Putting the 10/10/10 Rule to Work in Your Life

Recently, I came across an article by Chip and Dan Heath in Fast Company magazine, entitled The 10/10/10 Rule For Tough Decisions. In it, the Heaths discuss a framework for analyzing choices that they originally picked up from Suzy Welch, a framework that they call the 10/10/10 rule.

Here’s how it works. Take a decision in your life – any decision. Maybe it’s whether to buy that celebrity gossip magazine in the checkout aisle. Maybe it’s whether or not to stop and get an order of chicken nuggets after work when you’re feeling hungry on the way home. Maybe it’s something else entirely.

Before you make that decision, ask yourself three questions.

How will I feel about this 10 minutes from now?
How will I feel about this 10 months from now?
How will I feel about this 10 years from now?

The choice that pops out of those questions with the best overall results is the choice you should probably make.

The best way to see this idea at work is with a few examples.

Example #1: Should I Buy This Not-Entirely-Necessary Item?

Let’s say I’m considering buying, say, this iPad Pro, to touch upon a reader mailbag question from yesterday. I really want it and can envision some uses for it, but it costs $700.

How will I feel about this 10 minutes from now? I’ll probably be really excited to have that fresh new iPad under my arm, taking it home to unwrap it and play with it for the first time.

How will I feel about this 10 months from now? This is the tricky part. If I honestly use it a lot, I’ll probably be at least somewhat happy with it, but how truly likely am I to be using it on a daily basis? Is it something I’m going to pull out several times a day? Or even once a day? When will it replace my phone usage and my normal computer usage and my Kindle usage? Are there really enough situations in there where I’ll be using this enough to make it feel like a great purchase 10 months from now? I can’t give this an emphatic “yes,” that’s for sure. This isn’t to say that the iPad is a bad device, it’s just a question as to whether I personally would use it.

How will I feel about this 10 years from now? I likely won’t be using it in 10 years – in fact, it’s extremely unlikely. I really doubt that I would trade my experience with that iPad for the $600 I paid for it at that point. I could be wrong, but I can’t imagine I wouldn’t rather have the cash. The only exception to that is if I used the iPad Pro a ton and really extracted a lot of learning and life value from it, probably more than I can realistically expect.

So, after funneling the decision through those questions, I’m probably not buying an iPad Pro.

Example #2: What Should I Eat?

I’m hungry. What should I eat? I’m currently about to leave a meeting and head home, so I have a lot of options. How about stopping for a yummy treat on the way home?

How will I feel about this 10 minutes from now? I’ll be glad I did it because I’ll be stuffing my face with something delicious! The tastier, the better!

How will I feel about this 10 months from now? My feelings at this point probably involve what exactly I chose to eat. If I chose to eat something healthy and something relatively inexpensive, I’m probably okay with it. The big negative impact on my life at this point is probably my weight – if it was a high calorie food, I probably regret it a little because it contributes to any extra weight I’m carrying around. I also probably care at least a little about the cost of the food that I ate. Ideally, I would prefer that I chose something inexpensive.

How will I feel about this 10 years from now? At this stage, I probably care more about the nutrient quality of the food alongside the calories. Did that food contribute to things like heart disease or hypertension or diabetes? If it did, and if I’m suffering from those ailments, then I likely really regret eating that food. I still care about the cost of what I ate – again, I prefer something inexpensive from this vantage point.

Given those questions and answers, I’m probably better off seeking a healthy snack by stopping at a grocery store and picking up a low-cost and fairly healthy item like a veggie wrap or some unsalted nuts.

Example #3: Should I Exercise?

I’m sitting here in a slump. Should I exercise?

How will I feel about this 10 minutes from now? I’ll probably feel miserable, because I’ll just be starting with the exercise. While there is definitely an “exercise high,” for most people it doesn’t show up right at first. For many, exercise really isn’t fun, especially at the start. So, at the “10-minute” mark, exercise probably isn’t a big winner.

How will I feel about this 10 months from now? At the 10-month mark, though, you’re probably happy about that exercise session. It’s long over and it likely contributed in a positive way to your sense of well being and to your health, especially if you chose to do it regularly.

How will I feel about this 10 years from now? The feeling at the 10-year mark is probably the same as the 10-month mark, especially if you kept up with it, but it’s probably a good choice even if it was a one-time thing or even just a short period of exercise.

The three questions as a whole nudge you toward exercise, but it’s probably worth your time to figure out a kind of exercise that you can enjoy or at least tolerate. For me, at least, I found that in defensive and meditative martial arts, which actually then made other exercise that prepared me for it much more tolerable, along with hiking.

