You've recently joined a major organization in a senior management role. How can you organize your plans?

One simple way to think about them is with what can be called the "Stabilize-Reflect-Execute" cycle.


You first check if there are any urgent issues and address them immediately. Are there burning problems or opportunities that need to be dealt with? Second, you do anything you need to do to best prepare yourself for reflection. If there are people you need to talk to in order to get necessary information, you set that up upfront.


Once urgent issues are dealt with and you are able to properly access the situation, you work to do so. For executives this can mean a lengthy period of discussions with all of the relevant people and thoughts on strategy before making formal announcements. This could take a few weeks or months.


Now is the time to begin working on non-urgent important problems, which should be the main ones. You follow through with your reflection. Execution may involve deciding on pursuing future larger stabilize-reflect-execute loops.

Let’s summarize. “Stabilize” refers to handling urgent issues and preparing for reflection. This is similar to the notion of getting one’s “house in order.” “Reflect” refers to deciding how to best deal with the important non-urgent issues. “Execute” refers to working on the important issues. This is basically a subset of the Eisenhower Method for situations where these three steps make up the majority of the work.


I think this cycle plays out in many important situations, so may be worth some independent study. Some examples of these cycles include:

Necessary Conditions

The stabilize-reflect-execute cycle is good for some specific situations. I think it may require the following:

1. There are some tasks that are both urgent and important.

If this is not true, the "stabilize" step isn't necessary.

2. There are some tasks that are both non-urgent and important.

If this is not true, the "reflect" and "execute" steps aren't necessary.

3. There is significant expected value for spending time figuring out how to do the non-urgent and important tasks.

If this is not true, the "reflect" step isn't necessary.

4. Figuring out how to do the important tasks can be done in one batch per full cycle.

If this is not true, then the work may be a bit of a mess of stabilizations, reflections, and executions, as opposed to one serial process.


We could use this model to compare use cases

I think that different use cases (like the examples above) share a good amount of similarities. I hope that they could be seen as such, and used to help understand each other. One may think that we don’t have may similar references classes to things like AI takeoffs and global governance. While this may be generally true, I hope that this similarity could provide a bit of a counter.

We should acknowledge uncertainty of the “Execute” stage

One trying to understand the stabilize-reflect-execute of an actor may try to predict the actions of the execution stage, but I this should be regarded with skepticism. The point of the reflect stage is to better understand how to enact the execute stage; its’ presence suggests that the execution stage could go in different ways. This means that a lot of attention on stabilize-reflect-execute processes should be on the first two parts, rather than the third.

Comparison to the Eisenhower Method

Image from James Clear

The urgent / important distinction comes from the Eisenhower Matrix. That matrix is supposed to apply to more situations, so is more generic. Work around the matrix typically recommends "quickly doing" the "important & urgent" tasks, then "planning" the "important & non urgent" tasks.

Comparison to Decision Cycles

Wikipedia lists several examples of interesting decision cycles. These are sequences with specific steps for decision making. For instance, in quality control, "PDCA (Plan-Do-Check-Act) is used." I believe the decision cycles typically include some kind of learning component, which is absent in the stabilize-reflect-execute cycle.

Many thanks to Toby Ord for discussion & inspiration, and to Owen Cotton-Barratt and Max Daniel for feedback.

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In terms of decision cycles, I'm a fan of Boyd's OODA (Observe-Orient-Decide-Act), or my preferred respelling of it as NODA to replace Observe with Notice so you get a different letter for each step: I think it does a good job of explaining what's going on in my head when I'm dealing with things, and it seems to generalize well over different timescales.