You have no doubt heard this phrase many times throughout your life: “Pick your battles.” It’s one of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever heard, as it can be applied to almost any aspect of life. On an almost daily basis, I find myself mumbling under my breath, “Pick your battles, Chris. Pick your battles.”
The idea is that you cannot win every little conflict in your life. And you only have so much energy, focus, time, and resources to deal with these situations. Since life tends to throw at us more problems than we have resources to solve all at once, it makes sense to limit our responses.
So you should be selective about how you engage with other people or with certain problems. Sure, some problems take priority and need to be addressed immediately. But other problems can actually resolve themselves without any direct confrontation on your part.
Let’s consider a couple examples of when to pick your battles.
Pick Your Battles in Parenting
One day, a few years ago, we asked our teenage son to clean the shower. He had done it a couple of times in the past, but it was a struggle to get him to start (he probably got that from me).
Anyway, later that night, when I went into the bathroom to shower, I noticed that he had missed a spot here and there and left some streaks on the walls.
But I didn’t mention that to him.
I just said, “Hey. Great job. The shower looks really good,” or something to that effect.
I didn’t call him in and point out the spots he missed or the streaks. And I didn’t have him do it all over again or touch up those spots.
As a parent, it can be tempting to do that because you want to teach your kids to do the job right. But in this situation, taking that approach would have been a mistake.
Instead, I just kept it positive and built him up.
Because I know from my own personal experience that building someone’s self-esteem with positive feedback goes a lot farther in reinforcing that new behavior than criticism does.
I wasn’t going to pressure him to do the job perfectly. Instead, my goal at that point was simply to help him build the habit of cleaning up around the house and being more responsible.
So I just expressed my appreciation and gratitude and built up his self-esteem – and I left it at that.
Not long afterward, he started cleaning not only the shower and tub – but the sink, counter, and mirror too!
At first, he missed some spots.
I was tempted to redo it afterward or point it out to him, but I again realized that that would also have been a mistake.
So I didn’t critique his work or clean the spots he missed.
I just left it as is, thanked him, and marveled at how clean and sparkly everything looked.
I think that was the right approach because a few years have passed, and now I can’t even count the number of times that he has cleaned the bathroom without being asked.
In fact, he even took the initiative to start cleaning the kitchen and his own room too. And on top of that, he does a much more thorough job cleaning these days than he did early on.
Pick Your Battles in Marriage
I also remember another time many years ago, early on in my marriage. It was a Saturday or Sunday afternoon. My wife and I had a few loads of clean laundry in baskets that had piled up during the week. So we worked together to bang it all out at one time, having a nice chat as we went.
I folded a load of her clothes and stacked them neatly on the bed. Then I started doing the same with some towels.
And as we worked and chatted, without even skipping a beat, she began to unfold and then refold that stack of her clothes that I had just folded.
She didn’t say anything about it.
I didn’t say anything about it.
We just kept chatting and folding the next load of laundry.
Then she did the same thing with the hand towels that I had just finished folding. She unfolded them and then refolded them in a slightly different way, stacked them, and put them away.
This actually ended up happening again a couple weeks later.
Needless to say – I didn’t bother helping her fold her clothes or fold towels anymore after that. Why bother if she’s just going to refold them? I mean, I wasn’t angry. But it was a little frustrating.
Still…I get it, though.
She likes to fold her shirts a certain way.
I’m like that too with my shirts.
But if she was trying to train her hubby to help out more with the laundry, she sure had a sucky way of reinforcing that behavior lol.
Behaviors That Get Rewarded Get Repeated
I mentioned at the beginning that the main reason for picking your battles is to conserve energy, time, and resources so that you don’t spread yourself too thin. You let some things go so that you can focus on winning the battles that matter most.
And that’s true.
But these two examples above reveal a second reason – one that is extremely important but often overlooked.
Unsolicited criticism – even so-called “constructive” criticism – may have its place in certain situations. But there is often a more effective way to get the results you’re after. This is especially true when it comes to getting people to engage in new behaviors on their own initiative.
Instead of criticizing someone’s early attempts at a new behavior, you might get better results by simply giving them positive feedback and encouragement.
When you build people up, it makes them feel good about themselves.
Behaviors that get rewarded get repeated.
And when people feel good about themselves when engaging in this new behavior, they are more likely to want to do it more often. With praise and encouragement, they will take pride in the work that they do.
And here’s the best part – they’ll start to notice and self-correct their own errors as they gain experience.
Pick Your Battles at Work
If you are a business owner or a manager or team leader at your place of employment, you can probably already think of some ways in which positive reinforcement can improve your results at work too.
Building up your employees or direct reports instead of jumping straight into criticism can work wonders for their self-esteem, their attitude on the job, and their work performance. And when applied consistently by management, it can help to reduce employee turnover.
While this tactic won’t be appropriate for every single situation, you might be surprised at how effective it can be.
Give it a try over the next few months and see if you begin to notice a difference.