How to Choose Your Battles (and Win the Big War)
A while back, I met a weird man who was filled with negative judgment for others. Even though he is highly successful–built successful businesses and is definitely a millionaire–he seems to have an inferiority complex, constantly putting others down 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 company (in his point of view). He seemed to take offence at every little comment made, even if it was neutral, constantly justifying himself and droning on and on about his accomplishments, as if he was fishing for compliments. And then when he wasn’t insulting me or complimenting himself, he would be putting down other people he knew by speaking ill of them.
While irked by his behavior, I didn’t retaliate, but instead just acted normally.
After the encounter, I promptly let go of his judgments. After all, this is someone I’m probably never going to meet again. It felt like an awful waste of time 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? I’ve seven tips for you.
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.
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.
During my pre-wedding photoshoot last time, 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.
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.” Why ‘win-win’ and not ‘win-lose’? You may think. Isn’t this supposed to be a battle? Why should I bother to help my opponent(s) win?
Right. Despite using “battles” as the analogy in this article, I encourage you to think about your “opponent” as your friend, your ally. 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: How To Manage Between Your Goals and 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, where we team up against the computer (insane mode) in a two-versus-two game. The first few times we played, we didn’t discuss on a plan of action — we kinda just did 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 the collected gold and 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.
However, know that when you lose your temper, you’ve basically lost your footing in the battle. It’s no different from a berserk soldier fighting in the battle field — slashing wildly and randomly, while leaving himself open for attacks from all fronts. You don’t want that — you want to be calm and collected so that you can handle the situation in the best way possible… and also, not look back three months down the road and wonder, Why did I ever do/say that???
Rene Descartes’s quote comes to mind:
Ground yourself in high consciousness — this will help you to stay composed, think consciously, and to always act in everyone’s best interest. 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)
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, 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. 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 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, born to suffer in this world.
On the contrary, what I could see were the upsides 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 for as long as she held on to 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: Is It Possible To Let Go of Unhappy Past Forever?
Are You Facing Any Battle Right Now?
Are you facing any battle right now? Should you fight it or let it go? If you choose to fight it, how can you apply the tips above?