Dwight David Eisenhower had a pretty decent career. Supreme Commander of the forces that defeated one of the vilest regimes ever to threaten civilization. 34th President of the United States during one of the most prosperous periods ever experienced by any country in the history of the world.
So who better to turn to as a model for how we use the precious time of our lives? I’m referring of course to the Eisenhower Principle that distinguishes between urgent and important activities. It goes like this: “I have two kinds of problems: the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent.” Rendered as a graphic, the Eisenhower Principle might have looked like this on June 5, 1944.
With all the claims on his time, Ike needed a simple, clarifying way to make sure that things that appeared to be urgent didn’t divert him from things that were assuredly more important—and at the same time, not procrastinate matters that were both urgent and important.
He also recognized that great time management means being effective as well as efficient. We must spend our time on things that are important and not just the ones that are urgent. To do this, and to minimize the stress of having too many tight deadlines, we need to understand this distinction.
When I began to teach managers and employees how to manage their time most productively, I was working with executives from one of the country’s greatest brokerage organizations – ambitious, hard-charging, intelligent executives. But they had in common a failing endemic among high achievers who are not skilled in managing their time: They had trouble distinguishing between urgent and important. So I adapted the Eisenhower Principle to the workplace in the form of Critical Few versus Minor Many.
Our Critical Few are those which, if we neglect them, will have dire consequences for us, whether in business or our personal lives. Our Minor Many are not necessarily insignificant, but they can wait, and their neglect might be disappointing but not dire.
Personal preferences can complicate our reasoning. I get great intellectual stimulation from floating new ideas with my team, and I consider time spent this way to be of the utmost importance. One of my colleagues likes to work out problems alone, doing solitary research. Another likes to solve business problems by putting a pencil to them – working them out in financial terms. Who doubts that these preferences cause all three of us to consider work that we enjoy to be more “critical” than work we dislike?
So, to separate our Critical Few from our Minor Many, the first step is to subject our too-long to-do list to an 80/20 analysis that obviates personal preferences: Which ones deliver more value than the time, energy, and expense it takes to accomplish them?
When clients wrestle with priorities, I take them through the DERSSIM Logic System.
- Define the problem.
- Understand the Effects of not solving the problem.
- Identify the Reason for the problem.
- Conceive a Solution.
- SIM stands for the Solution Implementation Methodology.
Which problem, if not solved, has the greatest negative or positive effect? Sometimes the reason for the problem isn’t immediately identifiable, but the effect may require immediate attention.
If an individual is having difficulty breathing, the reason may not be immediately apparent; however, getting the individual to breathe is of utmost importance. In other words, act now on urgent matters.
Even when the reason is apparent, remember that a solution for a problem without a solution implementation methodology is worthless.
So the next time you are faced with way too many obligations, all of which “feel” urgent, take a deep breath, and run them through the DERSSIM Logic System. It won’t take long, and it will quickly clarify things for you. You will end up knowing, with confidence, how you should allocate your next minutes and hours. You will know what is urgent for you when you apply the Important vs. Urgent Test, taking care to apply it objectively to your own situation and needs. We all know people for whom almost everything seems urgent. When my wife answers calls for me at home at inopportune times, she has a habit of cupping her hand over the phone to whisper a reminder to me: “He says it’s urgent, but it might be HIS urgent and not YOUR urgent.” I find that immensely helpful.
Just remember – nobody else can decide your urgent. Learn how to quickly draw those distinctions for yourself so that you don’t suffer those agonizing moments of wondering what to do for whom and when – and almost inevitably, out of a desire to please or clear the decks for your own purposes, doing other people’s urgent, not your own. That’s not the path to career success or life happiness!