of “there’s too much to do in my MAP” is I think very common. If you’re in a sucky place in your life, with multiple large problems, it’s easy to just give up and not try fixing any of them. But if you can narrow it down to just three things you need to get done it’s more manageable. You can even forgive yourself some failures on things that haven’t made the Three Monkeys status yet. Sure you’re going to clean the spare room out and get to a dental appointment, the kids are still running wild… but this week your Three Monkeys are joining a gym, creating a budget and getting a plumber to come fix that mysterious water problem. So don’t freak out about how bad things are, or how crappy you feel. Just trust the process that fixing anything is better than doing nothing. It’s going to get better.

So leave a comment…

If you only have to do just three things to make your life a little better this week…

What are your Three Monkeys?


  1. Version3.0 says

    I’ve taken training that I use at work on the Four Disciplines of Execution. They advocate and show evidence for the fact that people or organizations are really bad at executing goals when they choose too many. If you can narrow it down to one or two Wildly Important Goals (WIGs), the success level goes way way up. So it sounds to me like the Three Monkeys is just a little different reframing of the same idea. I think Franklin Covey would not even advocate listing all 24 things, as you’re likely to get distracted from the two or three WIGs.

    Good stuff though.

  2. Wolfie says

    For me the 3 main things in my MAP are:

    Alpha (interpersonal)
    Leadership (household)

    I believe those are the things I have been poor at in the past.

  3. says

    @Version3.0 often people have a main core issue that drives most of their problems, but it’s hard to work on that directly.

  4. tigerandplay says

    foucs is in the DHV:
    1. maintain your frame
    2. lead somewhere
    and high quality sex:
    3. just make a move

  5. Peregrine John says

    Temptation is to be too general about the 3, which is why breaking it down to a couple dozen is a good way to start. Plus, you’re less likely to get the cart before the horse or forget something crucial if you list things first. So while avoiding a too-broad set of first steps, mine looks like this:
    1. Lead, even if I don’t care
    2. Push hard to a new income source
    3. Bring exercise to the next level of work & regularity

  6. sasha says

    I’m a big fan of doing things in threes so this really resonates. Its easy enough that even on my worst days I can find three things lying around and do something with them. Thinking in “threes” seems a little OCD but its worked wonders for me as far as keeping a cleaner house and I’m really enjoying the tidier me!

    Right now, I’m working on small scale stuff that takes minutes because I’m in a bit of high state of anxiety. Anything too vague or too general seems dauntingly overwhelming. Since this week is almost over I’ll write down three for next week.
    1. Make a Dentist appt
    2. Make a GYN appt.
    3. Spend 1 hour in my studio playing.

  7. Brian M. says

    This is brilliant, and something I’m going to start this right away. In fact, I’m going to get a whiteboard to keep next to my desk for this purpose. I’m noticing that some of the other commenters have been making some pretty general statements like “be alpha”, well, duh, but that’s a lifestyle thing. I think for this to work best it needs to be three specific and completeable tasks, otherwise you’ll never be able to get the satisfaction of putting the monkey back and taking on a new problem.

    For me, I need to:
    1) Edit a manuscript.
    2) Scrape my soffits.
    3) Finish a project I’m working on.

    Those are my monkeys and I’m stickin’ to them.

  8. Milf-in-Training says

    Monkeys, like goals need to follow the SMART rule:

    Specific: cleat and simple
    Measurable: you can tell when you’ve succeeded
    Attainable: you *can* do this
    Relevant: it’s important
    Time Bound: you set a time to complete the goal.

    My current three:
    Lose 15 lbs by the end of September
    Work out a plan to lower my debt by the end of July
    Declutter the living room by Monday

  9. says

    Oof. So many things.

    Three, three, three….. Hmm.

    1) Show more affection. Maybe two extra acts of affection a day?
    2) Limit daily Internet time. This has improved lately with a great to-do app, but I need to be consistent.
    3) Eat less crap. My diet has really fallen off lately, and it’s plateued my physical improvement progress.

  10. Joost says

    And of course vogonian poetry is only the third worst in the universe.

    But in my case:
    – Keep going on this ritalin schedule that I’ve starte with.
    – Finish tasks in the home to build a habit of doing things directly
    – Work out

  11. Kort says

    1. Get back on the daily yoga plan. Stopped because of an injury and stayed stopped because of momentum.
    2. Finish the book I’m working on right now.
    3. Drink more water.

  12. FJ34 says

    1) continue coaching with Athol Kay :P
    2) stop trying to see into the future and just do the next thing
    3) find something to do that brings positive energy and peacefulness TO me

  13. Liz says

    My big monkey is maintenance and personal grooming. I’m about average in looks and body without it, but it takes what feels like a huge effort to prettify myself – and I could do a lot more. Yes, it’s nice to get the turned head from my husband, but the day to day stuff is haaaaaard. Reminding myself that life is made up of little moments and it’s happening *right now* is haaaaaard. (Yes, I know this is whiny.)

    This brought it into sharper focus:


  14. Bob says


    The luxury goods are a play in the female status completion. They are not aimed at your mate. They are aimed at other women.

    Which is better? To tell other women you have a devoted husband, OT to have one in fact?

  15. Liz says


    Of course, you’re right. But it did hit a nerve, in that I know I have to step it up a bit. Yes, I’ve got the hygiene, the fairly okay clothes, the decent hair. But it’s more that I needed a step up to feminine shoes, consistantly wearing makeup, using curlers, wearing skirts etc. Hey, whatever works as a motivator, right? Also, I like getting glances, and how people respect him more when I look extra nice.

  16. wendy says

    I really like the visual of the shelf with the three monkeys and taking one off at a time.

    – Home project number 1 – kid related
    – Home project number 2 – cleaning and chores related.
    – Continue to focus on diet and exercise (forum weight loss challenge!)

  17. says

    May I recommend that instead of ‘creating a budget,’
    you check out Ramit Sethi’s absolutely fantastic advice in his book
    ‘I Will Teach you To Be Rich’? It’s the furthest thing from scammy there is.

    He is all about the big wins and avoiding budgeting. Minimizing will power usage
    and using automation. Of course it takes work but its awesome on the margin when
    things start to work.
    Highly, highly recommended.

  18. chris says

    actually the whole budget, gym, plumbing issue was pretty spooky. that’s exactly what I need to do.

  19. Joanna says

    For this week:

    1 – get done with presentation Nr. 1 for university (and do it well)
    2 – start preparing presentation Nr. 2 (more research/thinking on Thursday, pre-presentation meeting Friday morning, prepare handout and details Friday during the day, practice Sunday)
    3 – Sunday: prepare my next tutoring lesson well (it’s probably the last one before the class evaluates my teaching, and I suppose the evaluation is pretty much supposed to be my job reference).


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