How to Choose Your Battles and Fight for What Matters
A while back, I met a weird man who was filled with negative judgment for others. Even though he is highly successful — he has built several successful businesses and is easily a multi-millionaire — he seemed to have a heavy inferiority complex, constantly putting down others as if to make himself seem superior.
For example, after knowing that I blog and coach, he began to put down the profession of blogging and coaching, claiming that it could never be as lucrative as running a large organization (from his point of view). Then, at one point, he switched to dissing me about my dress style, which according to him, could do with more sophistication. (It was a casual day out, and I was wearing simple clothes as normal person would — forgive me for not dressing like I was going to the President’s dinner and dance party.)
Speaking to him was taxing, for he seemed to take offence at every little comment made, even if it was neutral. In between his insults, he would talk endlessly about his accomplishments even when not prompted, as if to justify his worth. And then when he wasn’t doing that, he would be putting down people he knew by speaking ill of them.
While irked by his behavior, I didn’t retaliate, but instead smiled and played nice.
After the encounter, I promptly let go of his judgments. After all, this is someone whom I am probably never going to meet again, save for a couple of random events (Singapore can be small). It felt like an awful waste of time to think about him or to feel frustrated over his antics. I figured that I have more important things to do, and if I want to get to my big rocks, I need to choose my battles and let go of petty issues like this. And choosing your battles is precisely what I want to talk about today.
Choose Your Battles
“Choose your battles wisely. After all, life isn’t measured by how many times you stood up to fight. It’s not winning battles that makes you happy, but it’s how many times you turned away and chose to look into a better direction. Life is too short to spend it on warring. Fight only the most, most, most important ones, let the rest go.” ~ C. JoyBell C.
Choosing your battles is about being selective of the problems you take on, be it in work, relationships, friendships, or life. When you choose your battles, you
- Evaluate the problem (i.e. battle) you are facing.
- Assess if the payoff of addressing this problem (i.e. initiating the battle) outweighs the costs.
- Decide if you should fight this problem (i.e. fight the battle) or abandon it.
Why is it important to choose your battles?
- Not all problems are important. Some simply don’t matter, especially in the long run. The opening example with the rude man is one. Ken’s disappointing friend who RSVP-ed for our wedding but didn’t turn up (and didn’t have the decency to inform him either) is another. While not desirable, I can choose not to be weighed down by these situations by letting go of them. After all, there are many other things worth worrying about. Likewise, you want to concern yourself with your big rocks and Quadrant 2 goals, not petty problems with no place in your life.
- Some problems may seem pressing, but the payoff of addressing them doesn’t outweigh the costs. Battling such problems will only be a waste of your time and energy since the costs outweigh the benefits. You need to choose battles where the benefits of waging each battle outweigh the costs.
- Your time and energy is limited. Ideally you want to rectify every problem you face. However as humans, we have limited time and energy, which means limited time and energy for our problems. Choosing your battles helps you to conserve your time and energy for the things that matter.
- It’s winning the big war. Ultimately in life, you’re going to face countless problems. Do you want to be battling small petty arguments and trivialities that don’t make an ounce of difference to your life in the long term? Or do you want to battle the big rocks, which include carving out your dream career, building your ideal relationship, being financially free, and living the life of your greatest dreams? You need to choose your battles and fight the big rocks in order to win the big war of life.
How to Choose Your Battles and Win the Big War
So how do you know when to fight a battle and when to move on? And for the battles you choose to fight, what’s the best way to fight them and secure victory? Here are my seven tips.
Tip #1: Fight the battle if it has serious, long-term implications. Let go if it has little consequences.
Before you fight the battle, consider if there is a need to do so. Because most of the times, the things we get upset over are small, petty issues that have no consequence in the long run. You want to concern yourself with only the most important problems that have long-term implications, not the little petty problems.
- Is this problem going to recur and/or balloon out of control if left undealt with?
- Is this problem going to cause significant negative impact in your life if left undealt with?
- Can you live without addressing this problem?
If you answered “yes” to the first two questions and “no” to the third question, these suggest that the problem is consequential and worth addressing. Otherwise, let it go.
