Why you Should Quit While You’re Ahead

‘”Quit while you’re ahead” is an effective strategy for forming new habits when it is applied locally rather than globally. I don’t mean quit a habit once you’re good at it, but quit practicing in specific instances while your enjoyment or satisfaction is high, e.g. stop writing while you still have momentum.

There are psychological reasons for why this is a good strategy. The peak-end rule, first described by Daniel Kahneman, is a “psychological heuristic in which people judge an experience largely based on how they felt at its peak (i.e. its most intense point) and at its end, rather than based on the total sum or average of every moment of the experience.”

The peak-end rule tells us that our perception of how enjoyable an event was is biased towards how we felt during the extremes (the peaks) and our most recent memory (the end). If an experience was mostly awful, but had a small moment of great enjoyment, we are more likely to remember that experience as positive. The reverse would also be true; a brief moment of suffering can colour a mostly positive experience as negative. We also recall the end of an event more clearly, and thus judge an experience more by our state of mind at the end. This is why a bad ending can ruin a really good story and comedians try and end with their best joke.

You can think of people as having two “selves”, a “remembering self” and an “experiencing self”. Our “remembering self” puts more emphasis on our most recent memory and peak experiences, rather than the sum or average enjoyment/suffering that our “experiencing self” had to go through.

Application to habit formation

Your “experiencing self” has to endure the habit, but it is ultimately up to your “remembering self” to decide if they want to repeat it. So you should optimize your habits for your “remembering self”.

To effectively form a habit, according to James Clear, it must be:

  1. Obvious
  2. Attractive
  3. Easy
  4. Satisfying

The peak-end rule gives us some control over steps 2 and 4. We can make habits more attractive to our “remembering self” by quitting while our enjoyment is at a “peak”. This will make the habit more satisfying overall, since you’ll associate it more with the positive experience that you left it with. Therefore, you should quit while you’re ahead.

Developing a writing habit

I’m currently employing this technique to build a blogging habit. Inspiration when writing can be very sparse and sporadic. When I get on a roll while writing its tempting to keep pushing until I run out of inspiration. But by pushing this too far, I end up in a state where I’m struggling to put words down and I eventually give up. Even if I (my “experiencing self”) had a mostly positive writing session, the memory of the session will be coloured by that negative experience.

When I feel like I’m on a roll, I stop writing for the day to ensure my “remembering self” thinks of writing as a thing I’m good at and will be more likely to do it again tomorrow. This echos advice from Ernest Hemingway: “Always stop for the day while you still know what will happen next.” Quit while you’re ahead and it will be easier to pick up that momentum tomorrow.

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