September 12, 2022

Quiet quitting isn’t quitting at all

More than a year into the Great Resignation (which I think is more aptly termed the Great Rethinking, Great Reshuffling, Great Pondering or Great Renegotiation), a new phase of this era has emerged. Quiet quitting is a term applied with varying degrees of scorn or empathy to the act of showing up and doing your job exactly as required. The idea caught attention on TikTok, and now it seems to be all labor commentators are talking about.

What’s going on here? And what does it mean for you?

The quiet quitting phenomenon

The Great Resignation emerged at a time of great upheaval in our our world, but it wasn’t just about the pandemic and the social justice movement. Even prior to that time, burnout had reached alarming levels across many sectors – including and especially in my own profession of medicine. Meanwhile, the days of sticking with one employer for an entire career were well behind us. Many employers had made it clear that loyalty lasted only as long as profits did, and employees understandably responded in kind.

These trends, coupled with the stress and change we were all feeling, prompted many of us to take a hard look at how we were spending our time and energy, particularly at work. What we learned was that in many sectors, work was asking too much and giving too little. Even people who love their jobs have realized work can sometimes leave them without nearly enough of what matters most to them in life. Fortunately, the empowerment of the Great Resignation gave employees a voice – a leading voice in the Great Renegotiation of the social contract around work.

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I believe that’s what quiet quitting is all about. It’s not quitting at all. It’s getting clear about how much time and energy you are willing and able to give at work and setting boundaries accordingly. It is doing exactly what you said you would do when you took your job: showing up, doing the work and – yes – excelling at that work. And then walking away when the workday is done and turning your attention to the other things that matter in your life. It’s rejecting round-the-clock give-all-you-have culture and keeping something of yourself for yourself.

And it’s about time.

Where quiet quitting could take us … more quickly in some sectors than others

It’s hard to overstate the implications of stemming the tide of cheap and even free labor employers have enjoyed through years of hustle culture. As employees set boundaries, there will be inevitable resistance. Consider the many vocal CEOs forcing a one-size-fits-most return to office culture and the pundits warning quiet quitters that they will be quietly fired before they know it. (Be sure to check out this comic strip about the dire warnings and widespread misunderstanding for a laugh).

But this movement is too big, too authentic and too powerful to ignore. The 10% of companies that get it and don’t fight it will be titans of next generation. I can’t wait to see what they do.

I am also aware that for some of you in medicine, academia and similar fields, quiet quitting may feel like a luxury you don’t have. Our systems of proving yourself for years of publishing and training before you are considered fully prepared or worthy of tenure are not based on reasonable expectations about what you will give to work and what you will save for the rest of your life.

The savviest of academic and health care institutions will understand this and set a new standard for these fields. Many will surely resist. While they work out their perspectives, you can leave for someplace else … or you can use the power you do have to carve out space for yourself. My stay/go grid may help you figure it out.

Managing your own well-being and career in a time of change

I will be the first to concede that quiet quitting is a polarizing idea. Probably foremost because of the unfortunate label it’s been given.

However, when you understand quiet quitting as a way of setting boundaries and being clear on what you will and won’t do for work, it becomes something more of us can agree on – and something that is even open to professors chasing tenure or physicians pursuing a fellowship.

To move toward better alignment, I urge clients to return to their list of what matters most to them. It is a good idea to revisit your list from time to time anyway, and if you are feeling the strain of burnout, it’s probably the perfect time.

My workbook is a great tool for getting clarity around your priorities, but all you need is a sheet of paper or a digital document. Just make a list of what matters most to you. It could be financial security, a fulfilling relationship, or a leadership role, and it could be all three, or something else entirely. As you look at your list, examine how much of your time and energy each of your top priorities gets.

Most people notice a real gap between their priorities and their reality. If you find such a gap, it doesn’t mean you have to turn your life upside-down. Even incremental changes can make a difference. Choose one of your priorities and ask yourself how you can get just a little bit more of it.

So, for example, if time with your family is at the top of your list but you can’t make it home for dinner more than once or twice a week, look at what it would take to add one more day. It may not be easy, and you may find you need to compromise elsewhere, but you can probably do it.

The reality is, we always have choices about how we spend our time. We may not have all the choices we’d like, but we can build in moments of peace, grace, connection, joy and self-awareness. What’s important is to give yourself permission to examine these choices and make them intentionally. Even if your choice is: I am going to work late today because I think it is important to a goal I care about. It is still a choice, and the power to make it is yours.

Building this kind of habit – re-evaluating what matters most to you and then using that to bring intention to all the choices you make – is a foundational step toward creating what I call a bespoke life. It’s a life that is crafted in service of the goals you have, as well as your well-being and satisfaction. It’s a life that may value work, but also family, friends, fun, creativity and – above all – choice, within the parameters of your circumstances.

Embracing the choices we do have

When I was writing this post, I thought back to something I did while dean of students for first-year trainees at a small medical school. For six years, I ran an orientation that introduced our incoming class to their new lives as medical students. It was a fun and rigorous program that was intended to inspire – and gently dismantle any illusions about what the students had signed up for.

At the end of the program, I met with all the students as part of a series of small-group lunches. I encouraged them to reflect on their orientation experience. I also carefully reminded the students that if they had determined this was not the career for them, they could still walk away. I routinely asked them if they thought that was a choice open to them, if they came to such a conclusion.

In six years, none of them thought they had that choice. I believe most knew even after orientation that medicine was the place for them. But I also suspect there were a few students each year who were less certain, yet they had already reached a place in life where they felt stuck. Expectations, years of striving for something, debt – all these and many other forces lead so many of us to feel trapped in our circumstances. It doesn’t have to be that way.

There is always a choice, even if it is a hard one, and even if the consequences are difficult.

This is how to build a bespoke life – to own the choices you do have, and to make those choices in service of what matters most to you.

Unlock your potential and align with what matters most to you. 

It’s that simple.

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