Point of view is worth eighty IQ points.
— Alan Kay
Sometimes we face situations that demand an immediate response. Last week, millions of Americans dealt with unexpected weather conditions that disrupted their ability to keep themselves and their families fed and warm. Yesterday, the crew of United flight 328 had to deal with an engine that exploded in mid-air. (Fortunately — and through excellent piloting and engineering — the plane landed safely.) Such life-threatening situations call for skillful action now.
Most situations aren’t as urgent as landing a crippled plane or finding shelter in freezing temperatures. And yet, we often feel the stress of urgency in our day-to-day lives. Perhaps we’re on the hook for meeting this quarter’s KPIs, or we're running late to take our child to her 10 am martial arts class, or we have a big presentation on Tuesday. Whatever the case, we’re under pressure to deliver now.
Focusing on near-term commitments is crucial if we aim to get things done. Meeting the company’s near-term goals contributes to its long-term success and helps our career. Following through with our commitments to our kids builds trust and sets positive examples for their future. That presentation may land the account that breaks us through. These ‘small’ things matter. We reach long-term goals one step at a time.
The problem comes when our perspective becomes fixated on the near-term. We may have good intentions, but when we’re called to allocate resources (i.e., time, effort, money), we always opt for present concerns. We aspire to lose weight by summer, but we’re hungry now. We want to build a world-class application, but we skip the research and modeling steps to get to ‘screens’ ASAP. We want our team to develop strategic influence, but we have a backlog to get through.
These aren’t either-or choices. We must eat if we plan to be alive by summer. Research and models are necessary but not sufficient; we must also aim for excellent screen-level interactions. We must deliver on our backlog commitments if we are to have any influence at all. The question isn’t what to do now, but how to balance near- and long-term commitments.
Ideally, near-term choices are in service of long-term goals. We must cultivate the ability to act now without losing sight of the long-term vision. This isn’t easy to do; we’re wired for the here-and-now. We’re drawn to the richest sources of nourishment in our environment. We discount future conditions, which we can’t experience through our senses. Because of this, long-term thinking requires practice — much like building muscle requires working out.
Fortunately, there are models, tools, and frameworks that can help us keep a long-term perspective as we act in the near-term. Here are three I find particularly helpful.
The Eisenhower Matrix
The Eisenhower Matrix is a prioritization framework attributed to U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower. Here’s how it works: draw a simple 2x2 matrix and label the X-axis ‘Urgency’ and the Y-axis ‘Priority.’ Now, sort your to-dos, appointments, commitments, etc. in one of the four quadrants:
- High priority, high urgency: do them ASAP.
- High priority, low urgency: you want to do these, but not necessarily right now. Schedule them. (And follow through!)
- Low priority, high urgency: these must be done, but not necessarily by you. Look for ways to delegate them.
- Low priority, low urgency: find a way to shed these.