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When making a change, we’re asking the question, “Is it worth it to me?”

Many of us are very motivated to make changes in our lives, but often it’s not enough to simply be motivated to make change. In addition to needing to understand and believe something is important to us, we also need the tradeoffs to be worth it.

Tradeoffs are the immediate and long-term costs of a decision, action or inaction. Tradeoffs aren’t good or bad – they’re about understanding what’s worth it or not worth it from a specific individual or group’s point of view.

Example: How tradeoffs impact whether change will last

Imagine you were offered a job in a field that you love that would double your salary, but it would require you to move across the country. Would you take the job? Why or why not?

Use the accordions below to explore how tradeoffs work in practice:

Exploring if the change is worth it

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People often name common factors when asked whether they would move for a new job. They might be considering:

  • Whether they are near family members
  • Whether they know anyone in the new location
  • Whether the new location is a match for them (such as urban vs. rural, local culture, political leaning, climate and environment)
  • How much the pay is
  • Impact on their family if they have one (such as schools, job options for a partner, friends for kids)

We can come to different answers for similar reasons. One person might say no because they don’t want to uproot their family, while another might say yes because their family doesn’t like where they’re living.

Key Insight: There is no one right answer to whether a person should take the new job – your answer will vary depending on the tradeoffs you identify.

Weighing tradeoffs on decisions big and small

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We often debate big decisions like a new job for a long time – but we’re frequently evaluating tradeoffs in our everyday decisions too.

For example, you’re weighing tradeoffs when:

  • You’re running late to a meeting, feeling very hungry, and decide to stop by your favorite deli to grab a sandwich even though you’ll be extra late.
  • You decide to cancel your annual physical because you hate it when the doctor scolds you for not eating healthier.
  • You decide not to say what you really think at a community meeting because of racism, sexism or past trauma.

Think about a tradeoff you made this month, whether big or small. What made it feel more or less worth it?

Key Insight: We evaluate tradeoffs on all kinds of decisions. Sometimes you might not think much about them, while other times you might deliberate for a long time. But you’re almost always evaluating tradeoffs among the Five Domains of Wellbeing.

How to make change last

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Have you ever been in a situation where someone else made a decision that was very different from what you would expect or want? This can happen when:

  • The person is weighing tradeoffs differently than you would.
  • The tradeoffs don’t feel worth it to them.
  • The tradeoffs were worth it initially (they were excited about the move) but not sustainable in the long run (they missed their family and friends too much).

To make change last, people need both motivation and sustainable tradeoffs for the change to stick. When systems force progress in one domain of wellbeing at the expense of other assets, the change often doesn’t last.

Key Insight: Ask people questions that help you understand what tradeoffs they are making. What you might perceive as resistance could be that they are evaluating tradeoffs differently than you would. The tradeoffs need to feel worth it — in the short- and long-term — for the change to last.

How to identify and anticipate tradeoffs

Try our worksheet for individuals or our systems-level tool for rules and policies to explore the potential impacts of a change or decision and then evaluate whether the tradeoffs feel worth it.

Learn more by watching the video below to explore how tradeoffs work in practice:

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How you can design systems differently by focusing on tradeoffs

We get into trouble when systems force tradeoffs that undermine lasting change or we make assumptions about what other people want. Consider these three factors the next time you are designing a policy, structure or practice: