Excerpt: Suzy Welch's "10-10-10"

Welch's strategy on making thoughtful decisions.

April 5, 2010 — -- In "10-10-10" Suzy Welch explains how she applies her strategy to all of the decisions she makes in her life.

By asking herself what the consequences of that decision are in 10 minutes, 10 months and 10 years in her life, Welch writes that 10-10-10 has become a sucessful "life management tool."

Check out an excerpt of the book below, then head to the "GMA" Library for other great reads.


To tell you the truth, I didn't know precisely what 10-10-10 was at the moment of its inception, except that I suddenly felt as if I had a new, different, and massively better operating principle in my (albeit tenuous) grasp. I had come upon, it seemed, an enhanced thinking process of sorts, a methodology for getting systematic about things. All I really had to do to reclaim my life, I realized that morning on my Hawaiian balcony, was to start making my decisions differently—proactively—by deliberately considering their consequences in the immediate present, near term, and distant future.

In ten minutes . . . ten months . . . and ten years. If I did that, I figured with a fair amount of wonder, I might actually have my very own "life management tool." And thirteen years later, that term continues to be how I define 10-10-10 in quick and easy shorthand. That said, I've certainly heard 10-10-10 described in other ways.

One dedicated 10-10-10 practitioner I know calls it "a road map for clarity and courage," another, "my little guilt eraser." A grandmother from Houston once told me she refers to 10-10-10 as her "kick-start to get unfrozen." A Canadian minister who has preached about 10-10-10 describes it as "a great bridge enabling us to put things in perspective."

But none of those handles for 10-10-10—mine included—really describe the nitty-gritty logistics of the process. So before we go any further, let's break them down.

THE HOW OF 10-10-10

Every 10-10-10 process starts with a question. That is, every 10-10-10 begins with posing your dilemma, crisis, or problem in the form of a query. Should I quit my job? Should I buy the house with the great backyard and leaky roof? Should I hold my son back a year in school? Should I stay in my relationship or end it?

Having a defined question is essential to 10-10-10, I've come to discover, because so many messy problems are intertwined with side issues and sub-issues, distractions and digressions, red herrings and bit players. Thus, the most effective 10-10-10s always tend to start with determining exactly what issue, underneath it all, you're trying to resolve.

The next stage of 10-10-10 is data collection. Not to worry; you can conduct this part of the process in your head, on your computer, with pen and paper, or in conversation with a friend or partner— whatever works. The only real "requirement" is that you be honest and exhaustive in answering the following prompts: Given my question, what are the consequences of each of my options in ten minutes?

In ten months?

In ten years?

Now, to be clear, there is nothing literal about each ten in 10-10-10. The first 10 basically stands for "right now"— as in, one minute, one hour, or one week. The second 10 represents that point in the foreseeable future when the initial reaction to your decision has passed but its consequences continue to play out in ways you can reasonably predict. And the third 10 stands for a time in a future that is so far off that its particulars are entirely vague. So, really, 10-10-10 could just as well be referring to nine days, fifteen months, and twenty years, or two hours, six months, and eight years. The name of the process is just a totem meant to directionally suggest time frames along the lines of: in the heat of the moment, somewhat later, and when all is said and done.

And with the answer to that, you have your 10-10-10 solution.

IN THE BEGINNING As I've said, a fully conceptualized version of 10-10-10, logistics and all, didn't exactly strike me like a thunderbolt that Hawaiian morning. Rather, my thinking was more like, "I have to stop running around tamping down fires and trying to make everyone happy. When the kids are in their twenties, they're going to love me or hate me for decisions far bigger than whether or not I took them on a four-day business trip in February 1996. I'm just living too much in the moment, for God's sake."

And with that, I formed the concept of "10-10." I was going to start making my decisions based on a balance of short-term and long-term considerations. What nonsense it had been, I told myself, to have schlepped the kids five thousand miles for a few piddling swims on the beach together. If I had left them home, their pouting would have lasted a day at most, had there even been any.

Almost instantly, however, I became aware of the incompleteness of my emergent idea. Over the next few months, I was actually going to be away from home twice more, for a wedding and then for another conference. Maybe my trip to Hawaii, taken cumulatively, had me absent from the children too much. Maybe, for true balance and perspective, my new decision-making process needed to consider a more middle-term horizon as well.

