A few years ago I was -- like some of you reading this -- overextended, overworked and deeply unhappy about it. I was a young psychology professor desperately seeking tenure, with two toddlers at home and a husband whose work kept him away for days at a time. I exercised once a week on a good week, rarely saw my friends or extended family and couldn't remember the last time I'd read a book that wasn't about statistics.
It was just too much. Something had to give. And it did. I left my job, not knowing exactly what I was going to do next. It was the toughest decision I've ever made, but it was also one of the best.
As a psychologist who studies motivation, I spend a lot of time trying to figure out why people give up too soon when trying to reach a goal. But the truth is, a lot of us suffer from the opposite problem: not knowing when, or how, to quit. We take on too many projects and commitments, and end up turning in 10 mediocre jobs instead of one or two stellar performances.
To be sure, quitting a job may not be an option for many, but most of us surround ourselves with plenty of unofficial projects that may not be worth pursuing.
So, why is it so hard to throw in the towel, even when on some level you know you should? For one thing, it's embarrassing to admit to others that you've bitten off more than you can chew, or that you've made an error of judgment. No one likes to be thought of as a "quitter." For another, quitting means contemplating the sunk costs -- all the time and energy that you've already put into reaching your goal that you can never get back.
Of course, once you realize that you probably won't succeed, or that success isn't worth the unhappiness your project is causing you, it shouldn't matter what the sunk costs are. If your job, your advanced degree, or your unfinished novel has taken up some of the best years of your life, it doesn't make sense to give them even more years. That will only make you miserable.
But that doesn't make walking away any easier. So here's a simple game plan for cutting your losses.
At the outset:
- Figure out which goal has to go. It might be obvious, but most of the time it won't be, so you'll need to really give some serious thought to your priorities. What matters most to you? And, just as important, what makes you feel effective and fulfilled? Anything that doesn't, might need to get the boot.
- Be confident. You'll want to know that you are giving up your goal for the right reasons, so ask yourself these two questions:
- What do I need to reach this goal, and can I get what I need? Look at the whole picture. If successfully reaching this goal means more time and effort than you can spare without sacrificing other important goals, you may need to walk away. (Maybe you can't work 50 hours a week, spend time with your kids and write that screenplay, and that's OK.)
- Will reaching this goal cost me too much? Will it make me unhappy? Sometimes the problem isn't limited time and energy, it's that you really don't like what you're doing as much as you thought you would. You find the process of reaching the goal boring, frustrating or unrewarding. Circumstances change, and it's OK for your goals to change too.
Once you've made up your mind that quitting is right move:
- Stop dwelling on the past. When regrets about sunk costs creep into your thinking, have a replacement thought ready, one that focuses on everything you gain from walking away and moving on. (Example: "If I feel guilty about giving up on my unfinished novel, then I'll remember how good it feels to have more time on the weekends with my kids.")
- Replace the goal with one that does work for you. To keep yourself moving forward and feeling satisfied with your choice, give some thought to what you will do instead. If you just don't have the time to write a 600-page novel, is there some other way you could express your thoughts and creativity that you do have time for, like blogging?
Learning to know when to fold 'em is essential for your well-being, and ultimately for your personal and professional success, too. When you can give up on a goal that isn't working, you'll be freeing up the valuable resources you need to make the most of the goals you do pursue -- the ones really worth pursuing.
For more by Heidi Grant Halvorson, Ph.D., click here.
For more on success and motivation, click here.
For more science-based strategies you can use to reach your goals and get happier and healthier in 2012, check out Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals and Nine Things Successful People Do Differently.
This post appeared originally on WSJ.com