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The 10/10/10 Rule For Tough Decisions

It's good to sleep on it when there are tough choices to make, but you also need a strategy once you wake up—which is why you should employ the 10/10/10 rule.

It’s easy to lose perspective when we’re facing a thorny dilemma. Blinded by the particulars of the situation, we’ll waffle and agonize, changing our mind from day to day.

Perhaps our worst enemy in resolving these conflicts is short-term emotion, which can be an unreliable adviser. When people share the worst decisions they’ve made in life, they are often recalling choices made in the grip of visceral emotion: anger, lust, anxiety, greed. Our lives would be very different if we had a dozen "undo" buttons to use in the aftermath of these choices.

But we are not slaves to our emotions. Visceral emotion fades. That’s why the folk wisdom advises that when we’ve got an important decision to make, we should sleep on it. It’s sound advice, and we should take it to heart. For many decisions, though, sleep isn’t enough. We need strategy.

One tool we can use was invented by Suzy Welch, a business writer for publications such as Bloomberg Businessweek and O magazine. It’s called 10/10/10, and Welch describes it in a book of the same name. To use 10/10/10, we think about our decisions on three different time frames:

  • How will we feel about it 10 minutes from now?
  • How about 10 months from now?
  • How about 10 years from now?
The three time frames provide an elegant way of forcing us to get some distance on our decisions. Consider a conversation we had with a woman named Annie, who was agonizing about her relationship with Karl. They’d been dating for nine months, and Annie said, "He is a wonderful person and in most ways exactly what I am looking for in a lifelong mate."

She worried, though, that they weren’t moving forward in their relationship. Annie, at 36, wanted to have kids and didn’t feel she had an unlimited amount of time to cultivate her relationship with Karl, who was 45. After nine months, she still hadn’t met Karl’s adopted daughter (from his first marriage), and neither person had told the other, "I love you."

Karl’s divorce had been horrendous, leaving him gun shy about another serious relationship. After the divorce, he’d resolved to keep his daughter separate from his dating life. Annie empathized with him, but it hurt her to have a critical part of his life ruled off-limits to her.

When we talked to Annie, she was about to take her first extended vacation with Karl, a road trip up Highway 1 from Los Angeles to Portland. She wondered whether she should "take the next step" during the trip. She knew that Karl was slow to make decisions. ("He’s been talking about getting a smartphone for like three years.") Should she be the first to say, "I love you"?

We asked Annie to try the 10/10/10 framework. Imagine that you resolve right now to tell him, this weekend, that you love him. How would you feel about that decision 10 minutes from now? "I think I’d be nervous but proud of myself for taking the risk and putting myself out there."

How would you feel about it 10 months from now? "I don’t think I’ll regret this. I don’t. I mean, obviously, I really would like this to work. I think he’s great. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, right?"

How about 10 years from now? Annie said that, regardless of how he’d reacted, it probably wouldn’t matter very much after a decade. By then they’d either be happily together or she would be in a happy relationship with someone else.

So notice that, according to 10/10/10, this is a pretty easy decision:

Annie should take the initiative. She’d be proud of herself for doing it, and she doesn’t think she’d regret it, even if the relationship ultimately didn’t work out. But without consciously doing the 10/10/10 analysis, it didn’t feel like an easy decision. Those short-term emotions—nervousness, fear, and the dread of a negative response—were a distraction and a deterrent.
We followed up with Annie a few months later to see what had happened on the road trip, and she e-mailed the following:

"I did say "I love you" first. I am definitely trying to change the situation and feel less in limbo about things... Karl hasn’t yet said he loves me too, but he’s making progress overall (in terms of getting closer to me, being vulnerable, etc.), and I do believe that he loves me and just needs a bit more time to get over his fear of saying it back. I’m glad that I took the risk and won’t regret it even if things don’t ultimately work out with Karl. I’d say it’s about 80/20 odds right now that Karl and I will stay together past the end of this summer."

10/10/10 helps to level the emotional playing field. What we’re feeling now is intense and sharp, while the future feels fuzzier. That discrepancy gives the present too much power, because our present emotions are always in the spotlight. 10/10/10 forces us to shift our spotlights, asking us to imagine a moment 10 months into the future with the same "freshness" that we feel in the present.

That shift can help us to keep our short-term emotions in perspective. It’s not that we should ignore our short-term emotions; often they are telling us something useful about what we want in a situation. But we should not let them be the boss of us.

Of course, we don’t check our emotions at the door of the office; the same emotion rebalancing is necessary at work. If you’ve been avoiding a difficult conversation with a coworker, then you’re letting short-term emotion rule you. If you commit to have the conversation, then 10 minutes from now you’ll probably be anxious, but 10 months from now, won’t you be glad you did it? Relieved? Proud?

If you’ve been chasing a hotshot job candidate, 10 minutes after you decide to extend an offer, you might feel nothing but excitement; 10 months from now, though, will you regret the pay package you’re offering her if it makes other employees feel less appreciated? And 10 years from now, will today’s hotshot have been flexible enough to change with your business?

