The Status Quo Bias and Switching Jobs or Careers

After my article a few weeks ago on how the status quo bias costs you money, a reader I’ll call Jeff made a very astute observation: the status quo bias often keeps people from making the best career decisions.

Let’s back up a second, though. What is the status quo bias? From the earlier article:

Most people are familiar with the status quo bias. In simpler terms, it simply means that people prefer things to stay relatively the same. We talk to the same people, follow the same path to work, go through the same daily routine, and so forth. We enjoy little changes – like reading a different book, going on a different trip in the summer, or watching a different movie – but radical changes? Not so much.

Let’s roll back the clock about a year. I was burning the candle at both ends keeping up with a burgeoning writing career and a full-time job that often spilled out into the evenings and weekends. Between the two, I was burning myself out and I knew that I had to buckle down and choose one or the other. I even more or less knew that I was going to choose the writing.

Yet I put myself through many months of utterly exhausting misery while I “made up my mind.” Why did I do this? It turns out that the status quo bias was really the culprit.

The real problem was that I was so used to the routine of my old job that I had a hard time seeing my life without it. The routine of getting up in the morning, heading into the office, getting there about 7:30, seeing the same people at the office every day, going home at about 4:30 or so, and getting up the next day and repeating it had been done so many times, I could scarcely imagine my life without that routine. Add into that the routine of the twice-monthly paycheck and the “five days on, two days off” routine of the standard workweek and breaking away from all of those molds at once seemed almost overwhelming to me.

It felt safer to keep things relatively the same, even though it was wearing me down. Even though I knew the choice I would eventually take – and I also knew that the current state of affairs was untenable over the long term – I held onto the status quo as long as I possibly could.

Even more amazing, I repeatedly tried to justify reasons to stay with my current job. I did like it, for the most part, but there were aspects that I didn’t like, mostly bureaucracy and my tendency to burden myself (or be burdened) with responsibilities out of my area of expertise. Because of that, I kept telling myself I would be foolish to give it up, and more than once I began drafting posts saying I was going to stop with The Simple Dollar, only to talk myself out of it.

This leads straight back to Jeff’s observation that the status quo bias often keeps people from making the best career decisions. Clearly, the status quo bias was at work when I was making my career choice, and it took a lot of time and a lot of positive encouragement from my wife for me to finally make that career change.

Hopefully, you’re one of the lucky ones, the people who read this article and thought that the decision and change was quite easy. For the rest of us, though, the status quo bias can be quite a challenge. Here are five things that really helped me overcome it and make a strong but challenging career choice for myself.

First, share the whole situation with someone you trust and whose opinion you respect. Quite often, that person can see from the outside that the new path is really the right one for you to follow and will often become your cheerleader and motivator, encouraging you to make the switch. For me, this was my wonderful wife, who supports me in so many ways – without her encouragement, I would have never made the switch.

Second, focus on the positives of the career change. When you’re trying to stick with the status quo, it’s very easy to look at the negatives of the change you’re considering. For me, I kept looking at the risks – the loss of regular and dependable income, the uncertainty as to what opportunities the future might hold down that path, and so on. Instead, look strongly at the positives – which for me included a flexible schedule that left me a lot more time with my kids and the opportunity to do something I deeply, deeply enjoy (write).

Third, be realistic about the balance of positives and negatives of your current job. It was easy for me to paint my old job as glowing during that time. I would think very positively of all of the aspects that I liked and tried very hard to not think about the negative aspects. One exercise that helped me was making myself list ten things I liked about my current job, as well as ten things I didn’t like. Doing that helped me see that just like any job, it’s a mix of things I liked and things I didn’t.

Fourth, have a nice fat emergency fund to make the leap less scary. Once I began to see that there was a real conflict going on between my two career paths, I started tightening the screws on an emergency fund, saving my nickels and dimes for a rainy day. Even then, I knew that whichever path I chose, I would be helped by having cash in hand. Obvious for the new job, but even if I chose to stay with the old one, the emergency fund would help out with making some bigger purchases easier (like an inevitable car purchase I would have had to make if I were to continue commuting).

Finally, try a dry run at your new job. At one point, I took a full week off from my old job and “pretended” I was engaged at my writing career. I went through an entire week and discovered that this was actually a path I could see myself following. It made the idea seem more real, more tangible, more possible.

All of these tactics helped me overcome the “status quo” that was my earlier job and move on to my new career as a writer. Without these tactics, I likely would have stayed in my old job – and I might have regretted not taking the leap for the rest of my life. Don’t let the status quo bias influence your career choices – step back and take a serious look at things and you might find that change is the right path for you.

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