His father was a Pennsylvania Dutch Mennonite – not quite one of the Amish, but still vigorously opposed to war. His mother left the Mennonites to join the International Bible Students Association – another strongly pacifistic group that we now know as Jehovah’s Witnesses. You might have thought that only conscientious objectors could spring from such stock, but he grew up to lead the victorious army in the greatest conflict the world has ever known. Imagine the conversation Dwight D. Eisenhower had with his parents, explaining that he had been accepted at West Point: “Mom, Dad, I’ve got some good news and some bad news. The good news is, I’m going to college! A really prestigious college in the East – and tuition and room and board are all paid for! The bad news is, I’ll be majoring in conflict, carnage, and damnation. No, it’s not law school . . .”
Historians still debate Eisenhower’s merit as a military leader – he was clearly an extremely competent administrator, but assessments of his strategic and tactical skills vary widely, and his battlefield prowess is literally unknown, since he never once served on the front lines. Evaluation of his presidency, too, has varied a great deal over the years; while once he was considered no more than a drab, ineffective golf nut, he is now often ranked in or near the top ten greatest presidents, one who led his country through eight years of relative peace and unprecedented prosperity.
However one judges Eisenhower’s success in the roles of Supreme Commander and Commander-in-Chief, it’s clear that one of his assets was the ability to recognize – and willingness to acknowledge – truths that ran counter to expectations. Despite being raised in an anti-war religious environment (and remaining personally devout throughout his life), he saw and accepted his own interest in, and talent for, a martial life. Despite this lifelong commitment to service in the armed forces, Eisenhower famously warned the country, in his farewell speech from the Oval Office, of the danger posed by an overly-influential “military-industrial complex”. And Eisenhower is credited with originating one of the most useful tools in time management, reflected in a quote attributed to him: “What is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important.”
This recognition that sometimes things that feel important in the moment are not actually important in the long term can help us make wiser decisions about how we spend our time. When we allow urgency to control which tasks will be completed, we run the risk of not attending to things that are important but that have a distant deadline, or no real deadline at all (for example, job skills maintenance or time with our families).
To counteract this natural tendency, take the time to distinguish between responsibilities that are urgent and important, not urgent and important, urgent and not important, and not urgent and not important. Make a conscious decision to spend more time on things that are “not urgent and important”, and you will necessarily spend less time on things that are not important (even if they seem important because of their immediacy – like e-mails and interruptions). Sure, there will still be a few things that are both urgent and important. But when the man responsible for D-Day and the liberation of Western Europe from Nazi tyranny asserts that, even for him, most things that were urgent were not important, it’s safe to say that those of us responsible for Casual Day and the liberation of our desks from stacks of paper can find lots of “urgent” tasks that we can afford to set aside.