Knowing When to Stop Could Be Your Secret Superpower

The science behind why you don’t need to keep pushing on indefinitely once you attain your goals.

Knowing When to Stop Could Be Your Secret Superpower
Photo by Darya Skuratovich on Unsplash

The science behind why you don’t need to keep pushing on indefinitely once you attain your goals.

My hometown, Guwahati, is known for its affordable and easily available system of public transport in the form of buses. These buses have a very interesting system of boarding new passengers with a bus conductor to collect money for tickets and call out new passengers.

Since the city has a population density of about 2695 people per square kilometer, the buses are always crowded, especially during peak hours. When all the seats are occupied, people stand in the aisle, gripping the handlebar at the top for support.

It’s a common occurrence to spot a bus crowded to the brim, with the conductor proudly calling on more passengers with cries of “Khali gadi, khali gadi,” the Assamese for “Empty bus.” The empty here stands for just about enough room to stand. At each stop, the people already on the bus are forced to crowd at the back, squished against each other as even more people step in.

I’ve traveled often in buses like this, pressed at the back with a bunch of other people, the scent of gasoline and armpit sweat in the air, holding on to the handlebar for dear life as the bus weaves its way through the Guwahati traffic. Such experiences have taught me never to trust the cries of “Khali gadi” unless I see the situation inside for myself.

In fact, it’s common knowledge among the residents of Guwahati that khali gadi rarely ever translates to empty bus, irrespective of its literal meaning. At bus stops, people often wait until they see inside the bus and board it only if they’re sure there’s space for them. I’ve even planned extensively and changed routes just so I don’t have to get inside these so-called khali gadis.

This makes me wonder: are the bus conductors gaining anything by claiming their bus is empty when no one boards the bus anyway? It’s such a waste of time and energy to shout for several minutes and have not a single passenger climb on.

Today, while I was mulling over this thought, a sudden epiphany struck me: aren’t we humans the same?

When we achieve the goals we set for ourselves, don’t we keep pushing on? Whether it’s the number of products to sell, the number of working hours in a day, or the amount of money we plan to make each month — once we reach that goal, don’t we hustle on, pushing to our limits, trying to achieve as much as we can?

I’ve written about this before, calling this the “productivity trap.”

“When you crush all the goals on your to-do list, and then strive to work harder to accomplish more in the same day to feel good about yourself. Then, you worry if you’ll be able to replicate the same level of productivity the next day, or the day after. Because of the raised bar, you’re harsher on yourself. You don’t give yourself the credit you deserve for completing all the tasks you’d planned for the day.”

As I’ve said before, it’s basic human nature to crave success, and then get addicted to it. But isn’t there peace in knowing when to stop?

I decided to look at the psychology behind it and found some shocking results. This post discusses how not pushing too far ahead once you reach your goals could actually be your secret superpower. Read on to know more about how there are times you need to stop, take a deep breath, and just be.

Know That It’s Impossible to Predict the Outcome

When you’re faced with a decision, you try to maximize reward and minimize cost. But it’s important to remember that irrespective of how much or how little you know about the situation, it’s impossible to predict the future with full certainty.

Yes, the powers of probability improve the odds of making a good choice, but you can never know with full certainty if you’ll win or lose. Life isn’t mathematics. Cold logic doesn’t always suffice.

There’s a very famous conundrum in mathematics known as the “Marriage Problem.” Say you decide to marry. There’s a group of 100 potential partners, and you’re given a pre-decided time to interview each candidate. Based on the interviews, you’ll have to select a life partner. The criteria here are:

  • The candidates are interviewed one by one in random order.
  • A decision about each particular applicant is to be made immediately after the interview.
  • Once rejected, an applicant cannot be recalled.
  • During the interview, assume that you gain enough information to rank the candidate among everyone else you’ve interviewed so far, but you’ve no way of knowing the quality of yet unseen applicants.

Your objective, of course, is to marry the absolute best candidate of the lot. But how do you go about that?

This problem is based on the theory of optimal stopping, concerned with the problem of choosing a time to take a particular action, in order to maximize an expected reward or minimize an expected cost.

In such situations, it’s best to mentally decide on the maximum possible risk you’re willing to take and the minimum reward you desire. Based on these numbers, when you reach your goal, there’s no point in pushing further on, as your end result might be worse than what you had in hand a few moments ago.

Say you really liked the 35th candidate in the marriage problem but wanted to wait until you interviewed the other 99 candidates. What would you do if the 100th candidate isn’t as compatible as the 35th candidate? You can’t go back and recall them, and you can’t not marry the 100th applicant. Thanks to your quest for the “best,” you’d now be stuck with a mediocre choice forever.

As Theodore Hill, Ph.D., writes in American Scientist, “Every decision is risky business. Selecting the best time to stop and act is crucial.”

“Best” is Relative

When you keep pushing on after meeting your expectations, you’re obviously trying to cut the best deal out for yourself. But how good is best? You might have started your journey with some expectations in mind. But as you keep achieving more and more, the lines get blurred, your goals keep getting higher, and before you know it, you’re caught in an endless cycle of working hard and never having your expectations met.

It’s important to take a step back to look at how far you’ve come.

The promise of even better results might urge you to keep working, but as Heather Moulder, J.D., ACC writes, “Part of feeling successful means to feel fulfilled, whole, and confident in yourself. And the only way to feel that way is to ensure your core needs are being met. It’s what helps you feel whole and satisfied with yourself and the world. You need to learn to honor your values as they are what give you purpose.”

Your definition of success should be based on your core values and needs. This definition shouldn’t change as you grow and your horizons expand. Sure, being ambitious is great, but it’s important to draw a line or you’ll never feel satisfied.

The need to achieve the “best” will keep making you feel bad about yourself.

Final Words

Knowing when to quit is important because it allows you to take a few moments to applaud yourself for what you’ve achieved. It puts your journey in perspective and gives you the space to enjoy the fruits of your labor. If you constantly keep pushing on in spite of attaining your goal, you might lose sight of why you started on this journey in the first place, and commit yourself to a lifetime of constant self-retribution.

As Conor O’Rourke writes in Blinkist Magazine, “The constant drive for excellence creates a lot of pressure. If your eagerness to do well every step of the way becomes your main focus, then your ability to think creatively and differently gets put on the backburner. You lose sight of what really matters: the end result.”

Quitting might sometimes feel shameful and leave you with low self-esteem.

But knowing when to quit is powerful. That’s how you balance your needs with your wants — a skill critical for any emotionally intelligent adult.

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