If you’re facing significant unhappiness at work—and if you landed on this page I take it you are—you might think the best thing to do is give your two weeks notice and then spend those two weeks pretending you didn’t get a single Zoom invite. But, before you go giving the double tall boys to some mediocre, spittly, non-muting-when-they-chew boss, I encourage you to put a little more thought into your approach to your job and, yes, reconsider whether you really want to quit.
Before you write that awkward letter, let’s take a closer look at what’s bugging you so much in the first place. I did a lot of research about this topic, and I boiled it down to this 4-question analysis of whether leaving was truly the best thing for me, and I came to some very surprising conclusions.
1. What is your purpose for being in your current job?
This question isn’t about your purpose purpose. It’s not asking you to define your raison d’être or find your dharma. This question is just about your purpose for going to this job. Why do you show up every day? And while we’re at it, why haven’t you quit yet? Find that reason, the real reason. The one you won’t post on LinkedIn.
For me, that purpose to make a decent paycheck until I’m out of debt. Which means it’s temporary, but it’s real.
That reason totally sucks! You might think. Or maybe you’re hanging your head and thinking, Yeah, me too. But stick with it for a little while, because knowing that purpose might also give you the clarity you need to make your choice. The next question is your barometer.
2. What is your purpose for having a job at all?
If your answer to the first question is that you “love to help people,” dig deeper to find out what you really mean by that. It might mean that you like teaching little children how to do crafts, or explaining medications to scared patients who’ve never heard that 25-syllable word before. Or maybe you really like “designing visually compelling marketing materials.” Or, if you’re like me and you really do just keep your job for the paycheck, see if you can decide what you want that paycheck for. State your answer in simple terms: “I work because _________________.”
Now, this is the fun part. Take your answer to the first question and compare it to your answer to the second. If the answers the same or similar, you might be further away from the big Q (quitting) than you think. If there’s a huge gap between them, can you explain why? How can you get from point A (your purpose for continuing the droll of your current job) to point B (your purpose for having a job in the grand scheme of things)?
I currently fall into the least desirable category of purposes for both questions, but by asking myself these questions I realized just how much I was prioritizing it. My husband and I found ourselves in an embarrassingly American amount of debt, and I know that if I try to identify and obtain my “dream job” right now, the stress of the debt we share will unfortunately cast a dark shadow over the happiness I’d get from the work I might do somewhere else. I’d be stressed and distracted. I’d ultimately not be able to appreciate a dream job until that debt is gone. In other words, I’ve decided that paying off debt is my purpose and my answer to both questions one and two. And while that’s not sexy or dreamy or very powerful, I have that powerful clarity until it’s time to ask myself those questions again.
Put another way, if you’re going to work to get a paycheck and your paycheck is about as good as you expect it to be for the skills set you have and the effort you put in, then what the hell is the point of finding a new job? Seriously. You’re just going to get stuck in the same emotional void again, and find yourself hating that perfectly nice person in client services for no reason. You can probably stop right there because leaving would be a waste of effort.
However, if you believe you’d get paid more somewhere else without having to up the ante in the effort department too terribly much, then maybe it is a good idea to move on to something else. Focus on the purpose you’ve established for having a job at all.
You may find a small gap between the two answers, like “I go to my current job to feel professionally useful,” and “I work in order to be a useful member of society.” While those two answers are quite similar, they’re still different enough to be illuminating. With the first answer, you’re expressing an emotional deficit in your reason for continuing to show up to your current job. It’s only a desire to feel a certain way, where the second expresses a desire to be a certain way.
Alas, if you do all this introspection and know that you want to leave your job now, I encourage you to use what you learned from the suckiness of your current sucky job to help you make the most of this journey you’re about to embark upon. Whether you know you want to leave or are still confused, asking yourself a few more questions can help. Read on, my friend.
3. What makes you want to leave?
At my current job, I realized I got burnt out. The person whose job I filled had been so stressed out from the workload that she lost some of her hair and ended up in the hospital. I was determined not to let that happen to me, but I could feel it creeping in.
