How Resets Predict When We Look for a New Job

Imagine overhearing this conversation: Person 1 asks, “Are you happy?” Person 2 responds, “Compared to whom?”

If you are the first person, you probably think that response is not a good sign. If you are the second person, however, that response is actually pretty reasonable. For all the importance we place on happiness (or satisfaction or contentment or whatever we are seeking from aspects of our lives), we don’t spend much time evaluating how we’re doing. When we do think about it, we generally judge whether we are happy relative to others.

I recently read a Washington Post article, “When you’re most likely to start looking for a new job,” which reports on a new study in the Harvard Business Review measuring when we look for a new job. Job-search activity jumps after class reunions, birthdays, and work anniversaries, and actually declines after work-related feedback like bonuses and performance reviews.

By itself, that finding isn’t unusual. We are relative pricers of almost everything, including our own happiness. So the idea that we might start looking for a job after a class reunion, a prime opportunity to compare our station in life to others like us, isn’t that surprising. What really interested me was how the article reminds us of the importance of resets in decision-making.

Generally, we don’t make decisions with the long view in mind. In the moment, we are likely to step into cognitive traps and let emotion influence us. When there is some interrupt in our routines, an opportunity for a reset is created. An interrupt is an opportunity to get out of reflexive mind and into deliberative mind, to be more rational and give ourselves that ten-thousand-foot view of our lives.

This importance of decision interrupts and resets is codified in common aphorisms. Have you ever heard someone say, “Take ten deep breaths” or “Why don’t you sleep on it?” In poker, these kinds of resets are key to sustainable success. Once a player suffers a loss during a game, they can start making emotionally driven decisions that distort their play in a negative way. Poker players call this condition tilt. Playing while on tilt is disastrous because when on tilt you are playing your worst.

The best way address tilt? Quit the game. Go home. Go to sleep. And start fresh the next day after the reset.

The study reported in the HBR shows that decision interrupts are not just for poker players. What encourages all of us to get a better long-term perspective is some kind of life interrupt. The most common is the end of the day, thus the “Why don’t you sleep on it?” advice.  January 1 is another universal life-interrupt. We didn’t necessarily gain a bunch of weight or start smoking over the holidays, but the start of the New Year shifts our perspective. Instead of saying, “what am I going to eat today?”, we say, “let me think about my eating habits for this year.” (My point is about how the life-interrupt gives us a broader perspective, not about whether we succeed at such resolutions.)

At work, things like birthdays, class reunions, and vacations act as interrupts and resets, giving us an opportunity to evaluate our lives looking farther down the horizon.

The Post pointed out that employers understand this concept but only part way. They recognize that interrupts and resets might cause an employee to reevaluate their job. However, they see those resets primarily from the frame of the company. When they try to protect against the turnover caused by such resets, they focus on the natural resets within the business: fiscal-year bonuses, quarterly or annual performance reviews. Brian Kropp, who runs human resources at CES, the company that performed the study, suggested that companies keep better track of employees’ personal milestones, and schedule career discussions around those events instead. Or have those discussions before employees take extended vacations.

In other words, employers should look at career-planning from the frame of the employee. That’s a good idea, and not just at work. When we see things from only our perspective (an already-difficult exercise), the view rarely changes. Taking other perspectives is a way to get a more accurate view.