It’s nearing the end of the school year. And for many new graduates, the stress of trying to pass final exams will be replaced by an even bigger worry: figuring out what to do after getting their degree.
I’m not graduating yet, but I think this post-grad crisis represents a more general problem all of us will have to face. That problem is finding an exit strategy. Figuring out what to do once you’ve won the major battles. And while winning the war may seem to be the hard part, you only need to turn on the news to see that this isn’t always the case .
What is an Exit Strategy?
It’s important to have a plan after your plan is finished. Your exit strategy doesn’t need to be completely detailed, but it should at least answer the question of, “What now?”
Let’s look at a few goals you could potentially have:
- Earn $100k/year.
- Lose 20lbs.
- Graduate with my MBA.
- Learn Spanish.
All of these are fine, but they leave a huge blank after you reach them. Here are those same goals, with a quick exit-strategy written afterwards:
- Earn $100k/year. Then switch to sustaining my income while working less, to devote more time to my family.
- Lose 20lbs. Then tweak my diet to keep the weight off permanently.
- Graduate with my MBA. Then apply for a promotion at my current job.
- Learn Spanish. Then travel to Spain.
You don’t need a 12-page document outlining your exit strategy. But as long as you know the next step, you will keep yourself moving forward.
Why is an Exit Strategy Crucial?
When you set an ambitious, life-changing goal (getting a degree, radically boosting your income, losing a lot of weight) it’s easy to forget about an exit strategy. However, if you don’t spend the time figuring out the plan after your plan, you can make key mistakes:
Exit Plan Mistake #1 – Getting Caught on the Infinite Treadmill
There is a great quote by Henry Ford that sums up this mistake perfectly. I couldn’t find the original, so I’ll paraphrase:
A reporter asked Henry Ford, after he was one of the wealthiest men in the world, when he would have enough money to be happy. Ford responded, “another three or four million, I think.”
The “infinite treadmill” happens when one goal is replaced by a more ambitious one. You might double your income, but after doing so, feel like you need to double it again. You might drop 25 lbs to get to a healthy weight level, and feel like starving yourself to drop another 25.
The problem here isn’t continually setting bigger and better goals. It’s in forgetting you’re on a treadmill. By all means, if you enjoy your work and want to set an even more ambitious goal, that’s great. But if you allow yourself to get caught on the treadmill, you might end up working harder and harder for the illusion that one day you will get to stop.
Although I’m far from being rich, I’ve set out how I want my focus to shift at different levels of income. This will help me keep things in perspective so I don’t chronically chase a bigger paycheck if other areas of my life are suffering.
Exit Strategy Mistake #2 – Falling Off the Wagon
This happens when you set a goal that isn’t going to last. Going on an extreme diet to lose 25 lbs and then having it all come back three months later. Here, an exit strategy would have been helpful for keeping you on the wagon after you reach your milestone.
Here’s another article  I wrote about what to do when you fall off the wagon, and how to climb back on. You can add “have an exit strategy” to that list of tips.
Exit Strategy Mistake #3 – The Empty Celebration
After you finish a big project, you are probably incredibly exited. For a day or two. Then you’re bored again. This is the “empty celebration syndrome” where reaching a big goal has surprisingly few lasting effects on your happiness. Worse, when you’ve finished, you may feel completely empty, as the driving force for getting up in the morning is gone.
Having an exit strategy solves this problem too. If you know what the next challenge is going to be before you finish, you avoid the potential boredom of success.
What Makes a Good Exit Strategy?
Here are a few ideas I’ve tried to incorporate into my own exit strategies:
- Keep it Short. An exit strategy should describe what to do next, not what to do with the rest of your life.
- Keep it Specific. Your exit strategy should try to combat one of the three mistakes I mentioned above.
- Plan it Early. The time to begin the job hunt isn’t the day after you receive your diploma. If you have a rough sketch of your exit plan months or years ahead of time, you can smoothly transition.
What are some of the goals you are working on right now? Does it make sense to plan an exit strategy for them? If so, what would it be?