Example: Conflict management in relationships
Conflict management in relationships is a great example. Some couples quarrel over everything, from “Who left the toilet seat up?” to “Why are you spending time with your mom but not me?” to “Why are you hanging out with those beer buddies again?” Not only does nothing get resolved, it also tires out the couple and wears out the relationship.
Between Ken and I, we are always quick and ready to resolve our differences, so I never have to “choose my battles” or even “go into battle mode” so to speak. However, I always pay special attention to red-flag issues that have long-term implications to our relationship, and dedicate as much time as necessary to resolve them.
For example, finances — it is a major building block in any serious relationship. As Ken lacked proper financial habits in the past, I was quick to help him address this since it would affect our future together. For a good chunk of our first year together, I worked with him to sort out his finances, cultivate good financial habits, and establish long-term financial goals — even before we got married. As a result, we already have a five-year financial target together today even though we’ve just been married for two weeks! Doing this helps us to move cohesively as a family unit with an aligned mindset towards financial expenditures and savings.
Another area is communication — successful communication is a must-have in any relationship. While Ken and I understand each other very well, there have been times when differences in our communication styles lead to misinterpretations of each other’s words. For example, my communication style is one where X means X, whereas Ken’s is one where he can say X but mean something radically different! Needless to say, this creates room for misunderstandings. When that happens, I’m quick to work it through with him, such that similar problems don’t happen again.
As for other things, I don’t care. In fact, I celebrate those differences, and so does he. When there’s laundry, I fold them; when I’m hungry, he cooks for me. When it comes to daily habits like brushing teeth, flossing, and eating healthily, I remind him so that he takes good care of himself; at any point in the day, he’s always there taking care of all my needs, from preparing my meals, to listening to my concerns, to troubleshooting my issues, to tucking me into bed each night. We fill in any gaps we see, without expectation or condition, and celebrate each other as a whole.
Tip #2: Weigh the benefits vs. costs. Fight the battle only if the benefits outweigh the costs.
Every responsible business analyst will advise you to do a cost-benefit analysis before proceeding with any investment. After all, there’s no value in investing in something if the costs outweigh the benefits!
Similarly before you take on a problem, do a cost-benefit analysis. Assess the costs of tackling the problem, be it monetary or non-monetary costs (such as time, effort, and emotional drain). Then, assess the benefits. Weigh out them out, and proceed only if benefits outweigh the costs.
Last month during my pre-wedding photoshoot, I had a terrible make-up artist. Her techniques were fine, but her service attitude, not so much. Not only did she push me to get payable add-ons like the facial ampule (presumably to earn more money) and repeatedly took personal calls when doing my makeup, she also flipped her biscuits when I requested her to touch up on some areas.
“Look, I’m not done yet. Can you wait for me to finish everything first, after which we can then see the areas that need touch up? OKAY?” she snapped.
Wow, chill woman, I thought. While shocked by her bad attitude, I didn’t retaliate. Firstly, throwing a fuss meant that I would get less time for my shoot, which was due to start right after makeup was done. Secondly, calling her out on her bad attitude might create a confrontation, which would create negative energy for my shoot. Thirdly, the make-up artist was directly hired by the photo studio and seemed like a personal friend of the photographer; chances were high that the studio would take sides if I were to call her out.
As for the benefits… the only benefit I could see was slight emotional relief from not having her do my makeup. Ego trip from telling her off? Not so much; I don’t like making people feel bad. What’s more, given that this was the only time she was doing my makeup, it didn’t matter whether she knew what I felt about her. She was going to be out of my life in about 30 minutes anyway.
So, letting go it was. I simply ignored her, kept to myself while she finished doing my makeup and hair, and then focused on having fun during my shoot with Ken. (Will share the photos when they are out! )
Every situation is different, so assess it on a case by case basis. Make sure there is a net payoff before you take on a battle.
Tip #3: Envision a win-win scenario
So you decided to fight this battle. Can you think of a win-win scenario, where both you and your opponent(s) will emerge victorious?
Now, some of you may be weirded out by my suggestion “win-win.” Isn’t this supposed to be a battle? you may wonder. Why should I think of a win-win for both me and my opponent(s)?
