President Dwight Eisenhower had a particular way of doing things.
The story goes that early in his tenure, he batted away an aide who tried to hand him an unopened envelope. He should never be handed anything, Ike said, that had not first been screened to see if it deserved his attention.
Ike had lots of rules like this, about optimism, taking responsibility and the necessity of vacation. He even developed a system for dispelling anger. If he was angry at someone, he'd write their name on a piece of paper and discard it in a drawer. Having done so, he stopped being angry at them.
He was what we could call today a life-hacker.
One of Ike's famous aphorisms was that the urgent matters should not crowd out the important ones. If you only take care of the urgent, there will be no time to identify and solve the challenges that can only be solved through planning and follow-through.
This is the spiritual inspiration for the "Eisenhower Matrix," a system for sorting priorities: If the parking meter is running out? That's "urgent and important."
Scheduling your annual physical? "Not urgent, but important."
Blinking email about the latest Twitter outrage? "Urgent, not important."
Presidential time is some of the most valuable time on the planet. To make choices, a president must be ruthless in setting priorities and maintaining them, or risk being unprepared, and delaying vital action.
This is a quality we should think about during elections.
Can candidates focus on what's important but not urgent (like preparing for a pandemic or a cyber attack)? Or doing the behind-the-scenes work of building an organization that will operate smoothly when the crisis hits?
During our infrequently rational campaigns, we lump everything into the "urgent and important" category. Candidates give in to this, promising sweeping action on every item on the list.
This robs us of the chance to test whether a candidate can prioritize, and trains us all to be sloppy – obsessed with whatever is just before us. Sometimes that's crucial, but it isn't always crucial. Knowing the difference will help us pick better presidents – and help those we do pick do a better job.
READ AN EXCERPT:
For more info:
- "The Hardest Job in the World: The American Presidency" by John Dickerson (Random House), in Hardcover, eBook and Audio formats, available June 16 via Amazon
- Follow John Dickerson on Twitter and Instagram
Story produced by Young Kim. Editor: Lauren Barnello.
- ("Sunday Morning," 6/09/19)
- ("CBS This Morning," 10/21/19)
- From 1964: CBS Reports: "D-Day Plus 20 Years - Eisenhower Returns to Normandy" (Video)
for more features.