So, I’m behind…I’ve got a lot on my plate. I’m tired and feeling the stress. I feel that this project may have been an ambitious undertaking. I’m already running late for dinner with my spouse.  

Have you ever felt that way? These stresses are very common and this leads into the topic of this post. The most important choices of today rely on what we value tomorrow and in the future. I illustrate this through a powerful tool which you can use to help make the right choices and be confident with those choices.

Now I’m not the first, nor the only one who feels like there are a million things to do. I’m sure you’ve felt this way before and maybe even now, more than ever. To top that, you may feel you’re behind schedule with your research, your career, your family, and the list can go on.  This is actually relatively normal for most highly ambitious people, but the problem doesn’t lie in the number of tasks we must complete, but in the choices of which tasks to even take on.

Let me illustrate this for you.  You have a grant deadline due tomorrow, a manuscript re-submission due by 5 pm, and your child, or significant other’s theater performance is at 6 pm. How do you manage these important deadlines?

Well, the question isn’t which one do you do, but which one will get sacrificed. The outcome of your choices will depend on which you sacrifice.

Suzy Welch, a famous business columnist and the better half of famed GM manager, Jack Welch, touches upon this with her NYT Best-seller, “10-10-10”. The 10-10-10 rule dictates that you make predictions Ten minutes from now, Ten months from now, and Ten years from now. It’s a very useful tool and strategy in determining the importance of sacrificing choices.

Time is the limiting factor.  You can neither add nor delete time, so you have to optimize it.  Trying to do it all ultimately upsets all of the possible outcomes because of the lack of dedication and focus.

For example, you cut corners when submitting your grant by not looking up key supporting articles or documents. When re-submitting your manuscript, you may not fully address reviewers’ comments with a key experiment or a supportive argument.  Or you show up late to your wife’s theater performance because you were in the lab late desperately trying to complete your manuscript resubmission.

The choices that you made in the previous examples are based on time constraints, and not on content. You’ve ultimately lost focus and the results will show. What do you think would the results be? Did I not get that funding because I failed to include the supportive material? Did my manuscript get rejected because I didn’t fully address the reviewers? Did I damage my relationship with my child or spouse because I failed to attend an important event in his/her life?

The point that I’m making is that sacrifices will be made from time to time.  The hope is that your sacrifice will have the least detrimental impact on your long-term goals.

Now before jumping to each of those tasks, take ten minutes to think. Think about how the outcome of each of those 3 choices and how might they play out ten minutes from now. Then think about ten months from now. Finally, look at how this single decision would impact your life ten years from now. Which task do you sacrifice?

Let’s look at the first example, the grant. The grant submission is due and you can’t get it in on time. Ten minutes from now, you’re anxious and panic a little. Ten months from now, you come across another couple of grants and apply to them. Ten years from now, did saying no to that grant matter in your overall career success?

Now let’s look at the manuscript. Ten minutes from now, your colleague or co-author gets annoyed and angry with you. Ten months from now, that may or may not have resulted in getting scooped. Ten years from now, that may or may not have been the cause for your grant renewals (most likely not, in my opinion).

Lastly, let’s look at your relationship. You’ve just angered your spouse or child because you’ve missed his/her very important performance. (Let’s just say that this isn’t your first time doing this too. If you’re reading this, I may not be that far off. Especially if you possess the phenotype of most ambitious independent scientists.) You’ve fully upset and hurt your loved one in ten minutes.  And then in ten months from now, you can’t miss another performance, because you’ve already missed so many of them. So you can’t work on other grant submissions, or you’ll be in the dog house. Ten years from now, you may or may not have a great relationship with your spouse (or none at all), or your child is grown and no longer in your life.

Evaluating what you cherish long-term against your personal and professional history will help you determine what sacrifices you have to make today in order to achieve the objectives of tomorrow. Things have to get done. However, knowing what happens when things DON’T get completed, will help to determine the success of the ones that DO.

How do you prioritize your days when you are confronted with time constraints? How do you decide which is the most “important” task? How do you quickly decide that?  Share with us.