How To Choose Your Battles and Fight For What Matters

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.

“Pick your battles carefully. Not every disagreement is worth your time and energy.” — Anonymous

Choose your battles means being choiceful of the problems, arguments, and confrontations you get involved in, and saving your energy for the things that matter. This means rather than confront every single disagreement, you fight the most important ones and let go of the rest.

Why is it important to choose your battles?

  1. Not every conflict is worth addressing. Many disagreements are trivial and have no effect in the long run. When you ask yourself if what’s bothering you now matters one year from now, chances are it won’t and it’s better to focus on the things that matter.
  2. Every battle has a cost to it. These costs include time and the emotional drain of engaging in the conflict. Even if you win this battle, maybe your time and energy could have been better spent elsewhere. Victory isn’t all that matters sometimes — there are other factors to think about.
  3. We all have limited time on earth. Ultimately, the reason all these matter is that we have limited time on earth. You and I will die some day. When you look back at your life from your deathbed, what do you want to see? A life where you argued with everyone who stood in your way? Or a meaningful life well lived, where you picked your battles and spent your energy only on the things and people that matter?

The point of choosing your battles is to be protective of how you spend your time, which is a limited resource. What are the things that matter to you? What are your most important goals? Who are the most important people to you?

When you fight every little disagreement in your path, you may appear to win in every conflict, sure. But you will eventually exhaust yourself, become a combative and bitter person, and have no time for the things that matter. By carefully choosing the battles you want to fight, you reserve your time for the important things and win the big war.

7 Tips To Choose Your Battles (and Win Them)

Choosing your battles comes down to knowing when to take on a conflict and when to turn away. This means knowing how to assess the problem and evaluating the costs vs. benefits to decide whether to fight it. Here are my 7 tips to choose your battles and win them.

1) Evaluate the conflict

When you are presented with a conflict, ask yourself:

  1. How important is addressing this?
  2. What is the payoff from winning this? (Is there an actual result to gain or is it for the sake of winning?)
  3. Can my time be better spent elsewhere? (Is there an opportunity cost to your time?)

Often, the disagreements we face in life are trivial disputes with no consequence in the long run. Such as arguments with unreasonable or negative people. Engaging with them takes up our time and energy, distracts us from what’s important, and disrupts our peace of mind. In such cases, it may be better to ignore them.

Once I was backstabbed by someone whom I thought was a friend. He said false and vindictive things about me in front of a business acquaintance. As the acquaintance knew me and knew that what the friend said was untrue, he told me about it, which was how I found out about what happened.

After initially feeling upset about it, I decided to let it go and cut the “friend” out of my life. While I could have confronted him, I realized that this friend constantly engaged in low-consciousness behavior throughout our short friendship, such as creating conflicts and arguments. I wasn’t interested to engage in anymore drama and had other things to worry about.

Similarly, I’ve been in situations with unreasonable people where I decided it was better to turn away than argue or fight. Many times it’s just a petty conflict and it’s best to let go. Sometimes the end outcome — scoring a victory over someone unreasonable — is too trivial to justify picking a fight. The time spent engaging with the person, as well as the emotional energy expended, could be better spent elsewhere. Walking away isn’t cowardice or weakness. Sometimes walking away is a sign of strength and wisdom.

Even when we choose not to fight, learn from the experience. For example, avoiding the person if we know him/her, and watching out for his/her antics. When we decide not to fight, we’re not letting others walk over us. We’re simply picking the higher ground and protecting our space and well-being.

2) Do a cost-benefit analysis

In the investment world, cost-benefit analysis is a systematic approach to determine the costs and benefits of a business investment and decide if it is sound. When faced with a conflict, do a cost-benefit analysis to help you decide if the battle is worth fighting. Ask yourself:

  1. What are the costs and benefits of fighting this battle?
  2. Do the costs outweigh the benefts? (If so, it’s generally better to let go and move on.)
  3. What are the odds of success? (If the odds of success are very low, it may be better to move on as well.)

A few years ago, I signed a contract with a company to produce a product. After putting aside all my projects and dedicating a good half of the year to work on this, I successfully delivered the product and received great reviews from customers.

However, while this company was supposed to market the product, they stopped supporting it after a while without informing me. When I followed up on this matter — multiple times — they promised to do something but nothing was ever done. The contractual clauses relinquished my selling rights (we had a profit-sharing arrangement), and since they were supposed to market the product but backed out of the arrangement, it put me in a losing deal because I had invested my time into creating a high-quality product that I couldn’t sell myself.

While I was peeved initially, especially when the company went dark in my attempts to follow up, I decided not to pursue the matter.

