In battlefield medicine the principle of triage involves dividing patients into three groups:

  1. Those who will die anyway whether they receive medical attention or not
  2. Those who will survive anyway whether they receive medical attention or not
  3. Those who will survive only if they receive timely medical attention

Despite its morbid nature, triage is extremely important if you want to maximize the number of lives you save. If you don’t do it, the results will be far worse than if you do.

Triage is also a key principle of time management. In this case you’d divide your tasks, projects, and activities into three groups:

  1. Projects that will fail to have a significant impact whether you do them or not
  2. Projects that will succeed anyway whether you do them or not
  3. Projects that will have a significant impact if you complete them in a timely manner

Group 1 includes projects that are may be urgent or non-urgent, but they definitely aren’t important. If you focus your attention on this group, you’re just spinning your wheels while more important projects remain undone. Ask yourself what difference a project will make in 5 years, and if the answer is none, it probably belongs to this group.

Group 2 includes projects that will still get done by others even if you decline to participate. Someone else will pick up the ball if you drop it. Sometimes when we think we’re essential, we really aren’t. For example, if you quit a club or team that really seems to need you, it may do just fine without you. I’m not suggesting your participation won’t matter, just that it isn’t essential. Think of the wounded person on the battlefield who’d love some medical attention for his/her injuries but will still be OK even if no help is available.

Group 3 includes projects that are very important but rarely urgent. This is what Stephen Covey refers to as Quadrant II projects in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Such projects include starting a family, launching your own business, becoming physically fit, and exploring personal development. In the long run, these projects, habits, and practices can make a huge long-term difference in your life, but they require your sustained personal attention to succeed.

Just as with battlefield medicine, the time management version of triage may sound a bit brutal: If you want to save group 3, you must withdraw your attention from groups 1 and 2. Otherwise too many good projects from group 3 will die needlessly.

Practicing triage is extremely challenging because it requires saying “no” again and again to what you may feel are good causes. It’s the time management equivalent of saying “no” to wounded people calling for your help. You simply don’t have time to comfort all your dying projects or to nurse the non-essential ones. If you don’t learn to make these tough decisions consistently, many really good projects will die, and that would be a far greater tragedy.

The practice of triage is a challenge of consciousness. It’s easy to lose sight of the big picture when you’re staring at a project screaming for your attention. But you still need to muster the awareness to ask, “Is this the most important thing that must be done by me right now?” Whenever you fail to ask this question, you can bet there’s a more important project being stalked by the Grim Reaper.

My recommendation is to make a list of your group 3 projects and activities, and keep it handy at all times. Maybe it’s a list of your key goals, but it could just be a list of the life areas you want to attend to, such as your health, marriage, spiritual practice, etc. Review that list every day to keep refreshing its presence in your consciousness. This will help you make some of those tough triage decisions when the need arises. It’s easier to say no to groups 1 and 2 when you can see the whole battlefield in front of you.

The reason triage is so tough is that groups 1 and 2 are still deserving of your help. They’re good projects — or good people — and they need you. However, you simply won’t have time to attend to group 3 if you become mired in groups 1 and 2. While groups 1 and 2 are good, group 3 is the best. While groups 1 and 2 need you, group 3 really, really, really needs you.

Group 3 tends to be the smallest group, so it’s likely you’ll see a lot more 1s and 2s in your life. Most of the time, you have to say no to a lot of 1s and 2s just to reach the 3s, and those 1s and 2s may not want you to leave them once they have your attention. They’ll grab your arm, plead with you to stay, and try to keep you with them. As you leave they’ll think you’re the most heartless person on earth. It can be really tough to pull away in such situations, but that’s exactly what you must do if you’re to find and save those 3s.

What are the 3s in your life that are dying on the battlefield but which can still be saved if you reach them in time? Your health? Your marriage? Your career? Your happiness? In order to make time to save these 3s, what 1s and 2s are you willing to let go of?