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Stop Reacting and Start Living Strategically

March 2, 2017

To say that we are living in a turbulent time would be an understatement. Every few hours, regardless of our political views, we find ourselves with something in the news to react to. We can also instantly react to what we see through social media and join protests, which seem to have become daily occurrences.

On one hand, all of this is natural and understandable. We live in a democratic society and must practice our rights to express our discontent and inform our representatives about our views. On the other hand, many of us know from bitter experience that this endless loop of instant reactions can be unproductive, if not downright oppressive in our lives. Jena McGregor reported in Washington Post that, in a recent survey, “nearly a third of workers say they’re less productive since the election.”  We can easily burn away hours of our lives absorbed in podcasts and links to articles from likeminded pundits.

So how can we stop reacting and start living strategically— that is, how can we figure out what’s actually important, what needs our attention, and where we can make a meaningful difference?

My first piece of advice is to do less.

Especially when a situation is still unfolding, sometimes stepping back is the most practical thing you can do. In fact, recent praise of the virtue of reacting slowly came not from an academic or an analyst, but from a retired four-star general known for his combat actions as a commander of the United States’ Joint Special Operations Command.

In the recent issue of PRISM, a Department of Defense publication, an interviewer asked General (Ret.) Stanley McChrystal: “What lessons should we have learned from Afghanistan and Iraq?” General McChrystal replied: “In the case of Afghanistan, immediately after 9/11, in terms of military actions we should have done nothing …” Yes, you read it correctly. He said we should have done “nothing.”

He continued: “I now believe we should have taken the first year after 9/11 and sent 10,000 young Americans—military, civilians, diplomats—to language school; Pashtu, Dari, Arabic. We should have started to build up the capacity we didn’t have.” More importantly, he said, “I would not have been worried about striking al-Qaeda that year; they weren’t going anywhere.”

If we apply this model of not-reacting to our current situation, we should all be building up the capacities that we don’t have. Listening to pundits that you already agree with will not accomplish this goal. Instead, the task is to figure out what our priorities are and develop the capacities to tackle them— this is true no matter what your political views are.

Accordingly, my second piece of advice is that you need a way of determining where to turn your attention. If you don’t have some kind of strategy for doing so, you’ll eventually get overwhelmed. We can apply an approach from a former President of the United States and a five-star general. Dwight D. Eisenhower once observed, “I have two kinds of problems, the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent.”

Based on his observation, we can categorize situations or problems we might want to do something about along two dimensions: urgency and importance. By doing so, we divide the situations into four categories: (1) important and urgent, (2) important, yet not urgent, (3) not important but urgent, (4) not important and not urgent. This approach to prioritization is known as the Eisenhower Matrix. More information can be found in “The Decision Book.”

Based on this approach, we should act on the situations that are in category #1: important and urgent. We should pay careful attention to the ones that belong to category #2 (important, yet not urgent), because they tend to be more strategic than other types of situations. For example, responding to al-Qaeda after 9/11 belongs to this category. It was of utmost importance in terms of national security, but, as General McChrystal pointed out, we shouldn’t have treated it as an urgent task. When the stimuli belong to category #3 (urgent, but not important) or category #4 (neither important nor urgent), we should consider ignoring them. Many of the stimuli we have been receiving from the mass media belong to these two categories. These “shiny objects” can stir our emotion, yet their long-term consequences are not clear, and effective actions we can take to counter their consequences are uncertain.         

Consistently applying this approach can take some time to get used to. In the beginning, you may think that most situations are urgent and important, especially if you’re used to living in crisis mode. But eventually, you’ll develop better judgment about when and how you can really make an impact. There are many ways to apply this approach— you do you. But, if you can learn to react slowly, think, and act strategically, you can do you better.  

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Contact Information

Fels Institute of Government
University of Pennsylvania
3814 Walnut Street
Philadelphia, PA 19104

Phone: (215) 898-2600
Fax: (215) 746-2829

felsinstitute@sas.upenn.edu