Making Trade-offs

Oftentimes, you’ll find yourself in meetings where the person you’re meeting with puts their phone on the table. When you ask them to put their phone away, they refuse. In doing so, they forget that because we have agreed to meet at a specific place and time, we each deserve our full attention. By choosing to be partial about it (by using our phones, for instance), we are not keeping our agreement, which was to spend time with that person for that period of time. I find this so basic, pathetic, and obvious to even write about it. But time and again, in some of my meetings, I find this to be a recurring theme, and when you ask them to put their phones away, they are shocked and dumbfounded (as if it’s an unreasonable request).

Here’s the thing: You can either choose to spend time with that person for which you have agreed to meet at a specific time, or you can choose not to have the meeting in the first place and instead spend it with your phone (or however you choose). You can’t do both.

Another common example: you want to stay up late (to do fun things) and you want to get up early to do your work without being tired. For obvious reasons, both of those things are not possible to the exclusion of the other. Yet, time and again, you tell yourself the morning after that you would sleep on time so you can get enough rest for the following day. You can either make a choice to stay up late to do those fun things and accept that you’ll wake up later than usual (and be okay with it), or you can choose to go to sleep on time, get enough rest, and get up early for work. Yet, by not making a conscious, explicit choice, we end up trying to do both and are not able to do either of those things well.

By definition, a trade-off involves two things we want. By nature, it requires us to make choices between two desirable things. Should we answer the ringing phone or talk to the person in front of us? Should we make this phone call or attend our next meeting on time? Should we ship now when it’s almost ready or wait to ship next week when it’s perfect? Should we spend quality time with our family or attend a relative’s wedding? Do we want to have a good, healthy body or do we want to be carefree about eating whatever we want? Do we want to watch a late-night movie or get up on time for work? Should we save time or money? You get the idea.

Here’s the thing: we can’t have it all or do everything. We can only do a few things better. If you have ten projects that are a “priority“, none of the projects are a priority. You will only end up spreading yourself thin over those ten projects, and it will reflect (poorly) in your results.

A trade-off represents an opportunity cost of doing one thing to the exclusion of others. As an individual and as an organization, we have to make strategic trade-offs for using our time and attention effectively and maximally. By refusing to make the trade-offs, we’ll spread ourselves thin in terms of time and effort spent, which will result in sub-optimal results for our projects.

As economist Thomas Sowell has written:

There are no solutions. There are only trade-offs.

Author Greg McKeown says that we can try to avoid the reality of trade-offs, but we can’t escape them. We can either choose to view trade-offs as something to give up or something to go BIG on. Instead of thinking you can do both things, ask yourself about the trade-off you want to make. Instead of asking, “How can I make it all work?”, ask, “Which problem do I want to solve?”. Unless you make trade-offs deliberately by conscious choice (by design), they will happen by default (which you don’t want). Moreover, making that conscious choice will help you increase the chances of reaching your project outcome.

When we are faced with a request of our time from others, we can choose to say either yes or no. A lot of times, we might feel “pressured/obligated” to say yes when we want to say no, which we ultimately regret later. Here’s the thing: We can either choose to remain popular in the short term (by saying yes) or trade it with respect in the long term (by saying no). I wrote about it in my draft on saying no.

An example of making a trade-off by design is when a parent (usually a mother) gives up her work life to raise her child. She makes a deliberate choice to spend some time in her child’s younger years and explicitly decides to give up her career for a brief time. Of course, it goes without saying that the spouse has to be supportive (emotionally and financially); otherwise, it can’t work.

Let’s look at another example. When asked to work on a project by your boss, instead of taking one more project and spreading yourself (and the result) thin, ask your boss which project you should deprioritize so you can make room to do this project well. To give your boss the benefit of the doubt, they might not always be aware of things on your plate, which is where the onus is on you to let them know.

Ignoring the reality of trade-offs is a terrible strategy for individuals and organizations. Instead of ignoring the reality of trade-offs, embrace them, make them thoughtfully and strategically, and use them to your benefit. They are to be welcomed as an opportunity in disguise that only increases your chances of achieving the result/outcome you want, not by spreading yourselves thin, but by giving your full attention to a few things that matter. Stop trying to do it all — you can’t. You will only end up spreading yourself thin in terms of time and effort, and it will only guarantee a sub-standard result/outcome.

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