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Cut Your Losses: How To Know When To Quit

Finishing is important, but when your projects start to cause more harm than good, it may be time to think about throwing in the towel.

When you have a history marked by regrets for projects not completed, you can exalt finishing anything as the ultimate virtue. Granted, following through on the right activities for your optimal development is critical.

But trying to finish everything can ultimately hinder your ability to get the most important projects done by diluting your focus and weighing you down psychologically and emotionally.

In The Dip, Seth Godin offers a great primer on strategic quitting. He  explains the difference between “dips,” something really difficult but with the opportunity to be the best in the world on the other side, and “cul-de-sacs,” where continued time and effort leads you right back to the same spot.During my seven-plus years as a full-time entrepreneur, I’ve navigated quite a few professional dips and cul-de-sacs both for myself and with my time coaching clients. In this journey, I’ve discovered some of the most common cul-de-sacs that can trap creative professionals.

Here’s how to identify when quitting is the winning option:

If it’s supposed to be fun, but it’s not

Getting started—even on things you really want to do—can require a huge amount of effort. But if it’s the right investment of your time, you usually end up enjoying the process, feeling accomplished when you’re done, or at least appreciating the results. However, if you keep at an optional activity for a month or more and don’t experience any reward for your efforts, it may be time to call it quits. Just because you started something, doesn’t mean you have to finish it, especially when you took it on primarily as a source of fun and pleasure.

For Example: Stop attending classes, going to events, or practicing skills where you dread beginning them and at the end of doing them, you wish you hadn’t.

If more effort produces little value

If you’ve extracted the value you needed from a particular pursuit, spending additional energy on it can waste your time. In other words: the law of diminishing returns.
For Example: If you read what you needed to from a book or an article to complete the project at hand, you don’t need to pressure yourself to finish reading the rest simply because someone wrote it.

Stop practicing skills where you dread beginning them and at the end of doing them, you wish you hadn’t.

If short-term gains lead to long-term pains

Sometimes you need to go the extra mile and push yourself to the next level of achievement (the equivalent of some muscle soreness after a strenuous work out). But when your strivings lead to debilitating consequences, you’ll want to pull back to avoid burnout (the equivalent of serious, potentially life-long injury).

For Example: If you start to experience extreme physical consequences as a result of trying to complete a particular project, you may need to slow the pace or stop the work. Red flags of acute stress reaction include sleeplessness, constricted throat, agitation, depression, and panic anxiety.

If it’s no longer the most important task or project

Moment by moment, you need to make decisions about what’s most important now. In a perfectly controlled environment, you could decide on your priority, execute, and then move on to the next item. When completing your current project puts you at risk of not doing or completing something that’s now more important, you should stop or delay the previous item.

For Example: You start to work on a series of pieces to enhance your personal portfolio. Soon afterward, a prestigious gallery puts out a call for submissions. Diverting your focus from your original activities to the entry that could greatly enhance your resume, and is a legitimate re-prioritization of your activities.
But when your strivings lead to debilitating consequences, you’ll want to pull back to avoid burnout.

If it’s not worth the cost

Does this sound familiar?: “If I had known how long this would take, I never would have started.” When you encounter these sorts of scenarios, the emotional response is to feel that you must continue because of how much you’ve already put into the project. (In the financial world, they call this “sunk costs.”)

However the rational way to approach this scenario is to consider whether to quit in this way: “I have invested quite a bit of time and effort in this project. But now that it’s taking much longer than expected, is the value of completing this project worth the amount of the additional time needed to finish it?”

For Example: You initially decide that you would like to build a completely custom website because it would make you stand out from other designers that use a template. One month into the project, you realize that you haven’t even gotten your website to the point where a template would start it. You can decide to continue wrestle with the custom design. Or you can stop that approach, and pick a template to begin again because the greatest value is in having the website up—not in it being perfect.

How About You?

How do you know when it’s good to quit?

Are there times when you wish you had quit sooner?

More Posts by Elizabeth Grace Saunders

Elizabeth Grace Saunders is the founder of Real Life E Time Coaching & Training and author of The 3 Secrets to Effective Time Investment: How to Achieve More Success With Less Stress and How to Invest Your Time Like Money. Find out how you can accomplish more with peace and confidence at

Comments (20)
  • Justin

    How is it that I feel like these kinds of advice articles can be equally applicable to relationships?

  • K-eM

    Or jobs.

  • Haseeb Qureshi

    This is a great article. Really, I find it extremely difficult to cut my losses on a project (or endeavor) when there are others heavily invested in energy and passion, who often do not want the status quo to change. Any tips out there for calling it off?

  • Elizabeth Saunders

    Hello Haseeb-

    Yes, it’s true that this is hard enough when it just involves you, let alone other people.

    Here are a few tips that may help:
    -Lay out in a very practical, quantifiable manner what’s been invested in the project, what you would need to do to take it to completion, and what’s the expected return on the investment. If the numbers don’t add up (meaning the return is not worth the additional investment) it will be easier to decide as a group not to continue.

    -Look into other opportunities where the team could invest their time and efforts. If you can demonstrate that continuing in the current endeavor is preventing all of you from taking on a much better opportunity, it can be easier to convince them that cutting losses is one area is actually opening up opportunity somewhere else.