To be clear, short-term emotion isn’t always the enemy. (In the face of an injustice, it may be appropriate to act on outrage.) Conducting a 10/10/10 analysis doesn’t presuppose that the long-term perspective is the right one. It simply ensures that short-term emotion isn’t the only voice at the table.

Excerpted from Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work by Chip Heath and Dan Heath. Copyright 2013 by Chip Heath and Dan Heath. Published by arrangement with Crown Business, a division of Randomhouse, Inc.

[Image: Flickr user James Butler]

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  • Kristen

    This rule allows you to step back from the decision and evaluate to consequences of the decision at a distance.  Good idea.

  • Christine

    A good strategy, but the example used was kind of lame for us biz folks out here. Weighing whether or not to tell someone you love them? I am busy running a company and have many sizable decisions daily that affect my clients' businesses and my employee's livelihoods. Would love to have heard some examples to its success in everyday business, not someone's love life.

  • AddisG

    It's weird to try and apply the 10/10/10 rule to something as personal and emotional as saying "I love you". If you feel it, say it! There are not that many times in your life that you will be able to say "I love you", for the first time to someone. Life is short.

  • Maribel

    I was in a relationship after my divorce and we lived together for 5 years, our daughters got along perfect, our families and we had a really great relation A-Z. We did say I love you and all the regular stuff great vacations, alone and with family. I know he had a bad divorce and he had his fears about marriage but that didnt stop me form bringing up the subject. Well, all hell broke loose and we broke up mainly due to his fear and my inmaturity on how to handle the situation. However, once I was living alone, we started seeing each other again when ever we wanted and still kept a single life. THIS WENT ON FOR LIKE 7 YEARS... Definetly NOT RECOMMENDED to any one. I was madly in love with him and finally I met someone who I never in my life time would had thought that I was going to fall in love with because he is 11 yrs older and for my benefit very mature. so here I am in love again and very happily married. Part of me regrets the time that I spend all those 7 yrs after the brake up but part of me doesnt becuase I was so in love with him and I know he was too. but his fear controled him. and I say he was in love too becuase his closest friend told me how devasted he was when I left but how feared he was of geting divorced again. thats bad and divorce people do need help in going on with their life with out fear. cause is not good at all. it really ruin your life after divorce. Now I hold seminars for life after divorce. I have experts in the matter and it feels good to help all those people.  

  • Caroline

    “Karl hasn’t yet said he loves me too, but he’s making progress overall (in terms of getting closer to me, being vulnerable, etc.), and I do believe that he loves me and just needs a bit more time to get over his fear of saying it back.”

    I'd gently suggest that this woman might read, “He's Just Not That Into You.” Women have been using this “He's been hurt, he's afraid,” excuse and then wonder why he never commits or, otoh, suddenly becomes involved with a different woman and marries that woman. Perhaps saying, “I think you're right. It's too soon and you have fears. I love you and so I'm giving you space here. I'll stop all contact with you and when and if you feel that you love me enough to get past your fears, please call me.”

    Why not? If the answer is, “Because I'm afraid I'd lose him if I didn't hold on tight,” then fear rules this relationship, which won't bode well for marriage. If he was absolutely wild about you, believe me, he'd be headed your way, today, like a house afire. I just leave this as something for the woman in your article to contemplate.

  • Amanda McCormick

    It's misleading to call this a framework to help you make "better" decisions. Really what it is is a method for helping you getting over anxiety over taking decisive action. In most situations, 10/10/10 will be applied to something a person has strong feelings about -- and rarely will they think that the decision "matters" in ten years. It's a framework meant to lead you to a "why not do it?" stance, which to me is different than evaluating different options in a productive way.

  • avigail berg

    imagination is the simulator of the mind. you can visualize a  future scenario. write it, then look at it tomorrow and feel if you still have the same picture.- do it for three days, fine tune it and you will come up with a good decision about your way.

  • Nancy

    A friend gave me a copy of this article (Suzy's) when I was in my thirties and in a very bad marriage. It helped give me the guts to "go".  Years later I happened to marry the man of my dreams on 10/10/10 and stumbled across the article in my file box just days before we wed.   It was all meant to be! 

  • Bradford

    I like this idea.
    It uses mathematics, and numbers, to create a good
    brain shift between the intuitional, emotional thought modes,
    and the logical, rational thought modes...
    A good balance, and better decision making...
    Now, 10 days later, I'm even more glad I subscribed to
    Fast Company online emails....

  • Kathy

    Didn't this originally come from Suzy Welch, Jack Welch's wife?  I think she wrote a book about it...

  • Bradford

     10 minutes from now, I'll still be OK for saying this....
    10 months from now, who cares...???...
    10 years from now, I'll STILL be correct, simply because I scrolled up to confirm my short-term memory and reading comprehension skills...
    Well Kathy, I have no idea if Suzy & Jack are married...
    Nor do I care.....
    I don't even care whether 10 / 10 / 10 "came from" Suzy Welch, or that
    she simply "invented it"....
    So why should I care enough, to actually point out to you, what's
    obviously stated in the article you either didn't read, or immediately forgot,
    before you commented that question here...???..........
    ...disclaimer: I don't read "Bloomberg Businessweek", or "O" magazine,