Know When To Back Out Of A Project When You’re In Over Your Head

We’ve all been there: that sickening moment halfway through a major project when you realise you can’t finish it on your own. Whether it’s a DIY project, a work assignment or something similar, knowing when to back out isn’t easy. However, you can ask yourself a few simple questions to help you decide when it’s time to quit.

Title photo by Keith.

If you get pleasure out of doing things yourself, or you’re just a bit hard-nosed when it comes to asking for help, you’ve likely run into this circumstance on a number of occasions. For me, it happens nearly every time I try to fix something around the house. This past weekend I decided to figure out why the washing machine explodes water everywhere when it’s on the hot setting. Two hours and several strings of curse words later, I realised I was out of my element and needed to call for help. With tools and parts everywhere, the repairman came by, patched a couple of things and finished up the job in about 10 minutes.

It’s a process we all go through, especially those of us who learn best through trial-and-error. If you find yourself in this situation, asking yourself a few questions can help you decide if your efforts are worth it or not.

Am I Missing the Tools or the Skills?

Quitting is a perfectly OK thing to do, but if years of half-finished projects have taught me anything, it’s that the first order of business is to make sure you have the proper tools for the job. Before you decide to put the brakes on a project, take a good look at everything you have available to you and make a mental list of anything that might make a job easier.

For DIY projects, this is often a list of tools. Are you having trouble getting a hose connection to work because you don’t know what you’re doing, or is it because you’re trying to use a tool that’s not made for the task? If it’s a missing tool, you can probably still salvage the project and finish it up, but if you’re lacking the skills to finish it and you’re wasting time, it might be best to leave it for another day.

For work projects, you can ask yourself the same question. Few people have the luxury of a job with a singular job description, and chances are you have to occasionally work outside of your expertise. If you can, this is the moment you look at the project as a whole and make a list of what you need to complete it. This might be more people, supplies, or even just a little more time. Take that list to your boss and explain the only way it’s going to get done is if you have the tools you need. Photo by Nick Johnson.

Am I Past the Point of No Return?

In a lot of DIY projects you run into a singular point where you can’t back away. In my appliance repair scenario, I teetered on that line where I would have had to finish the job myself if I’d taken it any further. I didn’t bother putting it back together before the repairman showed up. I just left it there and explained what I was doing to him when he arrived. If you catch it right before the point of no return, you can often backtrack your efforts far enough to allow someone else come in and finish the job.

Take, for instance, something like a household repair. Typically, the first step you take is to remove some type of cover and stare inside it. Once you start taking things apart, you get closer to a point where you can’t feasibly turn back. However, as you go along, take pictures of everything you do for each step. This helps you when you’re putting it back together, and it also causes you to pause and and think about the next step.

Work deadlines or emergency scenarios don’t often offer the luxury of quitting midway through. Taking your time in the beginning stages can help you better assess your own skills for the task at hand. Quitting early is far better than quitting near the end. Photo by John Athayde.

Am I Falling For the Sunk Cost Fallacy?

The more time you invest in a project, the higher a value you put on its completion. This is what Freakonomics co-author Stephen Dubner calls the Sunk Cost Fallacy. We convince ourselves that we’ve invested time in something so it’s impossible to quit. He explains:

A “sunk cost” is just what it sounds like: time or money you’ve already spent. The sunk-cost fallacy is when you tell yourself that you can’t quit because of all that time or money you spent. We shouldn’t fall for this fallacy, but we do it all the time.

So when you’re sitting there staring at a project, and you’re unsure whether you can finish it, ask yourself if you’re only trying to complete it because you feel like you have to — not because you feel like you can. It’s not a bad thing to leave at this point. You still learnt something, and you still picked up some new skills in the process.

What Else Could I Be Doing?

In an interview with entrepreneur Guy Kawasaki, writer Seth Godin suggests the primary thing to consider when quitting anything is the oppurtunity cost. Godin explains:

Smart quitters understand the idea of opportunity cost. The work you’re doing on project X right now is keeping you from pushing through the Dip on project Y. If you fire your worst clients, if you quit your deadest tactics, if you stop working with the people who return the least, then you free up an astounding number of resources. Direct those resources at a Dip worth conquering and your odds of success go way up.

Basically, if you’ve invested a lot of time in a project (whether it’s a couple hours or a month) and stopping it will allow you to do something more enjoyable or productive, it’s time to quit.

Can I Pick This Up Later or Pass it Off?

As far as DIY projects are concerned it’s good to keep one thing in mind: can I or someone else pick up the project later? If you’re learning a new skill, it’s usually easy enough to ditch an idea and start again from scratch with what you’ve learnt. It’s also good for your final product. Say you’re building a table and midway through, you realise you have no idea how to attach the tabletop to the legs. If you quit, you can reassess the table later and do it right. If you don’t, you’re likely going to do it wrong and mess up the whole table.

It’s also good to keep in mind whether or not you can pass a project off to someone else. In my case above, I was able to call in a professional and they finished off my washing machine repair quickly because I already had the machine in pieces. The repairman even mentioned that he prefers when people leave failed projects in pieces instead of trying to poorly hack them back together.

For something like a work project, it might not be as simple to pass off a half-finished idea, but going to your boss and explaining you can’t get it done on your own is likely the only way it’s going to get done right. Done and done right are too different things, but chances are you know which your boss prefers.

Even though it temporarily dulls your feeling of self-worth, quitting a project midway can be a great experience. You learn not just about your own limits but also start building the skills necessary to complete a similar project the next time. Even better, walking away in the middle of the day frees up more time to do other things. The key is knowing when completion is really out of your limits. How about you? Do you find it hard to admit defeat and walk away from a project? Photo by star5112.

The Cheapest NBN 50 Plans

Here are the cheapest plans available for Australia’s most popular NBN speed tier.

At Lifehacker, we independently select and write about stuff we love and think you'll like too. We have affiliate and advertising partnerships, which means we may collect a share of sales or other compensation from the links on this page. BTW – prices are accurate and items in stock at the time of posting.


Leave a Reply