Set stopping conditions

Meta Info

Set stopping conditions
Author: Stijn Dejongh
Published on: 2023-08-26 00:00:00 +0000 UTC
Ammerse Values :
A: Mi: M: E: R: S: Ex:

Problem Statement

You tend to push too hard in order to reach a goal, or invest more than you are able to support.


  • Get a clear understanding of what is expected of you.
  • Do not lose more than you are willing to lose in the pursuit of a goal.

Contextual forces

What is this? These describe factors at play that influence the outcome of the practice. They are not necessarily good or bad, but they are important to be aware of. Some contextual forces are enablers, giving the practice a higher chance of being useful. Others are deterrents, making the practice less useful in your given context.


  • You have a clear idea of how far you can stretch.
  • You can deal with other people giving you a hard time for changing your mind.
  • Your environment is generally respectful, and understanding, when you stop doing something.
  • Your goals can lead to significant personal or professional investment


  • The sunk-cost fallacy
  • People can pressure us into doing things we would rather not do.
  • We feel a sense of shame when stopping. Our culture has though us that “quitters never win, and winners never quit”.
  • Others can be used to you going beyond your limit, they will be disappointed when you stop doing so.
  • Unpredictable situations where flexibility is paramount, as setting stopping conditions up front is very hard.


  • Before starting a task clearly define what positive evolution/success means, also clearly define negative impact/warning signals.
  • Set a hard limit on what you are willing to sacrifice in order to try and reach your goal.
    • make these as concrete as possible, similar to using SMART goals.
    • Focus on specifying your limits in various areas: financial, physical, mental, moral, time-bound, …
  • STOP IMMEDIATELY if you cross this threshold.
  • When you are working on a commitment you made to someone else, be upfront about how far you are willing to go to achieve it.
    • People might still be disappointed you back out, but since you acted with honesty and integrity, no blame should be attributed to you.

Rather than only focussing on tracking progress, it is wise to also keep tabs on the cost it is inducing into your life or organization. This is important if you want to evaluate the ROI of an approach. If you notice you are sacrificing too much of what is dear to you: stop striving to reach that particular goal. In order to better cope with the disappointment of “needing to give up”, it helps to see most endeavours as experiments rather than “do-or-die” type of deals.

In the end, reaching your goals at all costs is usually not really worth it.


  • We are not purely rational beings: The feelings of “loss” and “failure” are not pleasant ones, as humans are hardwired to struggle for survival. We are also creatures of habit, favouring known situations over unknown ones.
  • We are generally not great at knowing our limits.
  • Goals are extremely motivating, but can push us well beyond our limits.
  • We (generally) want to do what is good for ourselves, those close to us, and the people we care about
  • There is a cost of choice while working with limited resources: choosing to invest your resources (time, energy, money, health) into an endeavour automatically makes it unavailable for investment elsewhere.
  • We can condition ourselves by stating declarations of intent in “When X happens, then I will Y”. This priming making it easier to act in the way we want to.
  • The Theory Of Constraints teaches us that holding too much work-in-progress reduces our ability to be effective.
  • Our mental capacity is limited. When we spend too much time fretting over the things we ought to do, there is little room to work on the things we are doing.


  • Short-Term Focus: The pattern’s emphasis on current limits might neglect potential future opportunities, leading to a conservative approach.
  • External Pressures: Individuals might still feel pressured by others to exceed their set limits, making adherence difficult.
  • Over-Cautiousness: Risk of setting overly cautious stopping criteria that prevent necessary risk-taking and innovation.

Mitigation Strategies

  • Regular Reassessment: Regularly review and adjust stopping criteria based on new information and evolving contexts to maintain a balance between caution and opportunity.
  • Communication and Support: Foster a supportive environment where individuals feel comfortable setting and respecting their limits. Open communication about the rationale behind stopping criteria can help mitigate external pressures.
  • Balanced Approach: Encourage a balanced approach where stopping criteria are set thoughtfully but flexibly, allowing for necessary adjustments without completely abandoning limits.


Use Cases / Testimonials

Changing careers: starting a business

by: Stijn Dejongh

One of the concerns of leaving a comfortable employment situation, and trading it for a highly uncertain one, is that you could end up without an income. While this is certainly a concern, most people have more leeway than they might realize.

At one point, I was considering switching from a position of full-time employment to becoming a self-employed freelance software developer. For the duration of my entire life up until that point, I had tried to be financially sensible, not taking too large risks in order to avoid a reduction in luxury. This had left me with quite a hefty sum of money in my bank account. For the next month or two, I kept close tabs on where my expenses went. Most of it was allocated to food, drink, technical books, and entertainment. With this data in hand, I calculated that it would take about 2 years before I completely ran out of money.

Obviously, this was not an acceptable future to me, so I rethought the situation to be more of an experiment. Then I asked myself: “How much of my money am I willing to pay to know whether this is a viable way of life for me?”. Turns out what I was willing to spend came down to about 4 months of living expenses. Considering I needed some margin if I were to go back to working as a full-time employee, I gave myself 3 months to start working as a freelancer. This means I set myself a limit, a breaking condition, before I quit my job. The condition was: “If I do not have a signed multi-month freelance contract within the next three months, I will abandon the plan and focus on finding stable employment again”.

I discussed my intent with my then-fiancee (now wife), as it also affected her. She was okay with delaying our long term plans with about one year in case I did not reach my intended goal. This gave me two things. Foremost, it helped reassure me that I was not doing harm to the people I cared about. Secondly, it served as a sanity-check of my plans. If my goal was completely unrealistic, she would have undoubtedly told me at that point.