Seven General Principles

The 10/10/10 rule really stands on top of a handful of smart principles that can guide you to some really great results in life. Let’s dig into seven of those core principles.

Processing your regular life choices through these questions during your spare moments is a really useful thing to do. The 10/10/10 rule is really just a way to get you to think about your choices a little more carefully, with an eye to thinking about things in the long term with a very specific prompting. “What will you think about this choice 10 years from now?” is a really, really good way to think about the long term ramifications of a decision that you’re about to make.

I find, again and again, that if I make this kind of self-reflection into a healthy, normal routine in my life, I usually start heading in a better direction because I’m guiding my choices in a better way. If I make most of my choices on instinct, they’re not necessarily bad choices, but they’re usually geared strongly toward the short term. If I step back and think about my decisions for a while, reconsidering recent ones I’ve made and thinking about ones that are coming up soon, I usually make ones that consider the long term future more often, and those result in better long-term results.

Everyone’s methods of self-reflection are different. I find a lot of value in journaling, in meditation, and in spending time when I’m driving reflecting on these questions. Different people find different ways that work for them. I’ll just say that time I spend reflecting in this way is time that’s almost always repaid through much better choices.

The option that feels good at the 10-year horizon will almost always lead to the best life, but it’s often not very enjoyable right now. While it’s not always true, I usually find that the shortest term perspective and the longest term perspective are pointing in opposite directions when I consider a choice. Something that’s great in the long term, for example, is almost always hard in the short term.

This is the exact reason why many people get deeply in debt. This is the exact reason why many people get out of shape. This is the exact reason why many people find their career stagnating. The option that is obviously the right thing to do over the long run is often the option that is obviously miserable today.

It’s much easier to sit at your desk and read Facebook or check Amazon than it is to go the extra mile on a big project, but it’s the person that goes that extra mile and puts their nose to the grindstone today is probably going to be your boss tomorrow.

It’s much easier to binge-watch a Netflix series than get up and exercise, but it’s the person that goes out there and exercises that will be the person that looks better and feels better 10 years from now and is able to do all of the things you wish you could be doing.

It’s much easier to just buy that treat for yourself on the credit card, but it’s the person who finds low cost enjoyment and entertainment who will be looking ahead at an easy approach to retirement while you’re panicking about not having anything saved.

Similarly, the option that feels good in the next few minutes is almost always going to be the best option right now, but it’s often terrible in the long term. This is really the flip side of the above principle, but instead of thinking about the long term benefits of a hard choice right now, it’s about thinking of the long term costs of the easy choice right now. Again, the thing that’s good right now is often bad in the long term.

That sugary treat looks really tempting right now, but if you gobble it down, you simply increase your risk of diabetes and heart issues and hypertension and simply being overweight 10 years down the road.

That new Netflix release and that comfy couch look great, but if you flop down without exercising today, you ensure that you’ll be in worse shape in 10 years and less likely to be able to keep up with friends or coworkers or children or grandchildren, or even to manage simple things like carrying a basket of laundry up the stairs.

That social media site is really tempting, but if you spend your next hour clicking around to see what everyone else is bragging about, you’re going to find yourself just a little more behind at work, which in 10 years adds up to a much higher chance of a missed promotion or a missed career advancement opportunity.

Long term choices, done consistently and in large numbers, create an exponential curve of quality of life over time. One regular argument against making the long term choice is that this one session won’t really make any sort of noticeable difference. If you exercise once, will it really make you healthy in 10 years? If you spend less money once, will it really have a financial impact in 10 years?

The thing to remember, always, is that long term choices that seemingly have a small impact start establishing a pattern of behavior. If you exercise today, you’re a little more likely to exercise tomorrow, and if you exercise five days in a row, you’re a little more likely to keep it up. Over time, it’s that consistent exercise that will make the big difference, and you make that first decision right now. You’re not only choosing to exercise today, but you’re literally making it easier to make that choice tomorrow and the day after and the day after. Your body becomes more used to exercise, and you figure out ways to exercise that are both fun and challenging. You’re not going to do that just sitting there, and you’re also not going to do that during your first session which might be less than optimal. Each session gets a little better, and the long term outcome gets a little better, too, and soon you’re skating off in a much different and much better long term direction.

