7 Tips 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.

Have you heard of the phrase, “choose your battles” before?

Choose your battles means to be selective of the problems, arguments, and confrontations that you get involved in. Instead of fighting every problem, you save your time only for the things that matter. This means fighting the most important battles and letting go of the rest.

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Why is it important to choose your battles?

  1. Not everything is important. Some things simply don’t matter in the long run. If you think about what matters 5, 10, even 20 years from now, it’s apparent that many of the things we worry about are small, and we should instead focus on the big important things.
  2. Every battle takes up time. Every problem you wrap yourself in takes up time and energy. Even if you win that battle, maybe your time could have been better spent elsewhere. Victory isn’t all that matters sometimes — making the best use of your time is.
  3. We all have limited time on earth. Ultimately, the reason why anything matters is that we have limited time on earth. You and I will die someday. When you look back at your life from your deathbed, what do you want to see? A life where you worried about every little thing and argued with everyone who stood in your way? Or a meaningful life well lived, where you spent your time only on the things that mattered, such as with the people you love and things that help the world?

The point of choosing your battles is to be strategic in how you spend this limited resource called time. What matters to you? What are your most important goals? Who are the most important people to you? Fighting every battle means having no time for these things that matter. By making the choice as to what battle you want to fight, you are already winning the big game called life.

7 Tips to Choose Your Battles (and Win Them)

Choosing your battles often balances on a thin line between knowing when to take something further and when to turn away. Here are my 7 tips to choose your battles and win the battles you fight. 🙂

1) Evaluate the problem

Believe it or not, most of the things that disrupt us on a daily basis are small, petty things with no impact in the long run. This includes toxic people and people who try to get you down.

When faced with a problem, you want to ask yourself:

  1. Is this problem really important?
  2. Do I need to deal with it?
  3. Can my time be better spent elsewhere?

Once a friend (or someone whom I thought was a friend) badmouthed me in front of a business acquaintance. This acquaintance was someone whom I might be collaborating with, and for this friend to badmouth me in front of someone who just knew me was in pretty poor taste.

After thinking about it, I decided to just move on (but not without cutting off that friend first). I realized that I have many things to worry about in life, and it was not worth it for me to waste my mental energy on someone who had been causing me anguish throughout the course of our friendship.

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Similarly, I have come across my fair share of weird folks in business networking circles. For example, once I met a very successful businessman who kept bragging about himself and insulting me (and other people he knew) in our two-hour conversation. He insulted the way I dressed, sneered at my job as a coach, and dismissed the value of a coaching business — all entirely unwarranted remarks. Given that my past few encounters with him were the same, I reckoned it was pointless to refute or pick a fight because his comments seemed to stem from an inferiority complex rather than any truth. Instead, I made the mental note to cut away this person to prevent any more of such incidents.

If you’re facing a conflict, consider this: You have only 24 hours each day, and only a few of these hours can be productive hours. How do you want to spend your time? Feeling angry about someone who is not worth your time in the first place? Feeling angry about petty things that will not matter a few years from now? Or spending your time on the seeds that will blossom and grow? The former will only make you feel more negative about yourself. The latter will shape your life for the better.

2) Do a cost-benefit analysis

In the investment world, cost-benefit analysis is a systematic approach to estimate the strengths and weaknesses of a business investment, so that you can determine if this investment is sound.

When facing an impending battle, doing a cost-benefit analysis helps you decide if the battle is worth fighting. Ask yourself:

  1. Do the costs outweigh the benefits? If the answer is “yes,” it’s generally better to let go and move on.
  2. What are the odds of success? If the odds of success are very low, then it may be better to just move on as well.

A few years ago, I signed a contract with a company to produce a product. After pushing away all my projects and dedicating a good half of my year to work on this, I successfully delivered the product and it received great reviews from customers. However, even though this company was supposed to market the product, they gradually stopped supporting it 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 given that they were supposed to market the product but backed out of the arrangement, it put me in a losing deal because I had invested all my time into creating a high-quality product that I can’t even sell myself.

While I was very angry initially, especially when the company went dark in my subsequent 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, where you destroy everything without regard of whatever goodwill that was left. Thirdly, even if I had my way and the company reinstated marketing support, it would at most increase my revenue by like 5 percent. 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 pick a battle to make a statement. For example, in the case of workplace molestation, medical negligence, or bullying, you should raise the issue and let others know about the problem. I have personally reported school bullies before, and same for workplace harassment. The payoff of engaging in the battle doesn’t have to be monetary — it can be a moral one, like protecting our rights or preventing further recurrence of the problem. Every situation is different, so weigh the costs and benefits before deciding what to do.

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

Should you decide to pick the battle, work toward a win-win situation where both of you will emerge 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 there is a lack of opportunities for everyone.

While this mindset may seem normal in today’s hyper-competitive world, thinking this way will only box you into limitations. There are unlimited opportunities in the world, and it’s up to us to find these opportunities or create them. This needs to first come from an abundance mindset, not a scarcity one. On the other hand, when you focus on win-win for everyone, you attract opportunities and abundance. You also share positivity and love with others.

The battle isn’t against your opponent, but 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, where both of you can achieve your goals together. If you’re angry with your friend but you want to preserve the friendship, talk to them and let them know your struggles with the friendship.

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 toward that outcome.

4) Have an open discussion

Heart-to-heart talk

(Image: Matus Laslofi)

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An important part of a win-win is to have an open discussion. When we act based on our vision of success, we are shutting the other person out without listening to what they want. Respect that the other person has their 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 a hidden resentment for her husband as she has been giving so much to the family: working, taking care of the kids, and housework. She feels that she has put her ideal life on hold in caring for the family, without much help from her husband. This was a surprising revelation as she has not been 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 underneath 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 her husband 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:

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  1. Seek to understand. Everyone has different views, and you want to understand what their views are. Don’t override their opinions just because they are different from yours. Understand what they are and why the person thinks that way.
  2. Share your views and let the person have a chance to 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, to ask questions, and to 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 the other person and you want to create a win-win outcome for everyone. Work together to brainstorm the best solution, given both your needs.

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 at hand, not the other person.

Yet, when in 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 open up. You may feel like attacking the other person, even if you logically know that this is not the goal. You may also feel like abandoning this battle too 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 1-2 times 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 make this work.”
  3. If you feel that you are losing your cool, stop talking to compose yourself. Imagine yourself 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 you 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 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 the battle because you have incurred your maximum loss and you don’t want to invest any more time or energy into this.

There was once when my husband and I got ripped off of US$40 in Bali. A cab driver dropped us off at our hotel lobby, made use of the fact that we were not familiar with the local currency, and lied to us about the bill (which was supposed to be US$4). While this is not a lot of money in the States, this amount goes a long way in Bali. What’s more, it was our honeymoon and we were annoyed to deal with such a dishonest man during a celebratory event. Our hotel staff was helpful and tried to track down the driver, from reviewing the CCTV to calling a suspect back to our hotel, but to no avail.

A cafe in Bali, during nightime

Our honeymoon in Bali that 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 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.

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 #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, after that she focused on her career next steps 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. On the other hand, if she 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 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: maybe you feel disrespected, maybe the situation confronts one of your fears, or maybe it deals with something that matters a lot to you. Uncovering the root issue will help you to understand and let go.
  3. Work on a new path forward. Since the conflict can’t be resolved to your satisfaction, what can you do to 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?

Check out:

Are You Choosing Your Battles?

If you tend to 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. 🙂

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