What to do when it’s time to walk away

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(Photo credit: Anson0618, via Shutterstock)

While we might know when a relationship, job, or project is over, that doesn’t always mean we’re ready to leave. Recently in the Atlantic, Heidi Grant Halvorson argues that the reason we hesitate to let go is that many of us tend to be prevention focused, or loss-averse. So, we fret over the amount of time, money, or energy we’ve put into something and refuse to walk away because we can’t bear the loss.

The better solution? She argues we should adopt a promotion-focused way of thinking by asking: what will I gain from moving on?

As studies by behavioral economists like Daniel Kahnemen and Dan Ariely show, people are generally loss-averse. Putting in a lot, only to end up with nothing to show for it, is just too awful for most of us to seriously consider. The problem is one of focus. We worry far too much about what we’ll lose if we just move on, instead of focusing on the costs of not moving on: more wasted time and effort, more unhappiness, and more missed opportunities.

Recent research by Northwestern University psychologists Daniel Molden and Chin Ming Hui demonstrates an effective way to be sure you are making the best decisions when things go awry: focus on what you have to gain by moving on, rather than what you have to lose. When people think about goals in terms of potential gain, that’s a “promotion focus,” which makes them more comfortable making mistakes and accepting losses. When people adopt a “prevention focus,” they think about goals in terms of what they could lose if they don’t succeed, so they become more sensitive to sunk costs. This is the focus people usually adopt, if unconsciously, when deciding whether or not to walk away. It usually tells us not to walk away, even when we should.

What do you think? Have you ever had to walk away from something that wasn’t working out? How did you know? And what made you make that move away?

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