The 20-10-10 Exercise

How Leaders Prioritize Their Lives

Graduating? Retiring? Starting a new company? Changing jobs or industries? Interviewing? 

Regardless, if you’ve got even twenty minutes, zero dollars, and have admitted your life is not worth spending even one hour doing things you don’t love — you too can prioritize your professional time or ambition the way thousands of my CXO clients and graduate students have found purpose: the 20-10-10 Exercise. 

It’s an approach to finding focus that I’ve become a lifelong advocate for (completing the exercise myself about every 3-6 months) whether training executives, teaching in a Carnegie Mellon lecture hall, or questioning myself what I should next do with my time and resources.  Purpose is powerful.  Powerful to you as an individual and powerful to organizations BUT filtering what you are just passionate or curious about from what you are deeply and intrinsically motivated to execute on every day is no small task. Finding and aligning to your core purpose will make you more effective as an operator, founder, hiring manager, candidate, or virtually any other situation you find yourself in.

The 20-10-10 exercise prompts critical and actionable thinking under the umbrella of continuous personal development and tells you, beyond intuition or bias, what you are organically motivated to put time, energy, or resources in to (it also helps you avoid tempting but superficially interesting and very distracting pursuits):

  • What can I authentically talk about with passion and grace that others respond to?
  • Where does my head and heart (vision and purpose) align with my hands (work)?
  • What will organically motivate me each day to be curious and push boundaries without checking the clock constantly?
  • What can I do that will make me feel more intentional and purposeful?
  • How can I be rewarded outside of financial gain and redefine impact?
  • How can I build a legacy that I am proud of?

Ready to start? All you need is some comfortable headspace and means of writing or typing down your thoughts. Let’s get started:

20 Products

Undoubtedly, there are a number of products or services in your life which you hold dear, find utterly indispensable, or think everyone should have the opportunity to enjoy. Digital or physical, tangible or experiential — whatever form they take, you cherish them and feel a connection that transcends the transaction.

Now, we want to whittle that population of products down to a core group of 20 you evangelize. Two key filters make this process much easier than it sounds:

  1. It must be a product, experience, or service you recommend to people at least once every six months or, if seasonal, at least 2 times per year
  2. At least one of those people must act on your recommendation as a result (buy the product, subscribe to the service, or participate in the experience) 

The value of this exercise is hopefully now becoming clearer: it doesn’t matter that you value the product; it matters that you can successfully indoctrinate that value into the minds of others. Leadership requires you to be effective, not just put in the effort.  This is the first step in also starting to leave items off the list, items that you may like but not love or that you have tried but not repeated.  Don’t put things that are “good enough” on the list, even if you fall short of the 20 to start. 

I’ll offer up a few from my list of 20 Products:

  • Hate all you want: PELOTON (it helped me reach 6,000+ workout minutes in a year) and will likely continue on my list if they can find a way to put out a rower
  • Pickleball (you read that correct, yes it’s named after the guy’s dog). Apologies in advance if I ask you to play but I am likely a top 100 salesperson for this paddle, these shoes, and these outdoor balls – you can see the #Pittsburgh in the shoes and paddle
  • If Chris Voss has children and they want to go to college then I have it covered in the number of students and executives I’ve shared Never Split the Difference with
  • Miro for facilitating human-centered design workshops (Are you an impact-oriented company? Get in touch and I’ll share my fancy templates with over 500 hours spent making them useful)
  • Whoever you are trying to get closer with in Pittsburgh will thank you for ordering an experience from

10 Problems

Even your most loved products have gaps.  Think about the recurring moments in life where you find yourself reaching frustration to the point of resolve: “someone should really do something about this!” Whether those problems are unique to you or shared across the world, it is your innate ability to observe those problems (and to recognize that a better future is possible) which makes you the right person to work on them.

To understand which 10 Problems define the burdens you’re willing to bear in pursuit of a better future, let’s apply these filters:

  • It must be a problem you’ve shared with 5-10 people in the past 12 months
  • It must be a problem you’ve advocated a solution for to a relevant decision maker (e.g. someone who works at that company, or a company who COULD easily jump in)

Problem identification and analysis are core talents of leaders, and the drive to address problems with thoughtful solutions illustrates the commitment which separates trusted leaders from cynics.  You should also keep in mind that problems don’t have to be about undefined spaces or issues and may actually just be gaps left unserved by the products you already listed in the previous section. 

