7 Tips to Choose Your Battles and Fight for What Matters

Choose your battles

A few months ago, I met this guy who kept criticizing me and other people. Even though he is highly successful by conventional terms — he is a multi-millionaire and has built successful businesses — he kept putting people down with every comment.

Thrown off by his behavior, I didn’t retaliate but acted normally.

After the encounter, I let go of his judgment. I figured 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 things like this. And choosing your battles is 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.

Choose your battles means to be selective of the problems, arguments, and confrontations you get involved in. Instead of fighting every problem, you save your time only for the things that matter. This means the most important things, the things that give you the highest payoff, and battles where you have a good chance of success. This attitude applies to your work, relationships, and life.

When you choose your battles, you

  1. Evaluate the problem you are facing,
  2. Assess if the benefits of tackling it outweigh the costs, and
  3. Decide if you should fight or abandon it.

Why is it important to choose your battle?

  1. Not everything is important. Some simply don’t matter, especially in the long run. My example above about the judgmental guy is one. Encounters with rude people are another. There are many other things worth worrying about in life. Concern yourself with your Quadrant 2 goals, not petty problems with petty people.
  2. Some problems may seem pressing, but the payoff does not outweigh the cost. Dealing with such problems will only waste your time since the cost outweighs the benefit. Choose battles where benefits >> costs.
  3. You have limited time and energy. Ideally we want to be super humans and solve everything. But we have limited time on Earth. Do you want to live to 80 years old and look back at how you quarreled with everyone who stood in your way? Or do you want to look back at a legacy of achievements and meaningful impact created for the world?

Ultimately, your goal is to live your best life. Instead of spending time on petty things, you want to focus on your big rocks. These big rocks include pursuing your dream career, building relationships with people who matter, making a meaningful impact on the world, building relationships with your family, and living your ideal life. To do so, you need to choose your battles.

How to Choose Your Battles: 7 Tips

So how do you know when to fight a battle or move on? For the battles you fight, how do you ensure success? Here are my 7 tips to choose your battles.

1) Evaluate the need

Before you jump into any argument, consider if there is a need to do so. Usually, the things we get upset about are small, petty things with no impact in the long run. Concern yourself only with important problems with long-term impact, not petty issues.

Ask yourself:

  1. Is this problem important?
  2. Is it going to balloon out of control if left undealt with? 
  3. Is it going to cause significant negative impact if left undealt with?

If you answered “no” to all 3 questions, then move on and let it go. Do what you can as damage control, then move on. In general, most problems we face don’t require our attention.

For example, once I had a friend — or someone I thought was a friend — who badmouthed untruths about me in front of a potential business partner. While I was infuriated at first, I quickly moved on and addressed the issue with the potential business partner directly. That’s because when I thought about it, this was a stupid problem to take up my mind space, and I had more important things to do. This was not the first time such negative conflicts happened with this friend, so I decided cut him off to prevent more of such negativity.

I think about it in this way: There are one million things we can worry about today. Which problems do we want to allocate our mind space to? Definitely the most important things that will make the greatest impact on our life. Even though we can get wrapped up in petty arguments and conflicts, these things don’t make any difference one, two, three years from now. Focus your time on the things that matter, not the things that don’t.

2) Do a cost-benefit analysis

A cost-benefit analysis helps you assess if it’s worthwhile for you to take on a problem, before you try to do anything.

  • Evaluate the costs of addressing the problem. Costs can be (a) monetary or (b) non-monetary, such as the time taken, effort taken, and emotional drain.
  • Evaluate the benefits, which include the payoff if the problem is resolved in your favor, and your odds of resolving the problem in your favor.
  • Weigh the costs vs. the benefits. Proceed only if the benefits >> costs.

Once I worked with a company that went back on their word. We were working on a deal together and they didn’t deliver on something, and later became unresponsive. After following up a few times, I decided not to pursue the matter.

Why? Because the costs didn’t outweigh the potential benefits.

  • Costs-wise, it would take up my time and energy to pursue the matter. It would also burn bridges because of the nature of any confrontation. I didn’t want to do so as they are a sizable company whereas I’m a small team. Given their track record in communication, they were unlikely to respond even if I had pursued the matter.
  • Benefits-wise, even if problem got resolved in my favor, it would increase my earnings by a single percentage point. For me, this could be easily achieved by taking on new projects.

Given the high costs, low payoff, and the low chances of success, the most logical move was for me to move on. 

This doesn’t mean that we should avoid all battles if they involve a large organization or bigger party. In a case where there’s a lot at stake (such as workplace molestation, medical negligence, or bullying), you should pursue the battle if there isn’t a serious downside like large financial costs. I have stood up against school bullying before (I reported the bully’s behavior to the teacher). I have also reported workplace harassment before. Benefits don’t have to be monetary — they can be intangible, like protecting our rights or helping others avoid the same problem.

Every situation is different, so assess it on a case-by-case basis.

3) Think win-win

So you decide to fight this battle. Can you think of a win-win situation where both of you will emerge victorious?

Some of you may be surprised by my suggestion of win-win. Why ‘win-win’ and not ‘win-lose’? Isn’t this supposed to be a battle? Why should I help my opponent win? you may think.

These are perfectly valid questions. Despite using “battle” as the analogy here, I encourage you to think about your “opponent” as your friend, your ally. The reason is simple: When you have a mindset of squashing others, you adopt a scarcity mindset that’s rooted in lack — one where there must always be a winner and a loser, where everything is zero sum.