    To your brilliance!
    Elizabeth Grace Saunders

  • Elizabeth Saunders

    It’s true-the same kind of criteria can apply to decision making surrounding jobs and some relationships.

    But I would add a caveat: with long-term job commitments and particularly relationships with family, in my opinion the fight to keep trying even when it’s difficult or unpleasant for months or even years can be worth it. The pay off of unconditional love and loyalty is priceless.

    To your brilliance!
    Elizabeth Grace Saunders

  • Eric Kuentz

    Grammatically, it should be “culs-de-sac.”
    But great post and wonderful points! I can relate!

  • David Delp

    I’m quitting some of the best things I’ve ever done because I want to focus on something big that really matters. I quit singing with a choir. I quit offering help as a local citizen. I quit chasing girls. Some of this is painful, but my time is wide open now and the challenges I want to face are always right in front of me. Here’s my big plan.… Quitting can be bittersweet, so I still make sure each day has plenty to enjoy. We’ll see how it goes.

  • Derek Thompson

    I think it helps to check in with yourself regularly and see whether your motivations and values are still the same. Good intentions alone are not sufficient reason for sticking with a project that neither rings your bell any more nor delivers something you actually want to achieve. It’ about being honest with yourself and others.

  • Elizabeth Saunders

    Very true Derek!

    I’ve been challenging myself lately to ask whether or not I’m coming from a place of authenticity. When our thoughts and motivations are aligned, we’re integrated and waaaaaaayyy more productive and happy.

    To your brilliance!
    Elizabeth Grace Saunders

  • Elizabeth Saunders

    You make an excellent point David!

    We need to quit things to open up time, but in the process we should also make sure to define what will fill the gap. (The first part of Tim Ferriss’ model in The 4-Hour Workweek.)

    To your brilliance!

    Elizabeth Grace Saunders

  • Elizabeth Saunders

    Glad you liked the post Eric!

    I looked it up on Merriam Webster, and the plural form can either be “culs-de-sac” or “cul-de-sacs,” so we’re both grammatically correct 🙂

    To your brilliance!

    Elizabeth Grace Saunders

  • Peculiarblend

    I like the analytical ability of Ms. Elizabeth Saunders. There are times we are uncertain and we end up either doing a particular act or completely ignoring, unless we don’t try we will never know, having said that we can always try and do the SWAT analyze and it has helped for many people whom I know.

    Great work, thank you.


  • Elizabeth Saunders

    Thanks for the compliment.

    Yes-I see life as one giant experiment where we make a hypothesis, test it, and then review the results. You can’t know if you don’t try. But if you do try something, and it doesn’t work, it’s best to move on.

    To your brilliance!
    Elizabeth Grace Saunders

  • Vicki

    I had a job I really liked that was coming apart because a new manager wanted me to do something… different. I fought for 8 months and won, finding a different manager who supported my preferred role. I was able to stay for another year.
    Then the new manager left and my position was eliminated.

    The payoff in loyalty is perhaps overstated. 🙁

  • Marian

    I don’t always cut my losses when I should, stubborn I guess. ….. I had an idea for a book many years ago and eventually started working on it a couple of years ago with a co-author. The book presented his work of many years in a new and succinct way. It was a much tougher and longer process than we thought it would be and many times, people close to me told me to cut my losses.

    Yes, if you look at hours of (as yet/if ever) unpaid work and costs, and creative tensions in creating, writing, rewriting,editing, proofing, reproofing, publishing, distribution and the biggest of all, marketing and building platforms … Yes, then you (some) would cut your losses. But then you miss out on seeing the book up there. And when you hear from people who love it, or whom it helped, it is worth it. And when you know others will gain from this book although you will never know what they gain, it is worth it. And when you know where to begin if you want to make another book sometime, you are glad then that you did not cut your losses when everyone was telling you to.

    http://navigationaltipsforlivi… – a testament? to my stubbornness.

  • Elizabeth Saunders

    True Vicki-

    Loyalty is not always rewarded. Like any other risk, there is a potential for a downside as much as an upside. Prior to becoming an entrepreneur, I experienced being laid off so I understand some of your pain.

    I’m sorry that you had that difficult experience and hope you will find a place that’s a better fit for you.

    All the best,
    Elizabeth Grace Saunders

  • Elizabeth Saunders

    It’s very true that there are times when the effort is worth the cost. I’m glad that you found in the end that it was for you.

    That’s wonderful and congrats on pushing through.

    To your brilliance!
    Elizabeth Grace Saunders

  • Barbara Mckinney

    So many experiences that I can relate with this. It’s really very hard to decide on whether you should continue or not especially if you had rendered all your time, effort and money on a certain project. I remember during my college days where we really need to change everything in our research paper. Waah… It takes me days to decide and I can still remember I was crying in front of professor defending that it is possible to create such system and I can finish it before the deadline. Such a pride indeed and besides I don’t want to put all my effort into waste. But then I realized it was really impossible to finish the project. And to make the story short we changed our topic. Learned a lot from this experience.

    Thanks for sharing this post to us.

  • Chris Lam

    I encounter this kind of difficulty quite regularly. At times, I seem to be immune to the red flag. At times, I know that what I’m doing is not the most important at this time, especially with much more stressing deadlines approaching, but they will prove to be hugely advantageous in the near future. This kind of approach can drag on and seriously affect my present work.

  • Phil Kvasnica

    boy, did you ever hit the nail right on the head!

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