Here are a few problems I’ve committed to:

  • Quickly training new sales or product leaders (why I built without all the bloat of current software
  • The lack of strategic design kits and guidance for non-designers/researchers (check out the creative commons kit we released at CMU)
  • AI-based coaching tools that grade presenters on their performance & approach
  • Marketplaces that work on behalf of local, living artists (I may or may not own
  • Electric mopeds built for the winter, or another car alternative when a pandemic makes bus riding more than just inefficient (my little NIU Sport almost gets us there)
  • Finding better travel options with small children   

Now, take a few minutes to create your own list, be as specific to the moment that bothers you as possible.  Feeling stuck?  Look for gaps or ways you are being underserved by your first list of 20 products, services, or experiences to start.

10 Causes

A noble cause, be it local or global, will always offer the opportunity to commit with passion. Knowing that your ability to commit is finite, it’s important to prioritize your time, talent, and money so that participating in these causes actually effects change.

To ensure you’re willing and able to advance the missions of these 10 Causes, apply the following filters:

  • It must be a cause you’ve donated resources to in the last five years
  • It must be a cause you actively participate in whenever feasible (that can’t just mean likes and comments)

Championing a cause demands both tangible and recurring commitment. If it’s not on this list, you should immediately start to question whether it’s deserving of your resources, knowing you have these ten priorities in need of the same limited resources.

Here are a few of the causes I champion:

  • Inclusive Entrepreneurship reminding us all that genius is evenly distributed while access to resources are not  
  • Decreasing the challenges of mobility (especially getting to a job without the expense of a car) 
  • Buying local before we are left with only big box stores and national fast-food chains
  • Educating and fighting the opioid crisis including the enablement pandemic that follows it around

Now, take a few minutes now to create your own list appreciating this may not be a list you are comfortable sharing out in the open given the nature of personal connections to causes.

Next Steps

So, you have your 20-10-10 list… now what? Think on it. For at least a day, let your choices percolate and adjust to taste. After a few days, you’ll have your foundational list ready to bounce off of friends, coworkers, and loved ones. Ask them to review it, and challenge them to think through the products, problems, and causes they see as fueling your passion & purpose (or you knowingly or not suckered them into buying, donating, or advocating for).

With a properly vetted list, you’ll emerge more focused on bringing intention to everything you do, providing genuine support to those around you, and effecting positive change with every ounce of your available resources.  You will be believable and inspiring and not just qualified for the job or good enough to receive an investor check, you will be differentiated. 

Don’t be surprised to find that everything you consequently say no to quickly falls away because it never really mattered, or is taken up by someone else whose commitment takes it far further than you ever could. You’ll have a WHY you are right for a job or investor check and not just the ability to explain how you could do the WHAT that is asked from a generic job description. At a certain point in your career, especially in elite roles, it’s rarely just about doing the job (anyone can develop a skill given enough resources and time) but rather your passion, energy, and commitment to growth that get you the gig. Leadership roles require that you bring character, not just capability.

What’s crucial to remember about 20-10-10 is that it doesn’t cement you to a permanent path. The discipline of the framework is what grounds you, while the answers themselves progress over time. For guidance, I replay this exercise every three to six months at a minimum, as that’s how often I find my answers change based on all of life’s influential factors and opportunities.

I can’t wait to hear about your results, the 20-10-10 exercise is built to help you bring into focus the things you love and are effective at advocating for, and if we are lucky you’ll find your path forward with the most alignment and ease you have felt in a while - good luck! 

Find the complete set of templates below to get started today:

Miro template: Jump into Miro to brainstorm your 20-10-10 list
Worksheet template: If you prefer sheets, make a copy of this Google sheet and start documenting
Print file: Download the pdf if you prefer brainstorming and documenting offline!

When you are ready to review your list (in 3-6 months), give the extended 20-10-10 blog a read and learn how to continue focussing on your goals!

Adam Paulisick

Founder at SKILLBUILDER & (fmr @BCG @Nielsen — acquired 3x). Prof @teppercmu, MHCI & exec ed at Gates School of Comp Sci. Founder @TheShopPgh

Sign up to stay in the know!

Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.

Thoughts? Leave A Comment Below!


New course alerts, discounts and free resources

Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.