Thus 10-10-10 was officially born.

With nothing to lose, I started applying the process to all sorts of dilemmas both at home and work as soon as we returned to Boston. Should I stay at the office for an emergency when I promised the kids I'd be home at six? Should I spend the holidays with my parents or my in-laws? Should I confront a difficult writer about a late manuscript? Should I focus my time on an article submitted by a promising newcomer or a steady old-timer? Much to my surprise, I found that the process invariably led me to faster, cleaner, and sounder decisions. And as an unexpected bonus, it also gave me a way to explain myself to all the relevant "constituents"—my kids or parents or boss— with clarity and confidence. "Let me tell you how I came to that decision," I could finally say, and go from there.

Within months, 10-10-10 had served me so well that I couldn't resist sharing it with my sisters, Elin and Della, as well as a cadre of close friends and colleagues. And so it was that the process first started to spread. One of my coworkers told his wife, who used it to untangle herself from a state of job-search paralysis. A friend "gave" 10-10-10 to her just-married daughter, who was struggling with whether to continue working or return to graduate school. Another acquaintance of mine described 10-10-10 to her husband, a doctor, and he brought it to work, where a group of nurses adopted it to confront— and resolve—a contentious dispute over patient visiting hours that had been simmering for months.

Eventually, 10-10-10 stories from outside my immediate circle began to trickle back to me. One day, for instance, I answered my phone to hear, "Are you the 10-10-10 lady?" When I figured out that I was and said as much, my caller burst into friendly laughter and identified herself as Gwen, the sister of one of the nurses. "Sorry to surprise you," she said, "but I'm calling because I'm sitting here wishing you could see me. I'm smiling for the first time in months." Gwen, it turned out, was a stay-at-home mother in Chicago. Like her sister, she had started with a career in nursing, but she had changed course after a few years to become a sales rep for a pharmaceutical company. The job was a perfect fit for Gwen's outgoing personality and professional drive. "You couldn't peel me away from my sales rounds," she told me. "It wasn't work to me. It was fun. Oh—and the money! It couldn't have been better."

Gwen enjoyed her career so thoroughly that she barely missed a beat through the pregnancies and births of her three children. Sure, there were challenging times when her job and motherhood collided, but she always felt supported by her husband, who was also a sales rep, in her choice to keep working. The couple hired a live-in nanny and communicated with her constantly by cell phone. They spent weekends reconnecting with each other and their kids.

One evening when Gwen returned from yet another long stretch on the road, however, her nanny put her fifteen-month-old son in her arms and he didn't recognize her, shoving her away with an angry squeal. Gwen was shaken to her core. Her husband, looking on, was too. Overwhelmed by a growing sense of guilt, Gwen soon resigned. "I'll be back in a few months," she promised her boss, "just as soon as things get back to normal at home." But weeks passed, then months, and bit by bit, Gwen found herself ever more entrenched in the "back to normal" she was trying to build, her days busy with driving the kids to lessons, friends' houses, and various and sundry appointments, her nights taken over by dinner, homework, baths, and story time. Her office off the family's garage, piled with the industry trade magazines she vowed to keep reading, began to fill up with skate sharpeners and costumes for the school play.

After a year at home, Gwen's heart started to fill too— not with sadness, but with a vague, persistent longing for the big career that could have been. Occasionally, she would reread an email from her old boss she couldn't bring herself to delete from her inbox. "We'll take you back whenever you want," it said. "Your old team needs you and misses you."

Gwen missed them too, but how much? Weeks passed with her mind seesawing in debate. Had she really chosen stay-at-home motherhood, she wondered, or had she fallen into it by not choosing otherwise? In the middle of this quandary, Gwen's sister mentioned 10-10-10 to her, suggesting she might use it the next time she felt stuck. That happened a few days later. "I was cleaning the refrigerator, my hands and face covered with cold water and detergent, everything melting all over the place, and Sammy was crying his head off. I just lost it," Gwen told me. "For once and for all, I needed to decide if I should keep being a full-time mom."

Gwen soothed Sammy and put him down for a nap, 10-10-10 finished with the refrigerator, and poured herself a cup of coffee. Then, with an hour to spare before her daughter arrived home from school, she sat in her kitchen and started to 10-10-10.

Her very first emotion, as the process unfolded, was dread. "Short term, if I stayed home, I knew I was looking at a lot of diapers and spit-up, with my brain not really in high gear," she told me. "I was looking at a bit of boredom, and a lot of wondering about what might have been." As for the long-term, ten-year scenario, "I knew the kids would basically be on their way out the door by that time," Gwen said. "They would be gone, and so would my career." But a different kind of revelation began to emerge as Gwen considered the ten-month scenario. "Suddenly, as I sat there thinking about it, I became conscious of how much I cared about the time in between the first and last 10s," she said. "When Sammy makes his first goal, Emma has her first flute recital, and Alex learns to shave, I'll be there. I realized I was giving up one dream, but I was getting a reality I couldn't walk away from in return."

Another mother might have landed at a different conclusion that day in the kitchen, but for Gwen, 10-10-10 crystallized her priorities. Her decision didn't mean she would jump for joy every time the baby cried; it didn't mean that she would delight in the hours spent waiting for ice hockey practice to end. It simply meant she had made a values-driven choice that she could—and wanted to— live by.


No wonder Gwen was smiling when she first tracked me down. Her ambivalence was gone—and in its place, the peace of mind that comes with intentionality. But for the sake of full disclosure, you need to know right here and now that every 10-10-10 process doesn't end so neatly. Sometimes the solution you arrive at will be an outright surprise, as the process can surface values, agendas, fears, and dreams you've never confronted before, or it can send you down paths you've long avoided in order to keep our world under control. Some 10-10-10 solutions can even be deeply challenging, as they "require" you to come clean with others about what you truly believe and how you want to live. The truth is, transformation doesn't always come easily.

About a year ago, I gave a speech about 10-10-10 on a college campus. Afterward, one student lingered, waiting to see me alone. He was, it turned out, an aspiring entrepreneur from Romania named Razvan, who wanted to launch a mobile phone company back home. The problem, he quickly told me, was that his longtime girlfriend, a waitress waiting for him in Bucharest, wanted to launch it with him. "What happens when Mihaela makes a mistake with a contract or something? She's not very tough when it comes to money; her family was all Communist," he reported matter-offactly.

"Then I have to say, 'Mihaela, we're trying to make a profit here,' and she starts yelling, 'Profit, forget profit—what about ideals?' And we have a fight, like always. You know what I mean?"

I got the picture, at least enough to get started. I gestured for Razvan to step closer, so we could conduct a 10-10-10 together about whether he should work with Mihaela on his new business venture.

In ten minutes, a "yes" answer was enormously appealing, Razvan said eagerly. Mihaela would calm down and, at least for a while, throw her best energies into the project.

A "no" answer would cause, in Razvan's words, "World War Three," as Mihaela's family and his own—they were close friends—were sure to get involved and lobby him to change his mind.

The ten-month picture was less mixed; it would be grim no matter which choice was made. If they worked together, Razvan said, he and Mihaela would likely be back to their quarreling. But apart, there would be misery too: "We've been together for many years and there is love between us," he reflected wistfully. We turned to the ten-year picture, and right away Razvan grimaced as if he was seeing a photograph that disturbed him. If he asked Mihaela to join his venture, they would surely be married by then, an outcome guaranteeing, as he put it, "a life of daily battles."

"Because your hopes and dreams are fundamentally different?" I asked.

"Because all we really have is history," he replied.

"And I know that's not enough. We will spend our lives hurting each other."

With that, Razvan's 10-10-10 decision was made.

Was he happy? Of course not. Indeed, as we parted, I could see tears welling in his eyes. But I could also tell he was relieved in some measure, and resolved too, about taking control of his life and his future. Happiness, he seemed to know, awaited him. Sometimes, that is all 10-10-10 can promise.


By 2006, I had heard enough stories from people like Gwen and Razvan to get the feeling that I was on to something with 10-10-10. And so I decided to write about the process in O, The Oprah Magazine, where I have a regular column about work-life balance.

