There are urgent problems and important problems, but "the urgent are not important and the important are never urgent," President Dwight D. Eisenhower declared in the summer of 1954. Eisenhower described this battle for attention between the urgent and important as the "dilemma facing modern man."
What was true 65 years ago is still true today as we face a daily barrage of information, questions, and problems that push and pull our attention in different directions.
Research by Workfront has found that 58% of knowledge workers in the United States are so swamped with tasks that they don't have time to think beyond the day-to-day to-do list, crippling innovation and creative thinking. More worrying still is that the average US knowledge worker spends only 40% of their time doing the job they were hired to do. That's 60% of the working day when people are busy and productive but in a way that's disconnected from business strategy and goals.
The Eisenhower Principle - most often rendered as a two-by-two grid balancing high and low importance and urgency - needs a 21st century update.
The first question in the era of digital distraction should be is this necessary?
If it's unnecessary, stop doing it.
If it is necessary, the next step is to prioritize work in the high-low urgency/importance matrix that the Eisenhower Principle suggests.
So, how do leaders decide what's necessary and what's not? And how do you create a working culture where focus on the necessary beats distraction?
1. Understand the run versus change/create mix
Changing a business culture and overcoming distraction starts with questions from leaders and managers who focus attention on the right things.
As I detail in chapter 9 of Done Right, you can break down positive activity in any business into two categories: tasks that are necessary to run the organization and tasks that are geared to changing the organization or creating something new.
The time devoted to each category of task will vary depending on what the goals of the business are. For example, if you're pushing for innovation, you want to see a relatively high proportion of time spent on change/create tasks.
But if the work being done isn't necessary for either run or change/create then it serves no purpose.
Thinking critically about the mix of tasks going on in a business is a first step to focusing on what matters and what activity isn't making a difference. If managers apply this thinking at a team level, imagine what unproductive activity will stop?
2. Focus on the best next action
The sharpest question a leader can ask is:
What can we do in the next two weeks to move us closer to our goal?
When you do this, you're asking a colleague to define the best next action: the single most important step to achieve a business or project objective. It's a question about right now, not the distant future, and about one action not a range of options. It encourages focus on what really matters to successful outcomes.
If leaders ask this question about their business, it pulls attention back to strategic objectives. If managers ask this within their teams, it focuses everyone on critical steps for a project.
The business psychologist Tony Crabbe tells a great story about an Olympic rowing team who used a single "compass point question" to keep their preparations pointing towards winning gold. Whatever decision they had to make about diet, training, or equipment, they asked: "Will it make the boat go faster?"
A question like this can help you pinpoint your best next action.
Minds need to be focused on actions that achieve the desired outcome - and asking a simple question can help achieve that.
3. Encourage teams to barely accomplish goals
Leaders and managers need to encourage their team to aim to barely accomplish tasks as the antidote of trying to do everything all the time.
The culture of most organizations is that every task needs 100% effort.
Every task needs 100% completion.
When you're 99% of the way there, all you need is an extra 1% to sign off a job as complete, not an extra 10% or more.
When we give ourselves permission to barely accomplish tasks - and leaders and managers encourage teams to think in this way about their work - more will get done, much more quickly. A culture of barely accomplishing tasks is vital to maintaining direction and momentum towards a project or business goal.
Again, you're encouraging focus on what matters.
4. Adopt the not-to-do list
The 20th century gave us the to-do list.
The 21st century may well give us the not-to-do list.
Tony Crabbe's research on business culture around the globe led him to conclude that one of the most common problems is "busyness" - when everyone is in perpetual motion but not necessarily in the right direction.
Busyness culture is when distractions play havoc with business goals.
Tony points to efforts at Facebook and Google as examples of how companies are trying to counteract the busyness instinct by creating a culture where people feel empowered to not get everything done.
For example, at Facebook, managers are starting to set "non-goals" - calling out what their team will not do while they focus on achieving strategic objectives.
Why not try it? Ask your team what their not-to-do list would look like?
You'll get a quick insight into what's causing the noise.
Productive doesn't mean effective
The common strand between these four points about business culture is that there's a crucial difference between being productive and being effective.
Sure, every leader and manager wants to see their team running as hard as they can. But you don't win by running in the wrong direction. As my first boss told me, "Alex, don't ever confuse efforts with results."
What matters in the 21st century workplace is focus on action, direction, and what actually matters. The companies that are winning today and which will win tomorrow are those where the culture creates a questioning mindset: is this the right thing to be doing right now?
If the answer is no, stop and refocus.
If the answer is yes, everything else can wait in line.
The challenge for leaders and managers is to create a culture of trust where teams feel empowered to get work done right and ignore the noise. By understanding the run/change mix, focusing on your best next action, encouraging your team to barely accomplish their goals, and adopting a not-to-do list, you'll put the Eisenhower Principle in place for the 21st century.