Right. Despite using “battles” as the analogy in this article, ultimately I want you to think of your “opponent” as your friend, your ally, whom you want to work with to achieve the best outcome.
The reason is simple: When you have the mindset of squashing/eliminating others, you embrace a scarcity mindset that’s rooted in lack — where there must always be a winner and a loser, one who gains more and one who gains less, and everything is zero-sum. While this mindset may seem like it’s normal, it isn’t. The reality is that we live in a world of oneness and abundance, where opportunities are afloat everywhere and everyone can achieve abundance simultaneously. By thinking in scarcity, we’ll only attract more scarcity into our life, since like attracts like.
So, think win-win where everyone wins, as opposed to win-lose where there can only be a victor. The battle here isn’t against your opponent, but rather, against the conflict. Your opponent is as much a victim of the circumstance as you. Meaning…
- If you are having a conflict with your partner, work out a scenario where both of you will be happy without compromising on each other’s needs, as opposed to one where someone has to compromise for another. Read: Ask Celes – How Do You Manage Between Your Goals and Being with Your Partner?
- If you are having a disagreement with your boss, find a way to match his/her needs without compromising yours, as opposed to letting yourself be pushed over by him/her.
- If you are displeased with your staff’s performance, don’t shame or punish as your first instinct. Instead, coach him/her and provide constructive feedback. Not only will this help him/her to recognize his/her issue areas more effectively than shaming will, it will also motivate him/her more to work for you as an inspiring leader. Your staff should feel like a winner, not a loser, working for you. Read: Stop Shaming, Start Praising: What I Learned From Growing Up in a Shaming Culture and How to Give Constructive Criticism in 6 Steps.
Apply the same win-win mindset for any conflicts with your parents, friends, colleagues, and others. Ask yourself, What is the scenario where everyone will be happy? What is the scenario where everyone will emerge a winner? Then work towards that outcome.
Tip #4: Have a plan of action before fighting
Lately Ken and I have been playing Warcraft III during our free time, where we team up in a two-versus-two game against the computer in insane mode. The first few times we played, we didn’t discuss on a plan of action — we kinda just went about doing our own thing… and got slaughtered by the AI. It didn’t help that the AI in insane mode has a huge edge with double of any collected gold and harvested lumber.
So after that, we learned to always align on a plan of action (between us) before any battle. Say if I’m building troops that are good at attacking land units but not aerial ones, he will build troops that are strong in aerial attacks. If I’m building troops that are targeted at destroying buildings, he will build a strong land army to tank enemy attacks. We will create armies that complement each other and enhance each other’s strengths. The result is that we pretty much win every game against the AI today, even in insane mode.
Similarly in life, a plan of action is important to ensure victory in battles. As Sun Tzu, a Chinese military general and strategist from 544–496 BC, once said,
Before initiating a battle with anyone (or any problem), figure out your plan of action. Ask yourself:
- What is my ideal win-win scenario (from Tip #3)?
- What do I need to do to achieve this ideal outcome?
- Are there any obstacles that I’ll face? If so, how can I overcome them?
- Can I get anyone’s help? If so, who?
Tip #5: Ground yourself in high consciousness
When fighting a battle, emotions can run high, especially when you don’t get the results you want right away. It’s not uncommon for tempers to flare and people to act based on (fear-based) emotions than their highest wants.
In my previous corporate job, I had a conflict with my boss – she refused to let me take on more important projects when I had proved myself more than capable to do so. Part of the issue was my boss, having worked in China for a long time, had a hierarchical managerial approach (which was at odds with the meritocratic culture of the company); the other issue was my role was actually redundant due to bad restructuring, leading to a lack of “meaty” projects for anyone to handle.
While my issue got resolved after my then-mentor got wind of the situation, who promptly intervened to transfer me to a different department, thinking back I could have managed the issue better. I remember losing my cool and distancing myself from my boss out of frustration, something which I wished I handled differently. I remember telling some close friends in the company about the situation — which, looking back, I could have kept to myself since there was no need for them to know. Because I was driven by my frustration with my boss at that time, I didn’t act in my highest consciousness. Such regret could have been avoided if I remained unaffected by the frustrating nature of the situation.