My "on to something" feeling, however, did not prepare me for the response. Heartfelt emails and letters soon poured in. 10-10-10, I discovered, wasn't just useful within one or two or three degrees of separation. It worked for men and women, young and old, near and far, in decisions large and small and in-between, at home and at work, and in love, friendship, and parenting.

It even worked for a twenty-seven-year-old government employee named Antoine Jefferson, who wrote me to say that he was using 10-10-10 to guide him in his personal goal of reinventing the welfare system, one act of kindness at a time.

What the heck, I wondered, is this guy talking about?

And so I called Antoine, and later had the great pleasure of meeting him in his native city of Philadelphia, where hearing his story convinced me that 10-10-10 can work effectively in ways and places I had never imagined.

Raised by a single mother in a neighborhood of housing projects, Antoine stopped going to school in seventh grade, and was eventually moved into foster care, where he was bounced among five different families. His days were often lonely, filled mainly with television-watching alone; he missed his siblings painfully. But perhaps the most defining experience of Antoine's life was the realization, at age thirteen or fourteen, that he wasn't like anyone he knew. Not just because he was gay, but because he was so unrelentingly optimistic. Even with all its harshness, the world could be a better place, Antoine believed, if people just stopped hurting each other.

A few months before my article was published, Antoine was hired to work at one of the state's busiest welfare offices, greeting clients and directing them through the application process. The idea of helping people in need thrilled him at first. But his excitement soon turned to despair. All around him every day, he saw his coworkers address the people coming into the office rudely and dismissively. "Applying for welfare usually happens at your lowest moment in life. There is so much shame in it," he told me. "The system is supposed to be about lifting people up, not breaking them more."

One night after work, Antoine wrote an impassioned manifesto about the ways he thought office protocol should change. They were fighting words, he knew, and when he showed them to his sister Tiffany, she gently tried to warn him off. "Everyone is going to hate you, Antoine," she said.

For the next few hours, Antoine sorted through the 10-10-10 consequences of presenting his proposal at work. In ten minutes, he reasoned, there would be hell to pay. He had expressed his views to his coworkers already, and they'd brushed him off. Their message, as he heard it, was "Stop rocking the boat."

In ten months, Antoine predicted, the contentiousness with his colleagues would surely remain, or even worsen, as he refused to back down from his role as the office cop. On the other hand, if Antoine stayed mum, he worried that a crushing sense of hypocrisy would likely be destroying him inside. Neither option appealed. But Antoine's path of action became clear as soon as he considered the ten-year scenario. "I realized I was absolutely willing to take the heat—and I even wanted to take it—for the chance to improve the welfare system of this state," he said. "All I could think was, 'If not me, who?' Someone has to lead change, even on the lowest rungs of the ladder."

The next day, Antoine met with his boss to describe his concerns about the cynicism that pervaded the office and the mistreatment of its patrons. She received his manifesto very positively, he recalls. But after she brought it to a meeting with the whole staff, Antoine's coworkers, as expected, started to freeze him out.

Rather than manage the mess, Antoine's boss asked him if he would be willing to be transferred to another welfare office across town.

He agreed. "I wasn't sorry or angry for a second," he told me recently. "I feel as if I did the right thing." Today, Antoine continues to 10-10-10 any and all dilemmas that he encounters both at home and work. In fact, he recently shared the process with his mother, who, he says, immediately used it to make what could prove to be a transformative decision of her own. At the age of fifty-four, she's entered a training program in hopes of starting a small business someday. "I believe this is the beginning of a whole new life for my mother," Antoine says. "For the first time, I see her trying to create her own future." ABOUT THAT THIRD 10

How exciting that new journey sounds. 10-10-10 does have a way of galvanizing people into forward-thinking action and out of a fixation on the present. But it would be a mistake to think that the only purpose of 10-10-10 is to clang long-term alarm bells during the decision-making process.

Yes, heightening your awareness of ten years out is one purpose of 10-10-10, and a very good one. All too often, we make decisions just to avoid an immediate ouch—the sulking child, the disappointed family, the complicated logistics, the angry coworkers, and so on. The third 10 in 10-10-10 has a powerful way of mitigating that tendency. It helps us decide whether (or not) it's worth it to endure short-term flame-outs in the service of our larger, more deeply held goals in life.

