Why Quitting is Good

Image by Conor Ogle

Image by Conor Ogle

It’s counter-intuitive to know that quitting on a goal (however big or small) can be a good thing, especially when we are bombarded with messages about the virtues of persistence and perseverance.

I started to question these virtues last year when I repatriated and embarked on graduate studies. Early on, the workload, stress and nature of the programme overwhelmed me and I thought about quitting. Every. Single. Day. However, I felt like it would be some kind of moral failing. Maybe I would never forgive myself and would live with the stigma of being a ‘quitter.’

So, I was surprised (and relieved) to learn that there is a slew of social and economic research behind why quitting can be the best thing you’ll ever do.

According to this research, the biggest reason people don’t throw in the towel when they should is because of our aversion to sunk costs: quitting means thinking about the past and coming to terms with all of the time, money and energy we have invested in something (a project, relationship, job, dream, house etc.), and realizing that we can never get it back.

Those clever Freakonomics dudes, Stephen J. Dubner and Steven Levitt lay out the 411 on this issue in one of their excellent and entertaining podcast episodes, The Upside of Quitting.

They contend that quitting can be a good thing if done fast and strategically. That is, we need to let go of the past and let our sunk costs sink while thinking about the future and opportunity cost.

In Dubner’s words: “It means that for every hour or dollar you spend on one thing, you’re giving up the opportunity to spend that hour or dollar on something else – something that might make your life better. If only you weren’t so worried about the sunk cost. If only you could quit.”

Ahhh, If only knowing if and when to quit was so easy and obvious. While there are those who shy away from sunk costs (guilty!), there are those who give up too early, and weighing the costs and benefits of quitting can oftentimes be too simplistic.

Enter Heidi Grant Halvorson – a social scientist known for liberating screeds of useful and relevant (yes, you read right) academic research on this topic from obscure journals and exposing it to a wider audience – gives us one way to know when to fold ‘em. By adopting a promotion focus – that is, by thinking about our goals in terms of what can be gained (such as happiness and well-being) – we become more comfortable with screwing up and accepting the losses we incur along with way.

Conversely, when we take on a prevention focus – a preoccupation with what we could lose if we don’t succeed, we are much more aware of, and sensitive to, sunk costs.

Mr Dubner concludes with some apt advice: “It’s something that Stella Adler, the great acting coach, used to say: Your choice is your talent. So choosing the right path, the right project, the right job or passion or religion – that’s where the treasure lies; that’s where the value lies. So if you realize that you’ve made a wrong choice – even if already you’ve sunk way too much cost into it – well, I’ve got one word to say to you, my friend. Quit.”

In my own case, I decided to persist which came at a cost – financial, emotional, mental, and physical. I lived through one year of hell because I thought the sense of accomplishment and piece of paper at the end of it would be worth it. If I was to do it over again (shudder), I wonder if, and at what point I would adopt a promotion focus and be courageous enough to call myself a quitter.