While this mindset may seem normal in today’s competition-focused world, it isn’t. We live in a world of oneness and abundance, where opportunities are everywhere and everyone can achieve success together. When we think in scarcity, we only attract scarcity since like attracts like. On the other hand, by focusing on abundance, we attract abundance. We also share positivity and love with others. Even if someone doesn’t appreciate it or someone tries to undercut us, all the more they need an injection of love and help from others, because they are coming from a place of lack. We do what we can to help them, then move on to more positive relationships.

So think win-win where everyone wins vs. win-lose where there can only be a winner. The battle here isn’t against your opponent, but the conflict. Sometimes your opponent may be a victim of the situation like you. Meaning…

  • If you have a conflict with your partner, work out an outcome where both of you will get what you want without compromising on each other’s needs vs. one where one has to compromise for the other. 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 get pushed over.
  • If you are displeased with your staff’s performance, don’t punish him/her as your first instinct. Instead, coach and provide constructive feedback. This way, they can recognize their issues and also be more motivated to work for you. Your staff should feel like a winner, not a loser, working for you. Read: Stop Shaming, Start Praising

Adopt this win-win mindset for any conflict with friends, family, and colleagues. Ask yourself: “What is the scenario where everyone will be happy? What is the scenario where everyone will win?” Then work toward that outcome.

4) Have an open discussion

Friends talking

(Image: oneinchpunch)

An important part of achieving a win-win is to have an open discussion. When we act based on our vision and project our views on the other person, it’s the same as shutting them out. Respect that the other party has their views and goals that may be entirely different from ours. To achieve a win-win, hear them out and discuss the best outcome.

During one of my coaching calls with my client P, she revealed that she felt a hidden resentment for her husband as she had been giving so much the family all these years: working, taking care of the kids, and housework. She felt that she had put her ideal life on hold in caring for the family, without much help from her husband. This was a surprising revelation as she had not consciously thought this way; it just came out from our call. She still loves him and they are sweethearts who have been married for over 10 years; this was an issue that had been brewing on the side.

So I asked my client, “Does he know? Have you ever talked to him about this?” She said, “No.” I encouraged her to talk to her husband and let him know, and she did. By our 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 what she had been feeling. He reaffirmed his support for her and they agreed to find more ways to earn money and to share the responsibility for the household income and chores together, rather than letting her take all the burden. The talk 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 create even more conflicts, make her husband unhappy, and most of all, create a negative household for everyone and her kids. Her husband would still be clueless as to what was going on, and the original conflict would remain unsolved. In the end, everyone loses.

How can you have an open discussion?

  1. Seek to understand, not override others’ opinions.
  2. Share your views and let others have their chance to share theirs.
  3. Be supportive as others are sharing.
  4. Focus on the positive at every step.
  5. Discuss and exchange ideas to build the best outcome for everyone.

Read: 10 Rules of a Great Conversationalist

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

During a conflict, emotions can run high. In asserting your stance, both of you may lose your temper and act out of fear rather than love.

However, know that when you lose your temper, you have lost your footing. Not only will you be unable to think rationally, but you will not be able to act and convey yourself calmly, much less achieve an ideal outcome for everyone. You don’t want that. You want to be calm and collected and handle the situation in the best way possible… and not look back a week later and wonder, Why did I even say/do that???

Rene Descartes’s quote comes to mind:

Ground yourself in high consciousness. This will help you stay composed, think consciously, and act in everyone’s interest. Some tips to do so:

  1. Think about the people who inspire you and how they would handle this situation. Get ideas from how they would behave.
  2. Stay constructive. Remember, you’re battling against the conflict, not the person. Critique the issue, not the person. Read: How to Give Constructive Criticism: 6 Helpful Tips
  3. Keep your sights on a win-win for everyone (see tip #3). Work on that outcome throughout the discussion.
  4. Detach yourself from the negative emotions and hurtful words exchanged (if any). People tend to say things they don’t mean to when they are angry.

Read:

6) Have an exit point

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

Have a cut-loss point that tells you, “Okay, that’s it. Time to cut my losses and move on.” This is the point where you exit regardless of what’s happening, because you have incurred your maximum loss and you don’t want to invest anymore time or energy into this anymore.

One time my husband and I got ripped off of $40 USD in Bali. A cab driver dropped us off at our hotel lobby and pocketed the cash, making use of the fact that we were not familiar with the local currency. While not a lot in the U.S. or Singapore, this amount goes a long way in Bali. We were miffed not about the loss, but that it was our honeymoon and we were annoyed to deal with such a dishonest man. Our hotel staff was very helpful and tried to track down the driver, from reviewing the CCTV to calling cab companies to calling a suspect back to our hotel, but to no avail.

After an hour, 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 company. Moreover, the amount was 40 USD — as working adults, it was easier to earn it back than locate a crook on a foreign land.

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

Read: 13 Helping Points When Things Don’t Go Your Way

7) Let go of unresolved problems

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 is about letting go. Just because you stop fighting a problem doesn’t mean that you have let go of it mentally.

For example, 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 very cliquish and she didn’t fit in.

While she felt deeply troubled by the situation and even cried in the office at one point, after that she focused on planning her career next steps instead. She worked on her resume, and then started looking for jobs after she got her year-end bonus. Eventually she found a job with a new company with a better pay and workplace conditions. She has since been working there for two years and is enjoying her job and her co-workers.

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 Just 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: perhaps you feel disrespected, because the situation confronts one of your fears, or because it deals with something that matters a lot to you.
  3. Work on new paths forward. Since the conflict can’t be resolved to your satisfaction, what can you do to move forward? Identify new ways forward. For example 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 outcome not turning out the way you want?

Check out:

Are You Choosing Your Battles?

Are you facing any battle right now? How can you apply the tips above?

Related posts: