Dwight D. Eisenhower may be my favorite president, and for many reasons. First, he created the Interstate Highway System which truly changed the shape, personality, and capabilities within America. The Interstates made America smaller and put everything you can imagine within reach. The Autobahn inspired him but the scale is vastly different: Germany is 135,000 square miles. America is 3,200,000 square miles. The scale and scope of the Interstates in America was unrivaled, and the result is that he connected more Americans in ways that went much further than a voice over an electric wire (Sorry, Mr. Bell). Oh, and speaking of electronic communications, he also created DARPA, the precursor to the Internet (Sorry, Mr. Gore).
But wait, there's more. Did you know that Eisenhower was also responsible for NASA? And he specifically laid the foundation for peaceful space exploration. Without Eisenhower, it's quite possible there would be no Apollo missions, and the Space Race and Arms Race would be woefully intertwined and set science back by decades. Eisenhower brought forward a vision of peaceful science-based exploration in a way few others could. He saw the importance of it while others loudly questioned the urgency.
I am completely amazed not only at what Eisenhower was able to accomplish, but specifically what he was able to accomplish at the time. Eisenhower knew how to prioritize so the outcomes supported his vision for the world of tomorrow. He shared that vision, pushed forward, and changed the future for everybody.
This all happened at a time of very high urgency. The 1950s started with the Korean War and ended with the Cuban Revolution. How was Eisenhower able to accomplish so many important things when there were so many other more urgent things to do. Eisenhower was able to separate the difference between urgency and importance.
"What is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important."
- Dwight D. Eisenhower
I believe that Eisenhower was effective and successful not just because he was able to prioritize between urgent and important, but he thought of the outcomes and used those outcomes to guide his prioritization. He was a man of vision and outcomes, both positive and negative. He warned of the dangers of hasty reactions; he was expressing concerns of the Military-Industrial Complex from early on in the Cold War. Many of Eisenhower's outcomes ushered in a new era of science and futurist thinking.
Deciding like Dwight
I challenged myself this week to improve how I prioritize the work I do. I recently accounted for my time, and realized how much productivity was spent with low value outcomes. I wasn't thinking about the outcome of my work, instead focusing on just how it would feel to get that task done.
It's hard to acknowledge these types of faults. I feel productive and get a lot of things done, but are they the right things? I have to admit, I would never have gotten us to space and the freeways would have ended in incessant debate about paving and grading techniques. How can I make decisions like Eisenhower?
Eisenhower used a prioritization matrix that has since changed in name and scope. It is aptly called The Eisenhower Method. You draw out a square with four quadrants, and everything needs to fit in those quadrants:
But Eisenhower prioritized based on the outcomes, and not the task. Seldom do we pair the outcome with the task, and I continue to struggle with this prioritization because I fail to focus on outcomes. When we change the matrix to include the outcomes, it becomes more complicated but infinitely more useful for prioritizing:
Is the outcome more important than the task?
It's such a simple question to ask, but so difficult to decide. It involves clairvoyance, and a level of confidence that I'm not sure I have. Time and time again I fail to prioritize based on the expected outcome. Instead I prioritize on the task itself. I analyze how much effort and resources it will take, how much I'll enjoy it or not, and the chances of completing it. I rarely look at the outcome as a top consideration.
This means I'm more likely to do an important task that is fun but has a low value outcome over a tedious task that could have an amazing and exciting outcome. Again and again this happens, and I never get to space. I never get the miles of Interstate Highway built. The outcome is the most important priority of any task I do!
When prioritizing anything I must rate it's importance and urgency based on the outcome and not the task.
What other attributes of tasks should we account for?