When to Quit and When to Persist
Patience and persistence are essential for success. If you give up whenever you face a challenge or an obstacle, you’re bound to fail. But you also need to know when to quit and cut your losses.
How do you know when to give up?
And when to push on with everything you’ve got?
Must you abandon ship or stay the course?
This is episode 46. When to Quit and When to Persist.
Hello and welcome to The Incrementalist, my name is Dyan Williams, and I’m your productivity coach who will help you make big changes in small steps.
Patience and persistence are essential for success. If you give up whenever you face a challenge or an obstacle, you’re bound to fail. If you don’t push beyond your current baseline, you will not get to the next level.
But you also need to know when to quit and cut your losses. Sometimes working harder doesn’t lead to more progress. Instead, you incur opportunity costs and tradeoffs that exceed the rewards and benefits of sticking with the project.
The Sunk Cost Fallacy means we prefer to continue the action if we already put time, effort, and money into it, even if the current costs outweigh the benefits.
The Sunk Cost Fallacy is related to commitment bias, where we stand by past decisions despite new evidence showing this isn’t the best action.
There is also the Endowment Effect, where we ascribe higher value to things we already own. The disutility of a loss is greater than the utility of a comparable gain. The displeasure in losing something is greater than the pleasure in gaining the same thing.
Sometimes you actually need to stop, step back, and head in another direction. Giving up when you can’t change unfavorable circumstances frees you to try other things that might work just as well, if not better.
Rather than settle for mediocrity in a field that requires your weakest skills, you can strive for excellence in an area that demands your strongest assets and deepest interests.
Do you know the story behind Instagram? How did this photo and video sharing app take only eight weeks for software engineers to develop for launch in October 2010? How did it get sold to Facebook for $1 billion in less than two years, in April 2012?
Co-founder, Kevin Systrom, learned to code on the nights and weekends while working at Nextstop, a travel recommendations startup. Before that, he had worked at Odeo, which later became Twitter.
At the time, Kevin was a 27-year-old Stanford University graduate. In 2009, he built a prototype of a web app called Burbn, a check-in app that included a photo-sharing feature. He eventually met with Mike Krieger, who became his co-founder and business partner. They persuaded Silicon Valley investors to put about half a million dollars into funding the app.
But the market was not buying burbn. The app was trying to do too many things and had only about 100 users. The founders were burned out and had $495,000 left in the bank.
Instead of putting more effort and resources into burbn, they decided to pivot. They asked their existing customers why they were using the app. The customers told them they cared about the photo sharing, not the check-in aspect.
They shifted to focus on a unique solution for a specific problem: how to share great photos to many friends at once? They trimmed burbn down to its photo, comment and like features, which led to Instagram.
Based on a conversation with his now-wife, Kevin later added the first filter to the app, which made the photos look more amazing.
Within about 24 hours of its launch, Instagram had about 25000 users. And after about 2 months, it had 1 million users.
To create Instagram, the co-founders had to give up on trying to get burbn off the ground. They used the data to shift course and expand a technology that was more valuable to their customers.
Marketing guru Seth Godin says scare things are more valuable, and creating scare things is difficult. That’s why value is so concentrated at the top.
The #1 product, song, employee or organization gets the highest rewards. It’s typical for #1 to get 10 x the benefit of #10 and 100 x the benefit of #100.
Companies like Coca Cola, Target and Starbucks Coffee stand out in a super-crowded market. We want quick, easy and reliable choices.
But the mass market is dying, says Seth. Micro-markets make it easier for a small business to become the best in a niche field. A solopreneur can become the winning go-to person in a micro-market.
At the time Instragram was sold to Facebook for $1 billion, it was a microbusiness with 13 employees. It’s now worth about $100 billion.
In his 2007 classic, The Dip: A Little Book that Teaches You When to Quit (and When to Stick), Seth Godin says the dip is the way to the top. When you start a project, you will get results as you put time, effort and energy in it. But as you progress, you’re bound to hit a dip.
The dip is different from a cul de sac (the deadend). It’s also different from the cliff.
The Dip is the long slog between starting and mastering. It’s the barrier to entry. If you’re not prepared to move through the dip, don’t start. Quitting in the middle of the dip is a major waste of time.
The dip is where you keep going, pushing on and persevering. It’s where most people give up. L l-If you endure the dip and move through it, you will be rewarded. You will get to the next level, win the market, and become more resilient and resourceful. You will protect yourself from high competition. You will become the expert and rise to the top by moving through the dip.
The Cul-de-sac is the dead end. These include jobs, projects, and activities that create no significant progress or meaningful outcome, no matter how hard you work or how much effort you invest. The cul-de-sac has no dip and is usually boring from the get-go.
This is where you work hard but you get nowhere. It’s a dead end; it feels safe, but it’s a waste of your time, energy and talent.
The Cliff is an uphill curve with a steep plunge downwards. You move up with more effort and harder work, but there is a sudden drop-off at the end. The cliff has no dip and is exciting only for a while.
This is a situation where you can’t quit until you fall off and the whole thing falls apart. You get reinforcement over time, and then you just drop off. It’s a dramatic and disastrous ending.
Seth says these are the three types of curves in every endeavor. He notes, “Winners quit all the time. They just quit the right stuff at the right time.”
So, how do you know when to quit or stick with it?
Here are three questions to ask yourself:
Number 1, Am I in a cul-de-sac or on a cliff or in the dip?
Giving up can feel a lot like failing, even when it’s necessary to pivot and move into another thing that will bring more value and success.
Persistence can shift to pestering. Perseverance becomes delusion. Commitment turns to compulsion.
If something seems misaligned, too boring or too good to be true, take a pause and figure out whether you’re in a cul-de-sac or on a cliff.
Research the industry. Talk to people who you trust and people who have been down the same or a similar path. Track your progress and review your results.
If you stay too long on a dead-end path or on an uphill curve with a sudden drop-off, you end up with unnecessary failure and high sunk costs.
If you’re on a cul-de-sac, is there a way to make it into a dip? If not, quit. If yes, is it worth it to make it into a dip? Is the effort worth the potential payoff? If yes, go for it. If not, quit.
If you’re on a cliff, quit now or quit as soon as you can, before you fall off.
But if you’re in a dip, keep going and lean into the temporary discomfort and short-term pain. Success comes when you make it through the dip.
Abandon a worthwhile endeavor only when you have thoughtfully chosen to do so. Strategic quitting is different from reactive or serial quitting, which is the root cause of many failures.
Question 2 is Am I willing to slog through the dip?
Becoming number one in your market, achieving a successful outcome or hitting your target goal means you will need to push through the dip. If you’re not willing to do what it takes to get through it, it’s okay to not start. You can always come back to the project when you are able to prioritize it, invest the resources, and make time for it.
Before the dip starts, think about how much time, effort and energy you are willing to invest and how much discomfort you will take on to move through it. If the actual levels surpass your expectations, weigh the challenges against the potential benefits and then decide whether to quit or stick.
The third question is, Why am I doing this thing? Is it to be the best or for some other reason?
The software coder doesn’t have to shut down her Etsy shop just because it provides only a little extra income. The celloist who plays for fun doesn’t have to give up on composing songs even if he will never sell his music. The weekend welder who makes tables and chairs for family and friends doesn’t have to become a top industry professional.
Most of us are average at most things. Think of the bell curve. Very few of us are in the top 1% to 10%.
At least in the beginning, most of us fall in the middle of the bell curve. With this in mind, you will be more inclined to push through the dip instead of quit when you’re in it.
You have to be strategic with when to give up and when to forge ahead.
Define your quitting criteria ahead of time. Set the metrics you will use to decide whether to quit, stick with it, or pivot. Determine your limits before you hit the dip. Before you start the race, decide what factors will have to exist for you drop out of the race. You want to avoid impulsive decisions in the middle of it.
Look back to see if your persistence has resulted in more progress and sharper skills. Have you added to your assets and resources? Have you gained traction and kept forward motion?
Maybe subtle improvements are enough, especially when you’re already at the top of your game.
Or maybe you’re at the top of your game, but your interests have changed. And now you want to diversity or focus on something else.
Maybe you have other priorities. Your health, happiness and relationships are at stake. You need to step back, cut back, reset, and focus on other domains in your life.
Whether to quit or stick requires you to be brave, creative, and honest with yourself.
Is the endeavor totally aligned with your mission, vision, commitment and conviction? Then don’t give up just because it’s hard. Find ways to make it less hard, or find ways to match the challenge.
If you still would start the thing knowing what you know now, carry on. Tweak your approach. Change your strategy or tactics.
But if you’re holding on to something that’s clearly not working and going nowhere, it’s time to quit. If you’re sticking with something just because you’re afraid to try something new, it might be time to pivot. If you’re clinging to something just because you already own it, it might be time to let go.
No matter how much you’ve already invested, you need to think about what you lose if you don’t quit. You also need to think about what you will not gain if you do quit.
Principle #1 of the Incrementalist approach is to prioritize what’s most important. Another principle is to protect time for it. And another is to rest and recharge. Sometimes you do need to quit even good things to make space for one great thing.
You can learn more in my book, The Incrementalist: A Simple Productivity System to Create Big Results in Small Steps. It’s now on sale for $4.99 up to January 31st. After that, it will be back to its regular price of $9.99. You can find it on leanpub.com/incrementalist.
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