Posted on: 16/02/2021

Using a triage test to assert your priorities (Dr Tracey Stead)

Insights, ideas and resources from Tracey Stead and participants on the FLF Development Network’s Bridging Course on Being Strategic

Every day I find myself saying ‘Yes’ to something that just doesn’t support my goals.”

“I’m overwhelmed with current commitments and suspect I should have said ‘No’ to many of them.”

Sounds familiar?

Research is ever-expanding in nature and there will always be opportunities coming your way and people knocking at your door, particularly as you are an FLF and people in your department want your involvement. There will always be new, interesting, exciting (or the dreaded ‘mandatory’!) opportunities popping up over and above your day job and the things you’d planned to do.

So, when faced with these commitments and opportunities, how do you keep your mid- to long-term goals in mind and consciously make choices that support them. This is a vital skill for leaders and one we explored in the second Bridging Session on ‘Being Strategic’.

The Triage Test

Setting triage criteria for your work and research opportunities can help you focus on the urgent and important, much like a doctor in the emergency department.

You can use your triage criteria to:

  • choose opportunities to spend quality time on – ones that will lead you towards your goals
  • identify tasks that might distract or delay you from your goals – so you can decline or minimise your commitment

Set Your Criteria

A triage test is best applied to medium or long-term goals – what do you want to have achieved by this time next year?

Devise three questions to help you evaluate whether engaging in a new opportunity get you to where you want to go (or let you lead the life you want to lead)? Be clear how your choice will enable your future vision and the desired outcomes you want to achieve.

Here’s a triage test I’d been using to decide what projects to take on:

  1. Will it enable me to build my networks?
  2. Will it mean I can spend more time working from home?
  3. Will I still be happy doing this in a year’s time?

Use your test for a year or so then (when you ‘hit’ your next horizon and refocus towards future plans) adapt your triage criteria and start again. Back when I created this test I was travelling the country delivering workshops, but post-COVID my needs have shifted and these criteria are due a rethink – guess which one will be changing first! (post edit: I am now using a new criterion: Can I share the load with someone else?).

What would your triage criteria be?

What three YES/NO questions would you choose?
Some great examples were suggested by you in the Bridging Session:

  • Will it mean I can develop leadership skills?
  • Will it lead to some funding?
  • Will it raise my profile or enhance my reputation?
  • Will it involve working with people that inspire me or I have fun with?
  • Is it within or outside my ‘6 hours per week maximum on non-FLF tasks’?
  • If I had to start tomorrow, would I make time for it?
  • Is it REF-able?
  • Have I already committed to other things of a similar nature?
  • Will this give me positive energy?
  • Am I doing this because I hate saying no?
  • Is this aligned to my personal values?
  • Will this impact on stakeholders I want to have impact on?
  • Will I be working with people who won’t get in my way?
  • Would I still be happy to be doing this in a year’s time?
  • Will this disproportionately occupy my headspace?


Ask for specific details

Don’t accept or decline offers immediately – ask for details so you can fully assess the opportunity against your triage criteria.

Always explain

In the interests of being strategic, telling people why you are accepting (or declining!) and explaining how it connects to your vision/where you want to go is a great way to influence and train other people into knowing what you want to be doing. If they are enlightened about what you want to in your future they might think twice about asking you or might tailor their request the next time.

  • “I am accepting this because this is what I want to achieve in the next year and this helps me to do it.”
  • “I would like to say yes to this but in the next year/6 months this is what I am focussing on – feel free to ask me after that time and I may well be able to say yes.”
  • “At the moment I can only focus on some things and here’s what I’m focussing on, so I’m declining your opportunity.”

Can’t say no?

One question raised in the Bridging Session was, “But what if I can’t say no?” How do you respond to those offers or ‘mandatory’ events or projects that it’s not possible or politic to decline?

First, think of a way you can ask for the opportunity to be adapted so it gives you more of what you are looking for.

“I want to contribute to the Department and realise we all need to pull together so I’m happy to accept this opportunity. But what would really make me happier is if…

  • I could have another colleague working with me
  • it could involve me taking the lead in something so I develop a leadership skill
  • it would involve me taking this to another research institute/writing something so it builds my reputation
  • or something else in line with your triage criteria”

Then, if you have to say yes to something that can’t be adapted to better support your goals, be absolutely clear about the level commitment you can offer and your main priorities.

“I am saying yes because I want to be a helpful person but I can only give it X amount of time ( this amount of attention, this level of quality) because I am focussing on these three things (related to my criteria/goals) at the moment.”

The Triage Test… I find it a great tool to help me evaluate opportunities, stay focused on my goals, avoid overwhelm, and, really importantly, to feel in control and be more assertive, positive and strategic no matter whether my involvement is going to be a ‘Yes’ or a ‘No’!


Download a PDF of Tracey Stead’s presentation from the Being Strategic Bridging Session

Download a PDF copy of the Triage Test diagram

Download a PDF text-only version of the Triage Test diagram

Access the recording of the Being Strategic Bridging Session #2 (accessible for members of the FLF Development Network)

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