“Choose your battles wisely!”Sun Tzu, 544 B.C. – 496 B.C.
“Rachael, you need to learn to choose your battles,” sighed my boss.
I was in the middle of a rant about something happening at work that I thought was unfair. And actually, so did he. But he wasn’t doing anything about it, which annoyed me.
I thought it was unfair and he thought it was unfair. And it was such a little thing too. All it would have taken was for him to challenge a direction issued by his boss… And all would be right again. But, he refused to.
To be clear, Gary* [not his real name] was the best boss I ever had. Kind, fair, dedicated, and as sharp as a razor. He was also morally courageous, so this lack of action surprised me.
However, as Gary began to explain his earlier comment, I realised why he was right. It was also clear why he was so highly regarded by everyone who knew him. Including his boss.
I suddenly understood why he was a brilliant soldier, a superb boss, and an amazing father to his kids…
Gary knew how to choose his battles wisely. Literally, and figuratively.
Choose your battles…it’s an essential life skill
Picking your battles wisely is reserving your energy for those important battles that you need to win. Those battles where there are big consequences if you don’t.
It’s choosing not to engage in those relatively little and unimportant arguments or confrontations that leave both sides tired and irritated.
It’s about understanding others’ viewpoints, knowing what you need to achieve and what resources in time and energy you have that will enable you to do it.
In short, it’s knowing how to win in the long-term and making time for the things that matter to you.
But, to be able to do this, we need a thought process, a strategy. The five points that follow provide this for you.
To understand your opponent helps you to choose your battles
Understanding why our opponent behaves in a certain way, allows us to see their strengths and vulnerabilities. It also helps us to find the opportunities to win. That win could be a win for both sides i.e. a compromise, the basis for moving forward, and living together.
My 7 year-old daughter likes to do her own hair. I wince sometimes when I see her walking into school, hair looking like she’s been dragged through a hedge backward.
All her girlfriends have neat and tidy up-dos, painstakingly put together by their loving mothers before school. I always feel slightly ashamed, like I’m that mum who can’t be bothered to brush their child’s hair in the morning.
But…also very proud that she’s so independent.
However, that latter feeling came later…after weeks of crying, stamping and yelling about who was doing her hair in the mornings.
Take the time to know what they need to achieve
One morning, after the usual tears and tantrums, I realised I was exhausted. Day after day of arguments, shouting and crying about her hair had got us no-where. We were both tired and stressed out from all the negative emotions.
I looked at her and saw the sadness in her eyes that spoke to me, “Mummy, I can do this. I want to be an independent big girl. Let me learn. You’re suffocating me.”
I was devastated to realise that this daily stress on us both was my doing.
Did it matter that I was embarrassed about the state of her hair? Well, to me, maybe a little. But that’s my own vanity.
Does it matter to her that she’s growing up, discovering who she is and becoming more confident?
Absolutely it does. And what’s more, that’s far more important to me than my own vanity.
So, for both our sakes, this was what we needed to work on. I must let her do her own hair. She needs me to let her do her own hair.
If I had stopped to think about it sooner, and had tried to understand what she was trying to tell me, I could have prevented all those tears and all that negative emotion. Life could have been better for everyone earlier.
Understanding why your opponent behaves or thinks in the way that they do is vital to the outcome you need to achieve.
Know your mission
What is the eventual outcome you want to achieve?
In the scenario above, my long-term goal is for my daughter to grow-up confident, independent, and well-adjusted. To do that, I need to give her space to experiment, grow and develop. I must let her make her own mistakes, learn from them, and create her own life experiences.
I want her to be self-reliant and to achieve this, she needs to practice making her own decisions, find out what works and what’s important to her.
When I clarify the outcome I want for my daughter, it’s a no-brainer to allow her the space to do her own hair in the morning. Preventing her from doing this only adds an obstacle to the journey she must go through to achieve our desired outcome for her.
Sometimes our desired outcome may be more short-term.
It may be that you want a night out with the girls at the end of the week but your hubby, or your partner, also wants to go out and there’s no babysitter.
You’ll likely figure out something to persuade him, whether that’s doing the cooking all week, covering all the school runs, or by doing any other chores. Anything that may encourage him to say ‘no’ is to be avoided!
This type of short-term persuasion works on exactly the same principle – you know your mission.
What outcome effects do you need to achieve?
Knowing your mission is one thing but you also need to determine if you need to win the argument outright or whether a compromise would be as, or more, beneficial. Do you need to fight the battle at all – does the outcome of it matter?
My 4-year-old has a very sweet tooth. If she could, she’d forego her main course in favour of pudding every day.
However, as her mother, I want her to eat her main course. I need her to eat her main course!
Firstly, because to stay healthy and to grow she needs nutritious food; but secondly, because I spend ages cooking it!
So, the outcome I need to achieve is one where she eats her main course. Whether that’s with or without pudding, I don’t mind. Her outcome is to get pudding.
I don’t need to win this stand-off outright – she doesn’t only have to eat her main course. She can have pudding too.
So, we compromise. (Or rather, I bribe her…depending on how you view it!)
She can have pudding IF she eats her main course.
She gets pudding, so she’s happy. AND she eats her main course, so I’m happy.
Here, a compromise is a win-win for both sides.
