When to Quit

When to Quit

The old saying that ‘winners never quit and quitters never win’ is overly simplistic. Winners ‘quit’ all the time – the key is knowing when to keep going, and when to move on.

The balance we are looking for is between stubbornness and patience: is this a bad idea that isn’t going to work, or a good idea that we haven’t made work yet?

Why DON’T We Quit?

Sometimes we are so committed to one path, we can’t [or don’t want to] see any alternatives. This is often due to ‘sunk costs’ – the more resources we have invested [time, money, energy], the harder it is to quit. We need to understand that sunk costs are gone – we can’t get them back – and recognise that past decisions are irrelevant. Instead, think about what the future costs might be – both tangibly [money, time] and in terms of opportunities we might miss.

A simple example is going to the cinema. If after an hour you’re not enjoying the film, do you:

  1. Accept the loss of money, and sit through the rest of the film. [Waste both time and money].
  2. Accept the loss of money, and leave to do something else. [Waste only the money].

Our tendency is to choose option 1, but in fact we should ignore the sunk cost of the ticket price.

Why DO We Quit?

In ‘The Dip’, Seth Godin explains how nearly all worthwhile achievements involve a period of hard work where progress may not be very obvious. He calls this ‘the dip’, and it’s where most people quit – but in reality, pushing through the dip is what ultimately brings us success.

Persistence alone is not enough. Godin points out that we need to avoid the ‘cul-de-sac’ – the dead end, and one simple way to tell the difference is to ask ‘Do I have more assets than I did a week ago? Than I did last month?’ If the answer is no, you may be in a cul-de-sac … but if the answer is yes, then you’re probably in a dip, and should keep going.

When SHOULD We Quit?

There is rarely a simple answer to this question, but when making a choice about whether to keep going, we should be very aware of cognitive bias – our tendency to make decisions based on our perceptions, which may not be what is actually happening.

With our biases in mind, one simple tool we can use is a pair of questions from Chris Guillebeau:

  1. Is it working? [Knowing what you know now, would you do it again?]
  2. Do I still love it? [Are the challenges making you question your core assumptions?]

Debbie Millman offers another question to consider:
What scares you more – regret or rejection?

Our responses to these three questions may not provide a clear answer, but they will likely guide us towards the source of our difficulty.

It’s also important to remember that in addition to persist or abandon, there may be a third option – the pivot, or change of direction. It’s rare that a project, business or relationship moves in a smooth, straight line, and so we need to stay persistent but not stubborn, and patient yet agile.

When to quit is not an easy question to answer – but consistently asking it of ourselves can help prevent us wasting precious resources, be that time, money, or our attention.