The reason is that even though the company is clearly at fault, there was little for me to gain in pursuing this further. Firstly, the company had already gone dark on me, which meant that any further attempts to pursue the matter would be difficult. Secondly, I didn’t want to burn bridges (or whatever was left) by going down the scorched-earth path. Thirdly, even if I had my way and the company reinstated marketing support, it would have increased my revenue by five percent at most. For me, it was easier to achieve this goal by launching a new product (that I would have full rights to), rather than trying to force a response out of this company.

Does this mean that we should avoid all battles if there is little to no chance of success? No, not at all. Sometimes you want to fight a battle to make a statement and be heard.

For example, in the case of molestation, workplace harrassment, bullying, or even medical negligence, you want to report the issue to raise awareness and stand up for yourself. I have personally reported school bullies before, and likewise workplace harassment. In the case of school bullies, their behaviors were corrected by the teacher, while a manager spoke to the workplace harasser.

The benefit of engaging in the battle doesn’t have to be monetary — it can be a moral one, like protecting your rights, preventing further recurrence of the problem, and helping others. However you may be in a system that’s broken or works against you — if so the better option may be to let go. Every situation is different, so weigh the costs and benefits before deciding what to do.

3) Go for win-win, not win-lose

Should you decide to take on the battle, create a win-win where both of you will be victorious.

Some of you may be surprised by my suggestion. Why ‘win-win’ and not ‘win-lose’? Why help my opponent win? you may think.

Even though I use “battle” as the analogy, I encourage you to think about your “opponent” as your ally, your friend. The reason is simple: When you have a mindset to squash others, you adopt a scarcity mindset that’s rooted in lack — where there must always be a winner and a loser, where one must always supersede another. The truth is there are often enough opportunities to go around, and everyone can win together.

This comes from having an abundance mindset first. Not only that, but when you think win-lose, the other party has no reason to work with you — he/she will be pitting against you, to “win” over you. He/She sees you as the enemy, while you see him/her as the enemy — and that’s not going to create the best outcome for everyone.

The battle isn’t against your opponent — it’s the conflict. If you are frustrated with your boss, talk to him/her and find a way to match both your needs. If you’re angry with your partner, don’t try to make things difficult using passive-aggressive methods. Talk to him/her and work out your differences, so that both of you can achieve your goals together. If you’re angry with your friend but you want to preserve the friendship, let him/her know your struggles in the friendship and find a solution that works for you and him/her.

Adopt this win-win mindset for conflicts with anyone. Ask yourself: “What is the scenario where everyone will be happy? What is the scenario where everyone will win?” Then work towards that outcome.

4) Have an open discussion

Heart-to-heart talk

(Image: Matus Laslofi)

An important part of achieving a win-win is to have an open discussion. When we act based on our vision of success, we shut the other person out without listening to what they have to say. Respect that the other person has views and goals that may be different from ours. To achieve a win-win, hear them out and discuss the best outcome for both of you.

During one of my coaching calls with my client P, she revealed that she has been feeling resentment toward her husband as she has been giving so much to the family: working, taking care of the kids, and doing housework. She feels that she has put her ideal life on hold in caring for the family, without much help from him.

This was a surprising revelation to her as she wasn’t consciously thinking this way: it just came out during our call. She still loves her husband and they are sweethearts who have been married for over 10 years; this was simply an issue that had been brewing for a while.

So I asked my client P, “Does he know? Have you ever talked to him about this?”

“No,” she said.

I encouraged her to talk to her husband about this, which she did. By the next call, she shared that they had a very in-depth discussion in a way they don’t usually have and that her husband was surprised to learn about her feelings. He reaffirmed his care and support for her and they agreed to find ways to earn more money and share the household responsibility, rather than letting her take all the burden. This subsequently brought them closer together.

On the other hand, if she hadn’t had an open talk with her husband, perhaps she might have reacted passive-aggressively such as picking fights, being argumentative, and doing things her way. This would have created more conflicts, made him unhappy, and created a negative household for her, her husband, and their kids. Her husband would still be clueless as to what is going on, and the original conflict would remain unsolved. In the end, everyone loses.

Here are some tips to have an open discussion:

  1. Seek to understand. Everyone has different views. Understand what they are. Don’t override their opinions just because they are different from yours. Understand the other person is thinking and why he/she thinks that way.
  2. Share your views and let the person share theirs. Bridge the divide by sharing your thoughts first. Then, invite the person to share their views. Ensure that each of you has an equal chance to share your views, ask questions, and understand each other.
  3. Be supportive as the other person is sharing their views. Nod, acknowledge what they are saying, and thank them.
  4. Brainstorm the best solution. Make it clear that you care about them and that you want to create a win-win outcome for everyone. Work together to identify the best solution, with both your needs in mind.

