I’ve done my fair share of quitting. Sometimes quietly, sometimes loudly!
How do we know if a project (or job, company, team, etc.) is ripe for quitting? If you are like me, you know all about what it means to work hard and tough it out. Unfortunately, all the qualities that get lauded in the modern world of work – that “where there is a will, there is a way” attitude – can blind us to knowing when something is worth stopping.
How then can you figure it out?
I’ll explore a few signs that quitting a project is a good idea through the lens of a recent project that I quit.
MY QUITTING STORY
You see, recently – like a week ago recently! – I quit something that I thought would be the future of my business. I created it through client requests (a great way to create new products) and through a sense that it would serve an unmet need and be super helpful.
As a coach, I work primarily with my clients on a 1×1 basis, though I occasionally have offered group and team coaching. One common request from clients was to get more deeply connected to other professionals that I’m working with. They wanted to get to know other leaders and high-performers that were turning to insight and wisdom to solve their big career and work challenges.
I also knew that through a group – wisdom and insights could emerge from anyone that can ripple through the group and benefit everyone. Combine that with the solitude of a pandemic-induced home-based-work-style, and “Transformative Leadership” was born.
This program was a 5-week cohort-based experience where we explored the fundamentals behind leading and working with less effort and no stress. The first cohort came together quickly, with a dozen students, and the second cohort grew to 20 students. This all occurred without much marketing.
Where did things go “wrong”?
Well, nothing was wrong! But in enrolling for the third cohort, set to begin in a few weeks, I noticed something seemed a bit off. Enrollment was not where I expected, and the feeling of conversations was conveying something I couldn’t ignore.
Speaking with over a dozen interested students, it appeared to me that the format and cadence of the program, which worked well in the past 18 months, was no longer a fit. While several students did enroll, many were no longer excited at the prospect of joining a Zoom meeting in the evenings after finishing their workday. Further, the cadence of sessions wasn’t working out. Kids are returning to school and navigating the return to work orders added to the complications of being able to attend a program consistently over 5 weeks.
Ultimately, I just felt that the level of resistance in creating the cohort meant that it was time to quit the project and pivot to a better approach that would ultimately be more in service to the needs of my clients. I don’t yet have that better approach ironed out, but the rest of this post is about how I (and you too) can get a feel for when it’s time to quit and if it was the right call.
LESS JUICE TO THE SQUEEZE
With any project, you can find yourself in work periods where you not only struggle to progress but backslide. Errors pile up, conversations go nowhere and data doesn’t make sense.
When faced with such situations, it’s essential to take a step back and ask a key question: “How can I work more effectively and not just work harder?”
Prolonged periods of hard work kills performance.
If you have read my blog or LinkedIn posts lately, you know I have a vendetta against blindly efforting one’s way forward at work. Being highly engaged is excellent. Spending time on things you care about is essential. However, suffering or grinding your way ahead in search of progress is a tell-tale sign that something is out of wack.
When you are revving the engine of your willpower too hard, it’s vital to take a step back, reassess your approach and wonder if you should continue pursuing your project, pivot or quit it altogether.
A mentor – who is world-class at using metaphors in his coaching approach – once taught this to me in terms of “getting less juice to the squeeze”. This means that – if you are making OJ and find yourself getting hardly a few drops out of every squeeze, you might want to question your approach (or the oranges!) instead of more furiously squeezing those fruits to fill up your cup!
MISALIGNED WITH OTHERS
I created my cohort-based program to serve my clients. They wanted to meet like-minded folks and work with me more time and cost-effectively relative to my private coaching work. It also helped me in scaling my time. Win-win!
However, as customer needs change, so should the products and services. So when I realized that what worked great in 2021 and early 2022 was no longer working for my particular client group, I pushed on for a few weeks before realizing that quitting the project was the right thing to do.
On a related note…I recently was interviewed by the WSJ (in print and online). The story was about “Saying No to Busywork” but speaks to the gist of quitting things that are misaligned. In the article, I recount the story of a client, a Director of Product at a leading software company, who had filled her days with ad-hoc projects she enjoyed and saw great value in – related to team morale building, diversity and inclusion initiatives and hiring new talent. These projects mattered to her and clearly had value for the company but were not in line with what her managers valued and needed.
As a result, instead of receiving an anticipated promotion at the end of the year, she was told she needed to step up her “strategic” work to get to the next level.
Uh oh. What happened?
She was not aligned with the deeper values and priorities of those who matter. In this case, the needs of her immediate organization were at odds with what she thought was needed. Once she realized this, she quit the ad-hoc projects, doubled down on what mattered, and is back on track for a promo.
NOT IN YOUR ZONE OF GENIUS
A lot has been written about the virtues of operating in one’s “zone of genius”. This refers to the sweet spot where one’s talent, skill and interests converge. For any project, it’s important that your efforts are more directly aligned with this zone, to the extent you can control it. One’s zone of genius is not limited to what you do well. Things that you want to genuinely master and excel at count as well!
If your project continually pushes you outside of your zone of genius, it’s a sign you should delegate, redefine or perhaps even quit your project.
For my cohort program, I realized that while I enjoy marketing, the level of intensive marketing I would need to deploy to “fill the cohort” with enough students fell outside of my zone of genius and also conflicted with my values regarding permission-based marketing. I have no desire to spam my network with advertisements and slimy affiliate deals to drum up business.
I could have soldiered on, but something intuitively told me that was not the right approach.
One of the ways to understand if quitting something was the right thing to do, is to pay close attention to your state of mind after quitting occurs. I know you are thinking, “how does that tell me what to quit in the first place???”.
You are right. It doesn’t.
However, you can learn tremendously by being more present to your mind and the clues delivered as decisions are made and in the moments after.
Immediately after quitting, I felt a slight tinge of guilt. I had students enrolled who were looking forward to the program. I also felt a very slight fear of missing out on what could have been a last-minute uptick in enrollment.
However, in the day (and week) that followed, those insecure thoughts faded and I’m left with a feeling of having “no regrets”. That’s the best way to explain it. I have no regrets for either trying to create the program, launching my third cohort, or canceling it due to what I noticed in the market (and myself).
This clarity of mind tells me it was the right direction to go in.
LIFE ABHORS A VACUUM
Another way to notice if quitting was a good idea is to see what ends up filling the time and space that emerges by having one less thing to do. You might think that letting go of something will create a feeling of loss and emptiness – and it can sometimes feel like that. It’s also true that life will rush in to fill the open spaces if you give it a little time.
Life really does abhor a vacuum.
In the week since I canceled my program, I was able to (with minimal effort) book a speaking engagement with a global professional organization. In addition, several important health issues arose with extended family, requiring my full attention (and the time available to do so). I also had several impromptu conversations with old colleagues and friends that warmed my heart.
All in the past week!
I’m also starting to notice more productive thoughts on potential programs and services that will serve clients better and work with the schedule challenges of my previous cohort-based approach.
If you are wondering if you should quit that project (or job, career, relationship, etc.), I hope you find some wisdom through this article. Quitting isn’t bad. It’s a natural part of life. However, holding onto projects and circumstances that no longer serve you (or your customers) isn’t helpful. It’s also unnecessary.
In a world that loves to talk about deploying grit and effort to achieve goals at all costs, I find more wisdom in seeing that there are times for toughing it out and times for quitting. Knowing when to trust either approach makes all the difference.