This post originally ran on Harvard Business Review.
As you wait for the elevator to arrive after another mediocre day at the office, you give yourself an all-too-familiar pep talk. “I’m better than this, and I’ve completely had it with this job,” you tell yourself. “I’m outta here for good.”
As you ride the elevator to the lobby, you visualize your last day at the company. You fantasize about walking into your manager’s office, tabling your resignation letter, and cleaning your forsaken cubicle for the final time. You flash your trapped colleagues a half-sympathetic smile, but you’re barely able to contain your excitement at the new direction you’re about to take. By the time you exit the elevator to the ground floor, the fantasy ends, and your once-slumped shoulders suddenly stiffen with resolve. You’re actually going to resign tomorrow!
Does this sound familiar to you? If so, did you end up quitting like you knew you should have?
Chances are, the answer is no. Since writing “Why You Won’t Quit Your Job” earlier this year, I’ve been inundated with all kinds of public feedback, personal stories, and follow-up questions from people looking to overcome the psychological biases that trap them in unsatisfying roles and prevent them from doing work that matters. While these senior executives, 20-something bankers, and mid-career marketers, analysts, and lawyers all knew that they wanted to leave their current roles, executing their plan proved to be a perennially insurmountable challenge. In fact, the most common question I got was, “How can I overcome the hurdles to quitting and actually quit?”
Here’s the cold truth: Deciding you want to quit is usually just the first move in a sometimes long and arduous cerebral chess match you’ll play with yourself. The reasons that over 70% of Americans stay in jobs they hate might surprise you. I’ve found that people’s inability to quit their current roles had little to do with the perceived riskiness of their new professions, their financial situation, or general economic conditions. The real barrier for most of us is not external. It’s our own psychology: We overthink decisions, fear eventual failure, and prioritize near-term, visible rewards over long-range success.
So how are the smart and savvy ones able to break free? After conducting a series of follow-up interviews with my original research subjects — the late 20- and early 30-something professionals I studied while writing both Passion & Purpose and my previous post on this topic — three takeaways stood out that explained how those individuals were able to overcome the psychological barriers and finally quit with conviction.
Quit for a better long-term trajectory, not a quick win.
The first step in making the leap is to recount your career goals and visualize a life-changing leap forward, not an incremental hop. One consultant said, “I don’t want to be a serial quitter, so I’m very focused on the long-term goodness of fit.” Why the emphasis on a long arc? Studies have shown that we overvalue near-term growth and are irrationally receptive to relative improvements in position. If you’re looking to quit your job just so you can avoid that micromanaging boss or break free of a tedious daily task, you may be shooting too low. Quitting your job for minor improvements could leave you equally dissatisfied a year in. To avoid this potential cognitive dissonance, take a longer term (5+ year) view of the professional mountain you actually want to climb. Map out what the journey might look like, and make sure you’ll value its rewards. You get an average of 10 chances to quit in your lifetime, and each career step should bring you significantly closer to your true passions.
Quit after hitting calendar milestones, not performance-based ones.
Once you accept that you’ve been conditioned to work inside a system of variable reinforcement schedules, you’ll understand the power of timing your resignation around calendar milestones, not performance-based ones. For example, one analyst quit on his one-year anniversary with the firm, which “created a clean break in my mind, and allowed me to position my time as a one-year stint.” If you wait until you’ve been rewarded with a “pellet” — commendations, promotions, or other rewards — you’ll risk catching a case of adaptive preference formation, the phrase psychologists use to describe how our preferences unconsciously shift with changes in context. Put simply, you’ll look at your job with gentler eyes after receiving that big-time bonus (“Maybe this isn’t so bad after all!”), and before you know it, you’ve talked yourself into staying until your boss drops the next pellet. How do you avoid this endless cycle? Commit beforehand to quit on a particular date, not after a reward.
Quit discreetly and avoid the Facebook fireworks.
While it may feel gratifying to post a dramatic Facebook status update announcing your departure, hold back until you put proper roots down in your new role. Changing jobs or starting a company both contain different elements of risk, and if you falter or fail, word will spread fast (thanks, social media). Whether we choose to acknowledge it or not, psychologists agree that social recognition is a crucial component of happiness, and you don’t need your friends and connections gossiping behind your back at an already tense (but hopefully exciting!) time. One banker summed it up: “I don’t want to rub it in people’s faces. I’ll keep it on the down-low until I know my new job fits.” Offset the social pressure and quit quietly. Settle into your new role privately, and gradually update your friends in person, not over Facebook. If you don’t share it, they can’t spread it!
How did you quit your job? What tips can you share with those looking to make the leap?
Daniel Gulati is a tech entrepreneur based in New York. He is a coauthor of the new book Passion & Purpose: Stories from the Best and Brightest Young Business Leaders. Follow him on Twitter at @danielgulati.