5) Ground yourself in high consciousness (Don’t get angry)

Once you decide to engage in the battle, ground yourself in high consciousness to achieve the best outcome for both of you. Remember, your goal is to achieve a win-win, not to bring your “opponent” down. The enemy here is the conflict, not the person.

Yet during a conflict, it can be hard to remain conscious. Sometimes emotions run high and you may say things that you don’t mean. Unaired grievances may come up. You may feel like attacking the other person even if you logically know that this isn’t the goal. You may also feel like abandoning this battle if the person is not cooperative.

I have some tips to manage this:

  1. Before you enter into battle, imagine you’re in a calm, peaceful place. No one can hurt you or take you away from this place unless you let them.
  2. If there are hurtful words hurled at you, try to engage in a peaceful way. Say, “I understand you are angry, but let’s keep this civil. I want to achieve the best outcome for both of us, so let’s work together to achieve it.”
  3. If you feel that you are losing your cool, stop talking to compose yourself. Imagine you are in a different place and you’re here to successfully carry out this discussion. This quote by Rene Descartes comes to mind:

Read: How to Let Go of Anger (series)

6) Have an exit point

All battles can be won if we have unlimited resources. The reality though is that we don’t have unlimited resources. We can’t spend forever working on a problem if it’s not progressing despite our best effort.

Have an exit point where you say, “Okay, that’s it. Time to cut my losses and move on.” This is the point where you exit the battle because you have incurred your maximum loss and you don’t want to invest any more time or energy into this.

One time my husband and I got ripped off of US$40 in Bali. A cab driver made use of the fact that we were not familiar with the local currency and lied to us about the bill (which was US$4). I remembered he was smiling gleefully to himself as he took the money from us.

While this is not a lot of money in general, this amount goes a long way in Indonesia, and we were more peeved about the dishonesty of the driver than anything. It was also our honeymoon and we felt irritated to have met such a dishonest person during a celebratory event. Our hotel staff was helpful and tried to track down the driver, such as reviewing the CCTV and calling a suspect back to our hotel, to no avail.

A cafe in Bali, during nightime

Our trip was soured by a dishonest driver

After an hour of back-and-forth, I told my husband to let this go since (1) there was no way for us to locate the guy given that the CCTV footage was too blurry, and (2) the driver was unlikely to step forward even if we did an open call through his cab company. Moreover, the amount was US$40 — as working adults, it was easier for us to earn this back than locate a crook in a foreign land.

So we let go of the incident and enjoyed the rest of our trip. I was glad to do so as it was getting draining dealing with the issue. Maybe we could have found the driver if we had requested a zoom-in analysis of the CCTV footage, but given the low chance of success, I thought it was better to move on and focus on bigger things.

7) Let go of unresolved battles

If the problem remains unresolved despite your best effort, let it go. Success comes not from not winning every battle, but learning to let go when it’s time to do so. While Tip #6 is about knowing when to exit when things don’t go your way, this Tip #7 is about letting go. Just because you stop fighting a problem doesn’t mean that you have let go of it mentally.

Once my friend was having conflicts with her boss and co-workers. They kept talking behind her back, backstabbing her and giving her issues. The environment was cliquish and she didn’t fit in.

While she felt deeply troubled and even cried in the office at one point, she later focused on the next steps for her career instead. She worked on her resume and started looking for new jobs. Eventually, she found a job with better pay and work conditions. She has since been working there for two years and is enjoying her work and co-workers. If she had focused on feeling unhappy and angry with her co-workers, she would never have found her new job.

How can you let go?

  1. Acknowledge your feelings. So things didn’t go your way. How do you feel? Sad? Angry? Disappointed? Write down your feelings. Use my brain-dumping exercise to release your emotions. Read: Increase Your Mental Clarity in 15 Minutes
  2. Understand why you are feeling this way. There’s a reason why you feel aggrieved. Why do you feel this way? What do you feel unjust about? Dig into the root issue. Maybe you feel disrespected. Maybe the situation brings up one of your fears. Maybe the situation deals with something that matters a lot to you. Uncovering the root issue will help you understand and let go.
  3. Work on a new path forward. Since the conflict can’t be resolved to your satisfaction, how can you move forward? Identify new ways to move forward. With my friend, she couldn’t resolve the conflict with her boss and co-workers, and hence the next best step was to look for a new job — which worked out great for her. How can you stay on track in your life plan, despite the battle not turning out the way you want?


Are You Choosing Your Battles?

If you face a lot of battles in life, use the tips above to separate the essential battles from the non-essential ones. Focus on the important battles and let go of the rest. This way, you focus your energy to win the big game of life. :)

Related posts: