When the Best Way to Reach Your Goals is By Quitting


By Yvonne Milosevic

For too long, quitting has gotten a bad rap. People think giving up on a goal, job, or relationship means you’re lazy, weak, unmotivated, or worse. But what if we’re looking at it all wrong? Author Annie Duke, former professional poker player and now decision strategist, thinks quitting at the right time can actually get you to your goals much more quickly.

In her new book Quit: The Power of Knowing When to Walk Away, Duke tackles all our misconceptions about quitting and shows us why knowing when to quit is an essential life skill. Today we’re going to do some myth-busting about quitting culled from Duke’s recent interview with McKinsey & Company.


Myth #1: Quitting slows your progress.

We’ve all had that moment where we realize we would have acted differently if we knew then what we know now. Quitting recalibrates your reaction based on new information and allows you to pivot to a more direct route toward your goal.  

“If you’re engaged in something that isn’t the best path for you to achieve the things that you want to achieve, then staying on that path—not quitting—is going to slow you down,” Duke says. But if you quit and choose a course of action that helps you reach your goal, that will speed you up, she adds.

Myth #2: If you quit, you have no grit.

We admire people who persevere in the face of challenges—and cluck disapprovingly of those who give up when the going gets tough. But while there’s much to love about grit, it isn’t the answer in every situation. As Duke explains, sometimes “gritting it out” is entirely wrong.

She says there will be times when the path you’re on is no longer viable or worthwhile. “If I’m at the top of Mount Everest and there’s a snowstorm, I should probably quit my summit attempt,” Duke notes. So, sticking it out for appearance’s sake is a mistake.

Myth #3: You’ll know when it’s the right time to quit.

If only this were true. In an ideal world, the perfect time to quit is when we realize the path that we’re on is no longer serving us. Or if we can see that a different way is clearly better. Since we’re not omniscient, it’s hard to know how other avenues we’re considering might turn out, says Duke.

“The thing I try to tell people is that you should assume that if you’re thinking about quitting, it’s already probably past the time that you should have quit.”

Myth #4: It’s better to quit when you’re ahead.

This is a guiding principle of gamblers everywhere, but Duke thinks it focuses on the wrong elements. “What makes a path worth sticking to is not whether you’re ahead right at this moment,” she explains.

“For most things, particularly when we get bad news, we have a tendency to quit too late,” Duke says. “But there is one place where we tend to quit too early, and that is exactly when we’re ahead.”

To illustrate, she cites a study of the fare logs of New York cab drivers. On days when they had a lot of fares and the driving conditions were good, they quit their shifts early. Yet on days when there weren’t a lot of fares to pick up, they stayed in their cabs and stuck it out.

Instead of maximizing their income when conditions were ideal, they clocked out as soon as they hit their daily earnings goal. On days they didn’t hit their target, they kept driving even though there weren’t many fares around.

“They stuck while they were behind, and they quit while they were ahead, costing them a lot of money,” Duke notes. “It turns out that this is a very strong human tendency. When things aren’t going well for us, we tend to escalate our commitment to the cause.”

Myth #5: You shouldn’t quit because you put so much effort into X job/project/relationship.

This is the hardest pill to swallow and the one that keeps people from quitting long after they should. A cognitive bias known as the sunk-cost fallacy makes us overvalue the time and resources we’ve already spent. But Duke reminds us that we’re approaching the issue with the wrong priorities.

“In order to play the game of poker or play the game of life well, you have to quit in some situations, particularly those situations where other people might not,” she explains.

You need to be willing to make a decision that will set you up in a better position later. After all, says Duke, “The time that you’ve already spent is gone—what matters is if you’re wasting more time by continuing with the project.”

A better approach to setting goals

Like most of us, Duke had always considered goals a positive thing. While researching her book, she was surprised to learn that goals have a downside. “Goals get you toward a finish line, come what may,” she says. Consider the marathon runner who heads doggedly toward the finish line despite breaking her leg halfway through the race.

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“Once we’ve set that finish line, anything short of that goal is failure because we grade the achievement of goals as pass/fail in nature, so we just keep going,” Duke says. “It causes us to ignore very clear signals from the world, like a broken bone, that we should be quitting. It just makes us ignore it.”

“Whenever you set a goal, have a set of ‘unlesses’ that go along with that: ‘I’m going to go toward this finish line, unless . . .’ What is the ‘unless I break a bone’ for any goal that you set?”