Imagine for a moment you’re in your local supermarket.
You go to checkout but notice there are only three lines open.
Which do you choose?
The answer is obvious:
The checkout with the fewest number of shoppers is often the fastest.
You join the shortest line and wait your turn to be served.
But there’s a problem.
One of the shoppers in front of you is querying his bill.
He says the guacamole is on offer; the checkout clerk says otherwise.
And that’s when you notice it—a nearby checkout moving faster.
What do you do?
- Stick with the line you’re in no matter what
- Pick the fast-moving checkout and switch repeatedly based on whatever you think might save a few seconds
- Change line only once
If time isn’t a factor and your only goal is to leave the supermarket, which option do you choose?
When to Stick and When to Quit
When working toward a goal, it’s important to build a system that will gradually move you toward its attainment.
Systems, in their simplest form, guide your daily behaviors and remind you of what’s most important.
As Scott Adams writes in How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big,
In most cases, as far as I can tell, the people who use systems do better. The system’s driven people have found a way to look at the familiar in new and more useful ways.
The number of systems needed to achieve a goal varies from one goal to another. Some goals require many systems. Others require few.
Losing weight, for example, might include a system for counting calories, organizing meals, exercising, and more.
On the other hand, a goal like writing twenty-four articles in a year might comprise only one system: writing one article every two weeks.
Goal setting, for this very reason, then, is complicated. No two goals are alike. And as much as we might think, goal setting is not a one size fits all approach.
The truth is, you need to experiment with a variety of systems before deciding which is right for you and your circumstances.
If you’re writing a novel, for example, and many of your peers recommend writing in the morning, does that mean you should write in the morning, too?
You might be going through this process now, trying to discover the right approach before settling on one which is a good fit.
And if you are, but you’re getting what you want, you’ve probably encountered an all-too-familiar obstacle:
Knowing when to pivot or persevere.
If you’re not getting results in your life or work, is it because the system you’re using isn’t right for you? Or is it because you haven’t been patient enough?
Put simply, when should you change lanes?
The Checkout Dilemma
When moving toward a goal, it’s not uncommon to encounter obstacles, things outside of your control that impede your progress.
These obstacles—though challenging, to begin with—provide an opportunity to experiment with a new system.
Often, you have three choices (providing you want to keep advancing, of course):
- Keep doing what you’ve always done.
- Switch strategies if a new one appears. Continue this process until you achieve your goal.
- Change strategies only once. But that’s it, just one change.
The problem, though, is making the right decision.
Do you persevere? Or do you pivot if a new strategy appears? Or, better still, do you change strategies only once?
I call this predicament, “the checkout dilemma”.
Let’s discuss each choice in more detail.
Choice #1: Keep doing what you’ve always done
When encountering an obstacle in life or work, it’s tempting to believe persistence will pay off.
Makes sense, right?
We’re reminded, constantly, of stories from entrepreneurs who were close to bankruptcy, only to secure an investor at the critical moment; writers who were rejected by dozens of publishers only to sign a book deal before giving up entirely.
Stories like the above are impressive (if not inspiring). We believe, if we invest enough time, attention, and energy, we, too, can break through our impediments and achieve what matters.
But it’s not always that straightforward, is it?
The truth is, many people struggle to break through their plateaus because they’re too proud to pivot to another system.
Often, this is because of errors in thinking caused by the survivorship bias (our tendency to focus on the people who “survived” rather than those who didn’t), the endowment effect (our tendency to value what we own more than others do), and more important, the sunken cost fallacy (our tendency to honor sunk costs).
Understand: If what you’re doing isn’t working, it might be time to reevaluate whether it was the right choice, to begin with.
As Ryan Holiday writes in The Daily Stoic,
Just because you’ve begun down one path doesn’t mean you’re committed to it forever, especially if that path turns out to be flawed or impeded.
Take action and have the acuity to know what’s working and what’s not, but don’t confuse foolish pride for persistence.
Choice #2: Switch strategies if a new one appears. Continue this process until you achieve your goal.
When facing a challenge, the obvious choice, for many, is to do something different.
As the old adage goes, “If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.”
Sometimes, pivoting once is enough to get to where you want to be. Other times, it isn’t, and you have to reevaluate whether to pivot again or persevere.
The problem, though, is falling into a pattern of pivoting again and again without reason because you’ve suffering from “shiny object syndrome.”
As Seth Godin writes in The Dip,
In your search for a quick fix, you almost certainly waste time and you definitely waste energy jumping back and forth.
The takeaway, here, is obvious:
You will never get anywhere if you’re always switching lines.
There’s always going to be a new, shiny object to chase. A new article, book, online training program—all promising a quicker and easier approach to getting what you want.
But if you’re always changing, you’ll never be able to experiment with a given system long enough to know whether it’s the right one for you and worth persevering for.
“Am I confusing motion for progress?”
If you are, STOP.
Choice #3: Change strategy only once
Understand: Just because you have a sunken cost in a given system (a diet, a workout regime, a career, etc.) doesn’t mean you need to commit to it forever (especially if it’s no longer serving you). Nor does it mean pivoting from one system to another without ever really fully applying yourself.
Holiday says it best,
It takes courage to decide to do things differently and to make a change, as well as discipline and awareness to know that the notion of “Oh, but this looks even better” is a temptation that cannot be endlessly indulged in either.
If you’re going to persevere with a given system, make sure it’s the right system from the offset (if you can). Do your research, reflect back on your past experience (and others’) and ask yourself, “Is this the right approach for me?” If it isn’t, pivot to one that shows promise.
Seth Godin for introducing me to the checkout analogy in The Dip and Ryan Holiday for reintroducing me to it in The Daily Stoic.