Recently, I have quit something. No, I haven’t quit this blog (though I have been absent for a while), I’ve quit my weekly column on fitness, and I’ve detailed the reasons below, along with as much information about quitting as I could gather for you.
I didn’t quit because I ran out of ideas (I could still talk about Keto, IF, Inflammatory Depression, Anti-Inflammatory Dieting, etc.), or ran out of time to write it in, or because I had a fall out with the Editor, but because I chose to quit.
So why should we quit anything? Quite simply, because we are
going to die. That’s a dramatic way of saying it, I admit, but the core idea is
the same: we only have so much time and energy in our lives, quitting one thing
frees up these precious resources for something else. To use an economics term,
while committing to a project may not actually cost you any money (although
sometimes it will) there will always be an opportunity cost, something that you
won’t be able to do because you have chosen otherwise. Quitting one thing makes
room for other opportunities.
It is perfectly OK to quit. Quitting something may free up time, but that should not be the main reason for quitting. I encourage you not to say “I don’t have time.” and instead say “It isn’t a priority.” and you should quit in the same way. Don’t quit because you don’t have time, quit because it is no-longer a priority. Priorities change, that is a fact of life, and leaving something that is no-longer a priority is one-hundred percent acceptable. Giving up on a risky venture is acceptable if financial stability becomes your priority. Giving up a job is acceptable if family time becomes your priority. Giving up on any project is acceptable if relaxing and having time to just be becomes your priority.
When should we quit? Well, firstly, after you start. For many people the stumbling block is before the starting block: they give up after thinking about how much work it might take, or how they might fail.
The point at which many people quit is at what Seth Godin calls the Dip. This is the point after the initial boost of excitement, learning and success that things start to slow down. You’ve spent the last X many days learning at a high rate and feeling good about the speed that you are moving, but now you are starting to get stuck. You aren’t moving fast and nothing new or interesting is happening. The question you now need to ask yourself is this: Is this a dip or a dead end? A dip is a temporary sink in productivity, a momentary slow down, before you take off again in the future and start to succeed again. It can happen at any point, after a couple of days in a project, or after a couple of years in a business. A dead end on the other hand, is when there is no future to the project, and any further resources dedicated are just being wasted.
If your slowdown is just a dip, then clearly you just need to keep going. If it is a dead end however, then you had better cut your losses now. But what if you think it is just a dip, and you spend more time, money and energy on it only to find out that you were wrong? Or you might think it is a dead end, but it was in fact just a dip and a couple more weeks of work would have got you somewhere? Because humans are skewed to be more loss avoidant than gain targeted (more on this further down), many people will be more likely to quit in a dip just in case it is going to be a waste.
Luckily Seth Godin has a tip that might help figure out whether it is a dip or a dead end. Ask yourself, who am I trying to influence? If it is an individual and you are experiencing a dip, it is probably a dead end. If, however, it is a market, then by all means keep going. Each person in that market you fail to influence, you will develop your product a bit more, until someone buys what you are selling, then another, and another, and all of a sudden you are certain that the dip is over and you have succeeded. (More on the Dip here or buy it here)
A second tip for figuring out when to quit comes from long distance runner Dick Collins. Dick recommends setting a predetermined quitting point before you start. Traders will do this by setting a Stop Loss point so that they don’t panic and quit the market early. In Dick’s words, “If you make a decision based on how you feel at that moment you will probably make the wrong decision.” Our emotions and feelings are volatile, but if we set a quitting point, or quitting criteria before we start, we’ll keep going until we have objectively failed or succeeded. For example, if you are starting on a new venture, setting a quitting point like breaking even by the end of the year would be reasonable, otherwise it is possible that you’ll keep throwing good money after bad.
Why is it that we sometimes keep trudging along on a doomed project? Why is it that sometimes it is so bloody hard to quit? There are three experimentally proven theories: sunk cost, focusing on positive cues, and a focus on loss aversion.
The Sunk Cost Fallacy is what the saying “throwing good money after bad” is based on. It is based on the fallacious idea that the break is just around the corner, or that because you have already invested so much money/time/energy into a project, you should see it through to completion, ignoring the fact that it may cost much more to complete the project than you have already invested in it. Say you have booked a holiday and the total cost of the holiday is 1500. Days before the holiday you fall ill and know that if you went on the holiday you wouldn’t enjoy it, and may even put your health at greater risk. The hotel is refundable, but the £500 flights aren’t. Is it worth going on the holiday just because you have already spent the money on the flights and you can’t get it back? One tool I like to use is to think about what it is you are really buying: Would I rather spend £500 to stay at home and recover or £1500 to feel ill away from home?
A second reason we stick around when we should really quit is because we focus on positive cues. You dislike your job, and keep thinking about quitting, but when you get close to your breaking point, your boss compliments your work. This compliment feels good, so you work harder. In fact, you work harder than your colleague in a different branch who consistently gets complimented. This isn’t just a fictional tale, it has been proved by B.F. Skinner experimentally. Skinner’s rats, when presented with a lever that occasionally produced food, worked harder and pressed the lever more often than other rats whose levers always produced food, or never produced food.
While focusing on positive cues can keep you going in difficult times, it can also lead to you staying when you should have quit. If the overall interaction becomes negative and there is no sign of it changing, you should quit, even if it is sometime positive. This works with jobs, personal projects and relationships.
The third reason that people often don’t quit is FOMO. While FOMO isn’t exactly a science term, it is very useful here. People fear missing out on what there is to be gained from completing the project they are focusing on, but don’t think about what there is to be gained from quitting. To reuse the idea of opportunity cost, people focus on what they lose when they quit, not what there is to win (the opportunity cost of continuing).
Part of the reason for this is because people tend to be more sensitive to loss than they are to gain. As identified by Kahneman and Tversky, people prefer not to lose £5 than to gain £5, with a study by Kahneman and Tversky showing that losses are twice as psychologically powerful as equivalent gains. This is called loss aversion and is why companies offer trial periods: once the service has become part of the status quo people value the avoidance of losing what they have higher than the value of gaining it in the first place.
Some of you will be reading this, thinking “It is January, time of New Year’s resolutions, why are you writing about quitting?” My goal is two-fold. Firstly, I hope that you quit things that are taking up too much of your life and let better things is. Secondly, I hope that when you do think about quitting the positive things, you think back to why you’d quit and reflect on what point in the process you are currently in, and hopefully make the right, informed decision.