No one, however, should make every decision based on its consequences in the long term. First, such prudence is pretty much guaranteed to make your day-to-day life a total bore. You cannot banish spontaneity! But the main reason not to set your sights exclusively on the third 10 is that it can be too damn risky.

Pete Turkel taught me that.

Pete was an editor on the swing shift at the Associated Press back in the mid-1980s, when I was all of twenty-six years old and a reporter in the Boston bureau. At the time I met Pete, I was working the overnight shift myself, reporting for duty at midnight and released to freedom at 8 AM when, oddly enough, I found myself hungry for a burger and a beer. My skewed body clock was unpleasant enough, but at least I was still able to see friends and family at breakfast and dinner. Pete, who came in at 4 PM and left at midnight, missed everything. He was asleep when his kids left for school and his wife for work, and he was at work when they all came home, ate dinner, and went to bed.

One day, bitching and moaning about my own hours, I turned to Pete—twenty years my senior—and blurted out, "I don't know how you stand it. It's like you're living on another planet or something."

To this day, I admire Pete for not smacking me for my temerity. Instead he smiled in his familiar, good-hearted way. "You'll understand this when you're older, Suzy, and have real bills to pay and a family to raise," he said. "I'm paid a premium for working this shift. If I keep at this job, I'll be able to retire early, send my kids to college without loans, and buy a house with a dock on a lake. What I'm doing will be worth every minute of it when I walk out that door on my last day."

I was one year gone from the AP when Pete was killed in a car crash. (His wife was gravely injured and died later.) But it was never lost on me that Pete was postponing life— for all the "right" reasons—at the time of his death. I still think about Pete. His life reminds me that while it's important to consider the long-term consequences of every 10-10-10 decision, they cannot be consistently more important than the short- and midterm. The far-off future often matters more than we give it credit for and should influence our thinking more than it usually does. But it should not trump all other time frame considerations, all the time.


If there is one piece of push back I receive about 10-10-10, it concerns timing and it generally goes like this: "I'm just too busy to do that kind of thing."

With life-changing decisions, it's true that 10-10-10 can take hours or longer to conduct. Later on, we will meet an advertising executive who leaned on 10-10-10 to help her decide what to do about her career after her son was diagnosed with a genetic mental illness. Because it required the gathering of medical opinions, her 10-10-10 decision unfurled over the course of two weeks.

Far more often, however, 10-10-10 slows you down just enough to get your decision right. It doesn't squander your time as much as invests it wisely.

Take Natalie, a tech company manager I met last year. Along with her busy job, Natalie tries to stay deeply present in the lives of her two teenage sons, both high school athletes, and her husband of eighteen years. Most days, she keeps all of her balls in the air, but when a new one gets tossed into the mix, sometimes unexpected decisions need to be made—quickly.

Natalie's uncle, Charlie, had never been a big part of her life, but when he passed away at the age of eightythree, Natalie felt more conflicted than she had expected about attending his funeral service. "I barely knew him. He was my mother's brother-in-law," she explained to me. "But I also knew that showing up would mean the world to my parents and the rest of my extended family. They would take it as a sign of respect."

With that realization, Natalie decided she needed to be at the ceremony. She made plans to leave work early, but just as she was about to head out the door, her fifteen-year old son text-messaged her. His lift to soccer practice had fallen through; could she help? Before Natalie could even react, another text message came in, this one from her husband. He had to stay late at work. Could she cover for him and drive their younger son to the orthodontist? "Well, there goes the funeral," Natalie groaned in frustration, picking up the phone to call her mother. But then she stopped. Why not, she reasoned, 10-10-10 the problem? She had learned about the process from another working mother, and had been using it ever since to sort out the kind of mini work-life balance conflicts that come with the territory.

With that, she quickly defined her immediate question as, "Should I attend Uncle Charlie's funeral?" In ten minutes, she knew a "no" would make her life flat-out easier. She wouldn't have to find another ride for Josh, or go through the elaborate dance of rescheduling Todd's appointment with the recalcitrant receptionist at the orthodontist's office. What a relief. In ten months though, the consequence of a no-go decision made Natalie cringe. She only had one chance to bid her uncle goodbye. More than that, she probably wouldn't have another opportunity to see several of her elderly relatives who were quite dear to her.

