I recently finished reading a biography of our third president, Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power, by Jon Meacham. Of course, most red-blooded Americans know that he wrote the Declaration of Independence, which was ratified by the Continental Congress on July 4, 1776.  Ironically, after several days of struggling stubbornly, Thomas Jefferson passed away that same date in 1826, along with his political rival and late-life confidant, our second president, John Adams. Jefferson was 83 and Adams was 90.

As I was reading this biography, one common theme continued to strike me about Jefferson – he was a man of action, in fact, one could say timely action. He completed his college degree in two years; after eminent threat from British troops, as Governor, he moved the capital of Virginia from Williamsburg to Richmond; against popular politics of the time, with the help of his friend James Madison, created the two party system, forming the Democratic-Republican party, opposing the monarchist Federalists; conceptualized and finalized the Louisiana Purchase; and, sanctioned the Lewis and Clark Expedition, to name a few.

When it comes to action planning, I refer to two mental models that help frame my thoughts and actions. The first is a simple three-by-three matrix (High, Medium, Low) with one axis depicting the importance of the item and the other the ease of implementation.

What level of importance does the action item hold to the organization, team or project? Not every item has high importance. Sometimes it is useful to rank the relative importance of various action items, and then place them in the grid. If there are dependencies among the items, meaning one or more items need to be completed before another item can be completed, notate those relationships. I use arrows or numbers to depict the sequence.

The other axis, ease of implementation, can be viewed in a number of ways: time investment, complexity of completing the item, financial investment, or sometimes a combination of these or other factors. What is the level of complexity of this action item? Of course, all things being equal, I look for important/easy action items to build momentum and confidence.

“I’ve found that many projects stall in organizations or on teams because they fail to identify important/easy and are slowed down by less important/more difficult action items.”

The second mental model sometimes helps me put the first model into context, regarding timing. You can identify the most important/easiest action to take, but is it the right time? The right action at the wrong time can hurt the effectiveness of an action item and can be sometimes harmful to the overall effort. As I work with teams, I often ask, is it the right time; are we late or can/should it wait? From there, I look for support and build consensus for various timing arguments, considering the array, and again, the sequence of various action items. Timing truly can be everything.

Taking no action is an option. There have been many instances during my career that no action was the best action. However, I suspect and hope that I will be remembered most for the actions I took, the importance of those actions and completing them in a timely manner. Take a moment to reflect on your situation – is the time right for you to take action on something important and easy? Starting a revolution couldn’t have been easy, but I’m glad our forefathers picked the right time to take important action that led to our freedom.