02/22/2013 10:26 am ET Updated Apr 24, 2013

Stop Hanging Around

Most of us -- almost 90 percent at last count -- say we are dissatisfied with our jobs and intend to seek new opportunities. Some individuals surveyed were just having a bad day. Others were in the middle of a temporary period of dissatisfaction with work. But a large subset face a true mismatch and need to take decisive action. That last bunch, in the words of The Animals, just gotta get out of this place.

Before thinking about when to quit, it's useful to understand why we won't quit when we know we should. Based on my research, the answer has little to do with the economy, our seniority or how well we've defined the next career step. The limiting factor is our own psychology.

Like scientists over rats in a maze, companies condition us to stay by implementing variable reinforcement schedules. That's a behavioral psychologist's way of describing how corporations drop bonuses, promotions and other rewards into our career paths at unscheduled intervals, enticing us to remain long enough to grab the next pellet. People are also premature optimizers: we're generally accustomed to making small tweaks to our professional lives, rather than big leaps. Engineers call this the "local maxima" problem: as we busily scale the peak we're on, we miss entirely the higher mountain nearby.

After you understand the behavioral side of quitting, you can think about the timing of your departure. My research highlights three signs that indicate it may be time to leave.

The first sign is repeated false starts. If you frequently promise yourself you'll quit, there's usually an underlying reason (or reasons). Like any other habit, we become so accustomed to failed attempts at quitting that we never actually do it.

The second sign is continued stagnant performance despite your best efforts. If you've tried to improve your showing and haven't delivered results, your skills and abilities probably don't mesh with your role. In the case of "up or out" industries like consulting or private equity, you might have the right skills, but the next hurdle is simply out of reach.

The third sign is a lack of boss envy. If you don't want your superior's job, you might have a problem. If you cast your eye at roles two to three rungs up the ladder and aren't excited, your tenure is likely limited. Your hungrier peers will soon pass you, creating more job dissatisfaction in your current role.

If you recognize these signs, stop existing in the muddled middle and pursue different work. No one likes a serial quitter, but calculated abandonment can be liberating.

A version of this piece was originally published in The New York Times.