So I thought I had a pretty good reason to leave. They were asking too much of me. But then an article I read had the nerve to point out that burnout is temporary. What? I asked myself. If a job is too demanding, it’s too demanding and that’s the end of it. But then I started thinking, and I realized there was another thing that my former boss and I had in common, and that was that we tried too hard to make sure everything was perfect. A-ha, I realized, defeated by my own stubbornness. I also realized I truly could back off for a little while and allow things to be imperfect. By doing that, I embraced the chaos and let things be the fallen-apart mess they were. And while my day-to-day work didn’t change, my approach to it did.
To address the burnout, I also decided to do the bare minimum for a few weeks, making sure I did my job, but not concerning myself too much with doing it well. I decided I would do enough so I didn’t put anybody out or make somebody else’s work harder, identifying the bare bones of what was necessary with the intention of prioritizing over other add-ons when I was ready. In other words, I did my job and not anyone else’s. And guess what? The world spun madly on.
You may be in a job where you truly don’t have that option for one reason or another. Maybe your job actually does require too much from you, and it’s not just you requiring too much from yourself. If that’s the case, try talking to your boss about the burnout you’re experiencing. See if you can drop one of your responsibilities or relax a few deadlines. Or, just tell her that you’re unable to accomplish X, Y, and Z and let the pin drop in the room. Then try out the new look for a while. See if it works.
Coworker conflicts present a similar set of opportunities. But the long and short of it is, if you don’t get along with people, you shouldn’t quit because of that. And this isn’t because of the self-righteous, they-can’t-make-me-leave perspective. It’s because the conflicts you’re experiencing are probably temporary too. Maybe you or they will be put on another project soon, or maybe they’ll be moved. Maybe you can limit your interaction with them by consolidating conversations or simply declining meetings and proposing quicker, less interactive alternatives. Maybe they hate you too and would be happy to see a few meeting cancellations and deal with your thinly veiled condescension in an email thread instead.
And besides, I have news for you. The same types of people will be at a new job somewhere else if you don’t make a drastic career jump. Kim from accounting will be Jim from sales at a new place. And, what would be really big of you once you decide that dammit, you really shouldn’t leave because 22-year-old Jon Macklemore (how did he get this job, anyway?!) has an annoying habit of asking big dumb questions as soon as the meeting starts to wrap up, would be to figure out how to help little Jonny fix his shit or at least figure out how to ignore him.
Use the frustration you feel as an opportunity to enhance your interpersonal skills, specifically targeting the stuff that really ticks you off. As soon as the tea kettle starts to scream, try to see yourself and the situation from the outside. What is it that really triggers you? A voice? A habit? The inability of the director to write a coherent sentence? Once you identify what it is, think of ways to minimize your reaction to those triggers or even laugh about them. That lady from customer service who has that tone when she makes a point, well, she’ll always have that. You can’t—and shouldn’t—change it. Find comfort in the fact that you’re not the only one rolling your eyes, and then find a way to stop rolling your eyes.
4. What would make you want to stay?
Answering this question can be very powerful, because it forces you to decide what it is, specifically, you want to change. Notice that the operative word here is want. The question is not what would make you willing to stay. The question is, what would make you into one of those people who “like” their job?
Sometimes, our desires are purely existential and we realize the problem lies inside, not out. For example, I might want to feel “fulfilled” at this job. That means the next step is defining that in reality. Would I need to have volunteer opportunities? Have more social events? Bring my dog to work?
If you’re struggling to answer, try not to use that as a reason to dismiss the question altogether. Ask yourself how you want to feel while you’re working at your job? What responsibilities do you want to have? What software do you want to use? What benefits (healthcare and otherwise) do you want?
And here’s another question we all love to hate, or maybe hate to love, or maybe just hate but feel compelled to answer anyway: What is your ideal job? Answering that can help you understand if there are any attributes of that ideal job present at this one, and it can help you take a look at whether they could be.
At the end of the day, remember that you are in charge. Even if you’re drowning under your student loan debt or your parents are somehow still controlling your deep subconscious or you think this is the only way you’re going to be able to pay for daycare and Netflix and your Ulta addiction and the wine club, you still own your choices.
Revisit your purpose when you get the itch (the figurative itch, dear; go to the doc if you get the real itch, or at least CVS). Don’t let fear and doubt guide your choices. Fear and doubt are stupid, not “realistic.” Your job choices should and can support what you want, not just protect you from what you don’t.