Rene Descartes’s quote comes to mind:
In fighting any battle, ground yourself in high consciousness – this will help you to stay composed, think consciously, and to always act in everyone’s best interest. Here are some tips to do so:
- Before you enter into battle, visualize a bright energy shield around you. This shield will block any negative energy from reaching you.
- When addressing the conflict, think about the people who inspire you and how they would handle this sticky situation, then mirror their behavior.
- Keep your sights on your ideal outcome (Tip #3); make sure you are moving towards that outcome throughout the battle.
- Detach yourself from the negative emotions and hurtful words exchanged (if any); people sometimes say things they don’t mean when angry.
- How to Let Go of Anger Forever (series)
- 15 Ways To Raise Your Consciousness, exclusive article in Personal Excellence Book, Volume 1
Tip #6: Have an exit point
Theoretically all battles can be won if you have unlimited resources. The reality, though, is that we don’t have unlimited resources. More importantly, we have other priorities to tend to. We can’t spend forever on a problem if it isn’t showing signs of improvement despite our efforts.
Hence, you need a cut-loss point which tells you, “Okay, that’s it. It’s time to cut my losses and pull out.” This is the point where you need to exit regardless of what’s happening, because you have incurred your maximum loss and you can’t afford to lose anymore (else all hell will break loose).
When Ken and I were honeymooning in Bali, we got ripped off 400,000 Indonesian Rupiah (that’s about $40 USD) by a taxi driver. $40 USD is not a lot of money in America or Singapore, but you can do many things with it in Indonesia. Our hotel staff was very helpful and tried to help us track down the taxi driver, from reviewing CCTV footage, to calling cab companies, to calling a suspect back to the hotel (it wasn’t him).
After attempts to track down the driver failed, I told Ken to let this go since (1) there was no way for us to locate the cab driver given that the car plate number captured by the CCTV was too blurry, and (2) the driver — having knowingly ripped us off — was unlikely to ever step forward to admit to his wrongdoing, even if we were to do an open call through his company. It was no different from looking for a needle in a haystack. Moreover, the amount in question was $40 USD — as two working adults, it was easier for us to devote our energy to our work to earn back this money than to try to locate a crook on a foreign land.
So then, we let go of this episode and focused on enjoying the rest of our honeymoon. I was glad to do that, for it would have been very emotionally and mentally draining otherwise. Maybe we could have found the driver if we had requested for a zoom-in analysis of the CCTV footage and what not, but for the manpower and effort involved, the low probability of success and the low payoff, it was easier to exit and move on with life.
Tip #7: Let go of unresolved problems
If the problem remains unresolved despite your best efforts, then let it go. The mark of success comes not from not winning every battle, but learning to let go even when it’s time to do so. While Tip #6 is about knowing when to exit when things aren’t going your way, this tip is about letting go when you know that things aren’t going your way. Just because one has stopped fighting a problem doesn’t mean that he/she has let go of it mentally.
I once had a client who was very hateful at the world. In all our coaching sessions, she kept telling me about how unfair life was to her and how she had been trying so hard to make something out of her life, but to no avail. She kept seeing herself as a failure and a victim, born to suffer in this world.
On the contrary, what I could see were the upsides of her life and the opportunities around her. It was obvious that the negatives she kept harping about were not real negatives but her mental projections. As much as I tried to guide her out of her pit, she hung on very tightly to her grievances. In the end I had to end the sessions as it was not working out — there was nothing more I could do for her until she decided to let go of her hate and anger at the world. I don’t know what has happened to her since then but I hope that she is in a better place today.
So how do you let go? Well, it’s not an instantaneous process, but there are steps you can take today to let go of any grievance. Read: Ask Celes – Is It Possible To Let Go of Unhappy Past Forever?
Tags: analysis paralysis, anger, black dot, choice, choose your battles, critical people, criticism, decision making, ending a relationship, friendships, moving on, obstacles, people relationships, people skills, quadrant 2, relationships, rude people