Choosing what to quit and when to quit it is more important than we sometimes realize.
So, why don’t we quit more often?
Why do we persist with a job, a relationship, growing a moustache and a myriad other activities that we should really just drop and walk away from?
According to Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner in Think Like a Freak, there are three main reasons why we don’t quit.
First, we’re afraid to be seen as a failure.
Phrases like “Winners never quit and quitters never win” have been seared into our brains from a young age.
The second reason is the idea of sunk costs.
If we have already invested time into a career, energy into a relationship and money into projects and investments, then quitting means effectively writing off all that investment.
Having sunk all that we have into something, we’re afraid of stopping just before the big payoff.
What if we carried on for just a bit longer?
The third reason is our tendency to focus on costs now instead of opportunity costs.
If we do something now with our time, that also means that we have to give up the idea of doing something else with our time, even if that something else might be more valuable.
We have limited, scarce resources of time, money and energy.
For every unit that we spend in one place, something else needs to be abandoned.
It’s easier, however, to focus on what we need to do now than to think about what we are giving away.
For example, we’d rather buy something nice now than put the money into a pension to use in 50 years.
These three reasons are rooted in our past, present and future: what have we invested already, what do we choose to do right now and what will we look like to others in the future.
The point, Levitt and Dubner write, is that we don’t really know. We can’t run experiments that simultaneously test quitting and persisting.
Or can we?
The authors set up a site, now defunct, called Freakonomics Experiments, and asked people to put in their questions and take a decision based on a coin toss.
That mean’t half the participants would quit and half would persist.
The results were eye opening. On almost every question, the people who quit were happier 6 months later than those who didn’t.
As they write in their blog on the topic “We just came up with a basic truth, which is: when you’re not sure what to do, you should quit. This is what the data tells us: if you can’t decide, it means you should have quit already and you should quit right away.”
Perhaps the last word on this should go to W.C. Fields, who said If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Then quit. There’s no point in being a damn fool about it.