You can see that in finances, too. The choice today to buy one store brand item instead of a name brand item isn’t going to change your financial state radically 10 years from now. However, what it will do is show you that store brands really aren’t that bad – in fact, you’ll probably notice no difference at all. You’ll buy that store brand item again and you might consider more and more store brands with future purchases. Each of those little steps becomes easier and easier and the sum of them adds up to some powerful long term changes in your life.

It is a lazy trap to conclude that the long term consequence is small as a way to “permit” yourself to make a very short term decision. The response that many people make to “excuse” the strong short term desire is to think that this one easy choice isn’t going to be a big deal and then go for it anyway because they perceive the short term impact as big and immediate and the long term impact as small and inconsequential. One sundae won’t cause diabetes. One book won’t cause debt and poverty.

The problem, of course, is that one or two short term choices quickly become a pattern of short term choices. If you skip exercising to binge-watch Netflix, it’s probably more likely that you’ll skip exercising tomorrow to binge-watch Netflix, then skip it the day after that to get some chores done, and then before you know it you haven’t been breathing heavy in six months.

If you splurge on a treat today, it becomes easier to talk yourself into another splurge in the near future, and so on, and the long term result of that pattern is much lower savings and (likely) much higher debt.

In other words, it’s not the individual short-term focused choice that’s the issue, but the fact that it begins to set a pattern of short-term choices that ends up collectively pointing at a worse long term outcome.

The best decisions are the ones that are strong winners at one time horizon without being bad at the other time horizons; it is well worth your time to figure out strong answers like this for common, repeated choices in your life. I tend to lean toward decisions that are the best at the 10-year time horizon whenever possible, but there are certainly times when the really good short term decision is the right one to make. The challenge is making sure that you’re including options that are really good answers to one question without being disastrous answers to another question.

So, let’s say you’re hungry and want something tasty. The best way to sate that is with a food that you like (short term!) that’s also something that’s low calorie (medium term!) and healthy (long term!) and ideally low cost (medium term and long term!). The time you invest finding a repertoire of foods that meet those criteria. Try lots of different options. Yes, some of them might end up being short term bummers because you end up not liking them so well, but when you find ones that are great in the short term and great in the long term, all of that effort is worthwhile. You now have a great answer to all of those questions at once!

It’s that exact logic that moves me toward doing things like exploring all of the free and low cost entertainment options available to me. If I find a number of free entertainment options that I like, then I’ve solved the short term “entertain me!” question and the long term “money” question at the same time.

It’s that logic that pushes me to try to find work practices that are as enjoyable as possible for me. What tasks do I work on that I personally enjoy the most? Can I tweak my job to do more of those things? What areas at work would I really like to be doing the most in 10 years, and how can I make it enjoyable to learn more about them? Again, addressing those questions means that I’m happy in the short term (doing things that are at least okay instead of things I hate!) and in the long term (being productive leads toward more career options!).

Finding those solutions that work for you takes time. It’s worth that time. Having ready-made solutions that are at least good, if not great, at the short term, the medium term, and the long term is a great place to be, but it takes some time and some effort to find them.

You’re not going to be perfect at this, but that’s okay. Never forget that the perfect is the enemy of the good. As you ask yourself questions like these and strive to make better choices, you’re going to find that you still sometimes dive for the short term choice that’s obviously disastrous in the long term, or you put yourself through some miserable moments in order to barely make any progress toward a long term goal.

Those things happen sometimes. We all make the wrong choice sometimes, and that’s fine. We’re human.

The true mistake is allowing your mistake yesterday to nudge you toward another mistake today. Just because you’re not perfect does not mean you can’t be great. It just means you’re not perfect. Just because you made a mistake yesterday doesn’t mean it’s all over, it doesn’t mean you’re a failure, or anything like that. It just means you’re human.

Today is always a fresh choice. Don’t let the baggage of the past steer it to a less-than-optimal outcome.

Final Thoughts

If you want to move your life in a direction where your natural daily choices are going to guide you toward the long term outcomes you desire, like naturally choosing to spend less so that you have a great financial foundation for the years ahead, there are few better things you can do than using the 10/10/10 rule to question your regular decisions.

Just think about those decisions and ask yourself:

How will I feel about this 10 minutes from now?
How will I feel about this 10 months from now?
How will I feel about this 10 years from now?

Then, use the results of that questioning to try to find options that will get a big positive out of all three answers.

This is a great exercise for handling your thinking on all kinds of financial, professional, and personal matters, and it will absolutely guide you to better outcomes.

Good luck!

Trent Hamm

Founder & Columnist

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 and still writes a daily column on personal finance. He’s the author of three books published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press, has contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and his financial advice has been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.