Sometimes you do need to win the argument outright
But, occasionally, you may need to win the argument, as Gary had to.
If he lost that specific argument with his boss, he’d potentially increase operational risk to his soldiers.
This was why he didn’t want any further friction with his own commander. His boss needed to understand why Gary was concerned about the consequences of a decision made higher up in the command chain.
And Gary needed to get his own boss onside to fight his corner with his boss’s higher command.
Petty instances that may have been a little unfair but that irritated his boss would potentially stop Gary from doing this by trivialising a serious issue.
When we continually attack, it puts our opponents on a permanent defensive footing that stops them from listening. If we’re going to attack, it needs to count.
And this was why Gary didn’t fight that relatively small incidence of unfairness I mentioned earlier. And when I realised how effective a leader he was.
When the consequences of a battle are big, we need to make it a priority and put the time and resources into fighting it.
How much of my time should I use?
Continually fighting is hard work.
If something is worth fighting for, we need to find the time to do it. It should be a priority. If we can’t make the time because we have other priorities, then perhaps the battle is really not that important.
In which case, is it worth it or can your time be better spent elsewhere?
Only you can decide how much time you are prepared to spend on a disagreement.
Consider my husband’s mess
My husband is probably THE most untidy person I’ve ever met, in part due to the large amount of ‘stuff’ he collects. He also enjoys making things, so much so that our front garden looks like the council scrap-yard.
But, he’s always been this way. It’s part of who he is and why I love him so much.
It also drives me potty. So, I have a dilemma.
Do I spend my time continually battling to get him to clear up? (This is an emotional full-time job, no doubt about it.)
Or, do I mostly put up with it and then have the occasional melt-down when it gets too much? In which case, he usually does clear up a bit. This is as close to a compromise as I’m going to get.
Well, I chose the latter option because the benefits of having a happy family, even if we do live in a pigsty, far outweigh the benefits of moving out and living in a tidy house without him. And there are many other things I want to do with my time.
This one is a no-brainer for me.
However, every situation is different and only you can decide how much time is worth spending fighting a battle.
As a rule-of-thumb, time spent battling should be in proportion to the importance of the battle to you. If it’s not that important, don’t spend time on it. Do something else, something that will help you achieve your goals, and not waste your time.
Think through different scenarios to choose your battles
The oil major Royal Dutch Shell is well known in its industry for developing scenarios to explore possible future outcomes. The firm then uses its learning from these scenarios to make better company strategy.
Shell is continually a top performer amongst FTSE-listed companies. But it’s not greed, it’s good strategy.
I used a similar method of thinking when in the military. I assess information and try and work out what’s the best-case scenario, what’s the worst-case, and what is actually most likely?
It’s a concept that works really well and that I still use often.
When you need to choose your battles, the scenario method is a really effective way to think through your intended actions.
For example, in the story about my 4-year-old above, I was pretty sure that the most likely course of action was that my toddler would eat her meal and then ask for pudding. Which, I give her.
We both know this because it’s been the rule in our house ever since my eldest daughter began eating solid foods. I don’t deviate from this and both our girls know it.
For me, the worst course of action would be for my little one to leave her main course but somehow manage to eat her pudding. However, this is highly unlikely because pudding was out of reach – deliberately! (I know, I’m awful…but I’ve prevented my worst course of action happening.)
The best case may not be likely…
The best case for me, of course, is my daughter not eating pudding and eating up all her main course. However, this is also unlikely because she has such a sweet tooth that she will eat her main course to get her pudding. (Always take time to understand your opponent!) She’d rather not eat than eat only her main course, knowing that I want her to eat it.
But, if I go back on the promise to give her pudding, the tantrums and lack of trust that would develop from not giving her the promised pudding, means it’s not worth my while to do this. This is another bad outcome.
So, what’s left? I don’t promise her pudding. Well, then she doesn’t eat because she’s a stubborn 4-year-old. This is also bad for me because she needs her nutrition.
In the end, it’s obvious that I don’t need to fight a battle with her to eat her dinner. I bribe her with a pudding and follow through on that bribe. She eats her main course and her pudding. The compromise suits us both – a win-win.
Scenarios are about process
This may have seemed like a really obvious example of what I should do. However, the point I’m trying to highlight is that scenario thinking is about the process, not the outcome.
Each scenario gives you a problem to solve. For example, one problem highlighted is my 4-year-old gets her pudding by grabbing it from the fridge. Solution? I put it out of reach. Problem resolved!
Moreover, as you solve these problems, often the way forward becomes clearer. Sometimes, you’ll need to fight the battle and it can help you see how. Other times, you’ll see a compromise not obvious to you before. You may even find the battle is not with your time.
As with many processes, the more you use scenarios in your everyday thinking, the better and more intuitive it becomes.
Choose your battles wisely
Sun Tzu is an ancient and legendary Chinese military strategist. However, many of his principles are still so relevant to daily life today. Choosing your battles wisely is one of them.
However, this is easier said than done without a thought process.
To really understand which battles to fight, take the time to understand your opponent, know what you want to achieve, decide how much time you can devote to your cause, and then think through different possible scenarios.
Having the ability to do this makes life soooooo much easier, for everyone concerned.
Have you ever fought a battle and regretted it? How do you choose your battles? I’d love to read your thoughts below.