I hate quitting. When I was a kid, I was taught that quitting was the ultimate failure. Struggling in a class? Tough luck. Double down and study harder. Hate playing a sport? Finish out the season, your team needs you. Job getting you down? Figure out what’s broken and fix it.
I stayed on that basketball team until the end of the season, even though I can’t make a free throw to save my life. I slogged through my biochem class, despite hating every minute spent memorizing Krebs cycle. And I stared down the clock every day when I was a biopharma consultant until that sweet moment when the clock hit 5pm.
Landing a job in the video game industry only made things more complicated. This was my dream job. There were thousands of people who would gladly take it in a second. I was so lucky to be in my position. And I should be grateful to have it. So why was I so unhappy?
This line of thinking led me time and time again to feeling trapped in my current position – like I had no control over my choice to stay or leave a company.
I felt trapped in my current position — like I had no control over my choice to stay or leave my company.
But over time I learned that, ultimately, you are the only person who can decide what is best for you. If you’re really, deeply unhappy at a company – you can make the choice to stay and fix things… or you can leave. Both are valid options. But making an active choice either way is critical.
So how do you know whether it’s time to go (or stay)?
Recently I’ve been talking to a lot of friends in tech about their personal journey to make that decision. And, having been through it myself a few times (sometimes choosing to stay, sometimes to go), I’ve found that the best decisions are made through a few, practical steps.
Take a break
Working in tech can feel like a marathon and a sprint at the same time. It’s easy to go from one firefighting project to the next without ever taking a break. When you do get a moment to stop and reflect, it can feel like the only option you have is to leave.
If you’re feeling worn down, take a break. Use that PTO – it’s part of your compensation! And if taking that time off helps you stay in your job even a little longer? Then it’s a win for everyone: you, your team, and your company. (And if not, then who cares? You were going to leave anyway.)
But most important, taking a little time away from your role – and all its crises – can help provide a little perspective. Maybe putting a little breathing room between you and the day-to-day stresses can help make impossible problems feel a little more manageable. Or maybe you’ll talk to your friends and family about issues at work and realize how much you’ve been minimizing and normalizing an unacceptable work environment. Either way, you can return to work with a fresh perspective on the challenges you are facing.
Start applying elsewhere
If you’re still considering leaving, now is a great time to take the next step. Start scanning for roles that sound appealing. You’re in a super favorable situation right now. This is a no-risk time to apply to jobs that are outside of your comfort zone.
It’s also relatively low-commitment. You can drop out of the process at any time if you change your mind and stay in your current role. (Companies do that to candidates every day!) And, for most positions, the initial application step is fairly low-effort once you do the upfront work to polish off your resume and portfolio.
This is also a great time to figure out what you really want. Reading job descriptions can be a great way to see what is missing in your current role. Are you stuck doing work that is unfulfilling? Are you under-leveled or under-paid? Is there a part of your current role you want to lean into more? Make a note of what’s missing for you today.
And if you decide you don’t want to apply to other jobs? Great! You just made a decision – a decision to stay.
Ditch the artificial deadline
A common trap I hear from folks unhappy in their current job is the “artificial deadline” trap. This happens when you assign an arbitrary date or milestone – after which “everything will be better” or you’ll be ready to move on. “After this project, things will get better.” “I just need to make it to the end of the half.” “I’ll wait until the end of the milestone to see if things get better.” “I’ll just power through this sprint.”
Well folks, here’s the harsh reality: things almost never get better on their own. And there is always another deadline, another project, another milestone. There is always another reason to stay. Setting an arbitrary deadline is a great way to continue feeling trapped in your role, like the decision to leave is outside your control. Instead…
Find your “ifs”
A great manager once told me to stop focusing on the decision of whether to leave and instead focus on what would keep me from leaving. What were my “ifs”. “If ____, I would stay.” This reframed the problem to put things back in my control. What did I need from my manager, the role, the team, the company in order to stay?
Look back at the notes you made on what’s missing from your current role. This is the foundation for your “ifs”. Now imagine all (or none) of them came true. Would that be enough to make you happy in your current role? What’s missing? What can go? Iterate on your list – expanding and narrowing as needed – until you land on the critical pieces. Instead of using an arbitrary deadline, use this list to determine whether you stay or go.
Build an action plan
Now that you have your “ifs” list, it’s time to take action. Imagine you’re going to leave if you can’t achieve this list. After all, if you were honest with yourself in the last step, this list should represent your requirements for happiness. If you can’t achieve them here in your current role, why would you stay?
Figure out an action plan for how you will achieve the ones that are in your control. Consider straight up asking your manager or team lead for the ones they can help you with. It’s possible they don’t even know it’s something you want. Or, if they did already know, they might not have realized how important it was for your continued happiness. In many cases, it can’t hurt just to ask. (And if it does? Maybe that’s a good sign that this isn’t the place for you.)
Look for signals of change
Of course, some of the “ifs” might be outside of your control. Maybe your workplace has some cultural issues that you can’t fix alone… or are unlikely to be fixed overnight. Write down what you would need to see to know your situation was improving. These are your signals of change.
Maybe it’s something specific – like leadership acknowledging there is an issue with compensation and building a plan to remedy it. Or maybe it’s more general – like hearing feedback from teammates that shows your work is valued. It’s important to think not just about what you can tolerate but what you need to maintain your happiness. There’s a world of difference between the two.
Learning when to quit is an important life skill. Some jobs are simply not worth your time. And some jobs can be totally worth it – but have broken bits that you need to fix first. In either case, it’s important that you play an active role in determining whether to stay and fix things, or leave for greener pastures. You just need to make a decision.
Genevieve Conley Gambill is a UX researcher and strategist on a mission to do good with data.