The Best Advice on When to Quit Our Jobs

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

March in Maine is horrible.

It's muddy, it's cold, it's still snowing at the most inconvenient moments. And, worse yet, Mother Nature teases us with a balmy, sunny day sprinkled in here and there.

All of us who live here can predict that March will be miserable, every year - yet's it's still hard to endure.

"March is when I am overtaken by the urge to throw out all my possessions, put the house on the market, shave my head, and start over," local columnist, Heather D. Martin, recently wrote in The Northern Forecaster.

Most of you don't live in Maine. But I bet you can relate to Martin's feelings, especially when it comes to work if my inbox is any indicator!

One of the most common questions I get from career coaching clients is WHEN to say, "take this job and shove it!" (albeit more nicely, please, for the sake of coaching being successful!)

The timing does make a big difference between a satisfying job change and ending up back in the same situation, just with a new business card - or worse.

When Should We Quit?

Mainers learn that you do not move out of state - or make any big changes, whether filing for divorce or cutting our hair - during March. As much as we might want to! "Back when I was a social worker," Martin writes, "the rule laid down by my boss was 'no one quits in March.' If you still wanted to leave come April, fine. Otherwise, 'it's just March talking,' she'd say. Wise woman."

Wise indeed. She was offering the best advice on when to quit. Not when you're in the valley - and want to quit the most - but, ideally, when you're at the relative peak.

Based on her and her colleagues' research, Angela Duckworth, Professor of Psychology at UPenn, concurred on the WorkLife podcast ("The Perils of Following Your Career Passion" episode):

"I always recommend quitting things on good days. You know, if you come in and it's a nice Thursday morning and everything's gone reasonably well and you still want to quit, well there's maybe something going on...You should not quit things when you're in [an] acute period of pain and disappointment and self-doubt." - Angela Duckworth

I couldn't agree more. The worst email I ever receive from a coaching client is the, "I couldn't take it any more and I quit! Can we talk ASAP?" email. My heart aches when I get that. Aches.

Why Quitting On a Bad Day Is a Bad Idea

There are so many reasons why we should avoid quitting on a bad day - even if we really want to:

  • It's easier to get a new job when we're still in a job. This might feel like a frustrating fact but, in my experience - personally, while hiring, and while working with coaching clients - it is indeed a fact.

  • We typically haven't gotten a chance to fully enact job crafting, which can at the least make our current job bearable while exploring and searching. It may even make the organization a good fit; many of my recent clients have strategically switched job functions within their existing organizations, retaining their sense of community, financial vesting, and seniority while becoming more fulfilled at work.

  • The client likely has not yet built a financial runway, which career coach Jenny Blake describes in her book Pivot: The Only Move That Matters is Your Next One as the financial means to jump from one role to another, perhaps taking a pay cut in the interest of trading money for satisfaction (which 9 out of 10 people would be willing to do, research shows).

  • We'll possibly/probably have burned a bridge - or two, or three - from our impulsive choice. At the very least, we didn't get a chance to clear up whatever was underlying the "bad day" feeling (such as, negative feedback during a performance evaluation, being called out for a mistake we made, or feeling undervalued by our coworkers and superiors over a specific event or interaction). At the worst, we gave an emotional speech a la Jerry Maguire and will be hard pressed to get a good reference.

  • "You don't want to quit the moment you don't like a job because passion can grow over time," says Organizational Psychologist Adam Grant on the same WorkLife podcast episode. Passion is not something we discover, both Grant and Duckworth attest based on research. It is something we develop, a statement with which I agree heartily. Duckworth points out that the first year in any job in particular is difficult and, often, unfulfilling. Quitting on a bad day undermines our ability to develop our skills, begin to feel competent and, thus, start to develop passion for our work since passion is derived from being good at what we do.

  • Perhaps the biggest reason of all: because of the inevitable pangs of regret. My "impulsive quitting" clients spend valuable coaching session after coaching session circling back to kicking themselves: they question why they quit right then, and what would have been possible if they'd held off. And no wonder since regrets are inevitable when we act impulsively; in those moments, the emotional center of our brains, the amygdala, take the reins, cutting off the rational, planning part of our brain, the prefrontal cortex. But once the emotions cool - often as soon as we walk back into our office after quitting - the prefrontal cortex kicks back in and says, "What DID you do?" This in turns gets our amygdala all riled up again - except with the emotion directed at ourselves this time - undercutting our ability to stay focused and take the next steps we need to enact a job search.

Steps Before Quitting

That said, we often do need to quit. Some workplaces are downright toxic and need to be escaped. More often the organization, industry, and/or role are not a fit because we:

  • picked a career without prototyping options first, often right out of college

  • AND/OR because we've developed and our work-relevant values are different than they once were

  • AND/OR we've plateaued and are ready for our next challenge

In those cases, we definitely quit...on a good day.

We quit when we have set up a financial runway; job crafted the heck out of our current role, reflected on our strengths, personality, interests, and work-relevant values; prototyped new options through informational interviewing, job shadowing, volunteering and/or side hustling; have networked extensively; and, ideally, have the next role in hand.

We quit when we can walk in and it's just like any other totally normal day and we still want to leave...we still know we need to leave.

In the meantime, we create a plan, find support sources to whom we can vent on the bad days and who can repeatedly remind us our plan, and we take strategic and concrete actions every day to work toward quitting on a good day.

One of my clients was so certain and had done so much prep work that she gave notice the day after a big office party to celebrate a major milestone. Everyone was on a high - including her - and she calmly walked in her supervisor's office and said, "It's time for me to go."

Final Thoughts

So now that it's April, I'm free to leave Maine. I'm free to cut my hair. I'm free to make any dramatic change I see fit. Regret free.

But, you know what? This place is pretty darn gorgeous without snow on the ground. And everyone is smiling a bit more without winter coats weighing them down. And, all in all, I'm right where I want to be.

Despite March. Or maybe even - although I'd never admit this during the doldrums - because of March and all the gratitude it engenders.