And what about the consequences in ten years? As a parent, Natalie was a firm believer in the old saw, "Actions speak louder than words." If she wanted to teach her children the values of respect and responsibility, she had to demonstrate them herself.

The next number she dialed was her son's cell phone. "Josh, I can't help you," she told her older boy. "It's very important for me to attend my uncle's funeral—to show my family how much I love them. Please ask Coach to help you find a lift." She then called her son's orthodontist and canceled his appointment; she'd reschedule it, she figured, when she found the time.

Finally, on the road to her family's church, she called her husband to explain her choice. "I'm with you," he said when she was done. At first, Natalie thought he was simply saying, "I'm on your side." Instead, he meant it literally. He dropped an email to his boss and jumped in his own car—to be with Natalie at the service.

Later, when I asked Natalie how much time she spent on her 10-10-10 decision, she laughed in surprise.

"Oh, I don't know," she said, "maybe two minutes."

But I wasn't surprised. I've seen 10-10-10 sort out even longer-brewing dilemmas just as quickly.

One summer evening a few years ago, I was chopping onions for dinner when my daughter Sophia wandered by the kitchen. The hula-dancing incident long behind her, she had grown into a young woman who loved to write, mimicked me to perfection, and could hit a wicked twohanded backhand. She had the varsity letters framed in her bedroom to prove it.

"Mom, I need to tell you something," she said quietly.

"I'm quitting tennis." My heart sank. Over the previous year, I'd certainly noticed Sophia cutting her practices short and, when I let myself listen, I'd certainly heard her complaining that she wasn't finding joy in the game anymore. But that had never kept me from hoping she was in a phase that would pass.

I stopped what I was doing and put on the steadiest voice I could muster.

"Absolutely, positively, one hundred percent no," I said. "We've worked too hard and spent too many hours to get where we are to give it all up now."

I expected a fight, but Sophia surprised me. Perfectly calm, she shrugged and simply replied, "OK, but let's 10-10-10 it. How about framing up the question as: 'Should Sophia stop playing a game that she's sick of?'"

"I would prefer it without the editorializing," I said, "but fine."

Sophia started by stating her case. In all three time frames, she said, freedom from tennis would allow her to focus on interests she simply and truly enjoyed more. And she insisted that she wouldn't stop playing tennis entirely, she would keep at it, only recreationally.

"Colleges want varsity letters," I resisted, "and in about ten months, that's going to matter. Colleges want kids who stick with things, who don't give up when things get hard."

"Colleges should see the real Sophia," came the answer,"and I'm not playing tennis in college, Mom. Come on, I'm not good enough. It's not fun for me to keep getting beaten. It's not my sport. It's yours."

She was right, of course, but I wasn't ready to surrender.

"When you're a grown-up, ten, twenty years from now, you're going to wish you could play tennis with friends," I said. "And with me. We could play together."

"I could destroy you and your pathetic serve with one hand tied behind my back," Sophia said with the beginnings of a smile. She waited a moment before her final shot; I suppose she knew it was a winner.

"Mom," she said, "this decision is about my life."

With that I had to smile too. The game was over, and Sophia had won it fair and square. 10-10-10 had been there as our trusted referee.


And 10-10-10 is always there. No matter what the scope of the dilemma it's applied to, no matter what the details. Since the morning that I found 10-10-10, or it found me, I have seen the idea evolve into its full form and spread from person to person, across boundaries of every kind.

Because it works.

In a time when the world moves at warp speed and decisions can feel inexorably complex, 10-10-10 can help you forge an intentional life, choice by choice. It can make you far less likely to find yourself outside looking in at your life, in shock, dismay, or the kind of regret that rusts in you forever. It helps you decide whether you want to be a career woman or a mother, or both, whether a relationship should go forward or end, or if a job is worth saving.

10-10-10 adds reason where it is lacking. It inserts deliberation where there is only instinct. It replaces opaqueness with transparency. Or as Antoine told me once, 10-10-10 "hushes the noise so the mind can see what it needs to." Which brings me back to my first description of 10-10-10 as a life-management tool.

The truth is, if you use 10-10-10 consistently, it becomes less of a tool or a process or a device or a methodology— and more of an infinite and sustaining heartbeat.

It becomes a way of life.

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