(image: Judith E. Bell CC BY)

Eisenhower and the coronavirus

In case of urgency, the unimaginable can become the feasible

Say you had two tasks competing for your attention: one is very important, the other one is very urgent. Which one would you do first? Chances are, you’ll pick the urgent one. Not only does this seem self-evident, there is even a reasonable evolutionary explanation for this. The kind of urgent situations our early ancestors were confronted with often required a swift response to ensure survival.

Imagine an individual engaged in the important task of gathering wood, suddenly encountering a sabre-tooth tiger with a gastronomic interest in them. If they decided the important activity must take precedence over running away like greased lightning, they would probably not survive long enough ensure their genes were passed on to the next generation. And so, a hierarchical sense of priority of the urgent over the important may well be, to some extent, hardwired.

And this tendency to act on what is urgent can still serve us well. I am sure I am not the only person who, as a student, found it hard to start revising for my next exam if that was not taking place for another week. It’s only when it came well and truly in sight — two days, three days max — that I suddenly found the motivation to open up the folder with my notes. Even in the final year of my master’s degree, I still felt strangely unable to adopt a more planned approach. Urgency was my primary driver.

There is nothing wrong with this if what is important is also urgent, like escaping a hungry predator, or getting a good grade at tomorrow’s exam. But our lives are, in general, more complex than those of our ancestors, or even than those of students. In particular, the things we need to do can be urgent, important, both at the same time, or neither. These can be placed in a 2×2 table, sometimes referred to as an Eisenhower box, after General Dwight Eisenhower, who reportedly once said “I have two kinds of problems, the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent.”

A bit of order, but aren’t we neglecting the most important?

This captures the essence of where our time management goes wrong. We are inefficient because we are distracted by things that call for our immediate attention but that are of little significance, and we are ineffective because we do not pay attention to things that are important if they are not urgent. You can probably come up with your own examples to populate the figure.

We may well have an ancestral tendency to favour the immediate and urgent, but we are of course capable of overriding such tendencies, and pay more attention to what is important, urgent or not. How come we then still neglect the non-urgent, but important things?

One reason is that the benefits of what is important often occur in the future: the exam for which we want a good grade is a week from now. The cost, however — the effort or the sacrifice we need to make, is mostly much nearer by: revising precedes the exam. The same applies to matters ranging from watching our weight ( it’ll be weeks before we’ve lost that extra pound is distant, but the sacrifice of not having another piece of cake is right now) and doing enough exercise ( being able to run 10 km within 1 hour will take months, but we have to make the effort of getting up before the crack of dawn and go for a jog today), to saving for our retirement ( we’ll be almost 70 by the time we will enjoy our pension, but we must cut our frivolous but enjoyable expenditure this very moment). That affects how we weigh up the costs and the benefits, and favours the urgent.

And even if future benefits look sizeable, they’re uncertain by virtue of being in the future — certainly (!) more uncertain than the costs we have to bear now. That encourages motivated reasoning: the tendency to justify and rationalize our decisions based on emotions. So we tell ourselves that perhaps making an effort now is not necessary, because who knows what might happen between now and in the distant future, or at least we can delay it until we have more certainty and not waste any effort unnecessarily.

This happens on a larger scale too. We are told about the importance of combating climate change to avoid dramatically rising sea levels and extreme weather with unseen drought and flooding. Pretty important stuff. But the consequences in this narrative, however apocalyptic, are decades into the future, and so are many of the targets for a reduction in carbon emissions. We could, if we wanted to, radically change our behaviour now. But it simply does not feel urgent enough.

And all of a sudden, it seems we are capable of making radical changes to our behaviour, at short notice. Chad Loder, a tech entrepreneur, remarked on Twitter that quite a few things, which supposedly used to be impractical or even impossible, have somehow “magically become trivially easy” in the COVID-19 world.

Aviation may not be the largest source of atmospheric CO 2, but a typical short-haul return flight, for example between London and Rome, produces 0.45 tonnes of CO2 per passenger. That is one-sixth of what the heating of an average British household emits each year. Replacing two short business flights per year with a videoconference would be equivalent to turning the heating off during two of the winter months. Apparently impractical until a few weeks ago. Now we see air traffic over Europe falling by 15% compared to this time last year (in Italy it was down by 50% as of 11th March), as a combination of voluntary (in)action by individuals and government mandates. We can fly less.

Flying less is not just possible, it’s happening (source: Eurocontrol)

Mr Loder lists several other interventions that suddenly seem entirely feasible, from conferences that will offer (or be replaced by) video streaming and Skype calls, and widespread working-from-home policies, to a form of universal income for parents who cannot go to work because the schools are shut.

All because we have a challenge that is not just important but also urgent.

‘Free’ is a powerful concept in behavioural economics, but it seems ‘urgent’ is quite capable of eclipsing it. Of course, these behavioural changes are not all voluntary and resulting from individual preferences. We are clearly a long way from the gentle realm of libertarian paternalism. Some of the draconian measures imposed by governments are less a matter of firm guidance than of unconditional enforcement. But there is little resistance. People understand the sacrifices that need to be made to deal with the coronavirus.

When things become urgent, we quickly, and without much deliberation, reconsider actions and interventions that until recently were treated as ‘unthinkable’. Many end up with a ‘how quickly can we do it’ tag.

Yet urgency is to a large extent in the eye of the beholder. When we believe something is urgent, we can swiftly adopt the corresponding mindset. We can then look at the so-called unimaginable behavioural change — whether it’s saving 15% of our income into our retirement fund, cutting down car travel by 50% or whatever it is we really need to start doing now to meet our long-term goal — from the other end. Under what circumstances would we make this change? We can transport ourselves to the future, and contemplate the result of inaction. With that new insight, we transport ourselves back to the present and weigh up what we can do about it now. if we wish, we can bring the future sense of urgency forward to this moment, if we wish.

We can put the important (but not urgent) in the important and urgent box of the Eisenhower matrix, if we want. We really don’t have to wait until circumstances like the COVID-19 virus are forcing our hand.

Originally published at http://koenfucius.wordpress.com on March 13, 2020.

Thanks for reading this article — I hope you enjoyed it. Please do share it far and wide — there are handy Twitter and Facebook buttons nearby, and you can click here to share it via LinkedIn, or simply copy and paste this link. See all my other articles featuring observations of human behaviour (I publish one every Friday) here. Thank you!

Accidental behavioural economist in search of wisdom. Uses insights from (behavioural) economics in organization development. On Twitter as @koenfucius

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