trade offs in lifeI’m obsessed with trade-offs.  If you ask me, “What’s life about?”, I’d answer, in a heartbeat, “Trade-offs.”  If you say, “Can people have it all?”, I’d respond, “They can have a lot, if they’re realistic in their expectations, and make the right trade-offs.”  It’s an imperfect world.  There’s a finite amount of time.

My theory of trade-offs, which I rely on in my personal and professional life, is this: You have to explicitly recognize the choices you’re making and the impact they have on what you value most (yourself, your relationships, your work, etc.), and realize that you’ll have to sacrifice or cut corners somewhere.  The work is figuring out where the give is.  What’s left is the best life for you.

So what are the right trade-offs?  The answer to that is deeply individual, and deeply personal, and ever shifting.

For example, I have a client with two little kids.  She’s sleep-deprived, even though her kids both sleep through the night, because she stays up extra hours to watch TV or read or do e-mail, all the personally edifying stuff that she otherwise can’t find time for.  And because she’s sleep-deprived, she’s more irritable during the day.  So, is it the right trade-off?

I know, it sounds like a riddle.  (Feel free to come up with your own answer now.)

Initially, my client decided that it was the right trade-off, because if she didn’t have those few hours on her own, she might just lose herself entirely.

(Was that the answer you came up with, too?)

The operative words, though, are “for the moment.”  Trade-offs are constantly in flux, perpetually open to revision.  That’s the beautiful and the frustrating part.

A few weeks later, she decided that sleep was more important, because sleep deprivation was leading to more irritability, and irritability was leading to more anger toward her kids, and that meant she wasn’t the mother she meant to be, which was doing a number on her  self-esteem.  So she’s sleeping more and seeing how that goes.

Is it helping?  A little.  We still have more work to do.

For this theory to work, you have to know yourself pretty well.  You have to be able to identify what a meaningful life is for you.  Then you have to have the pragmatism and the discipline to follow through on the changes necessary.

It’s not easy.  I fall down on the job myself sometimes.  I lose sight of what’s important, or I balk at what it’ll take to get there.  I become resentful of what I have to give up; I have to mourn certain losses.  Because when you make a trade-off, you give something up that might still feel important for something that’s more important.

And that’s the realist’s guide to having it all.  Other ideas?  Feel free to chime in.

Fishing village photo available from Shutterstock