Are you wearing golden handcuffs?

5 signs that you’ve trapped yourself in your job.

A handsome salary, great benefits, good vacation — just what you always worked towards, right? Why is it, then that you aren’t happy in your current position? And why, if you are unhappy, have you remained on in your position, possibly for years? When we find ourselves chasing financial compensation or security in our jobs over job satisfaction, career growth, or our personal lives, we’re wearing golden handcuffs. Here’s 4 symptoms that you might be wearing golden handcuffs, and 4 ways to break free.

Symptom: You’ve delayed quitting multiple times before.

“It would be foolish to quit before bonus season”, “I’m sure things will turn around soon, and I’ve already established myself here”, “I just need another year to be set up for retirement”. If you find yourself rationalizing your continued tenure with reasons like this, you’ve probably fallen victim to golden handcuffs. While it may seem like sound reasoning and logical decision making, there will always be one more milestone to reach, one more zero to add to the bank account. Each delay made chasing another arbitrary point on the horizon is another delay.

Solution: Define what matters most.

We often track our careers and our lives through quantitative measures — dollars earned or saved, vacation days taken, likes on social media. It’s easier and more straightforward than using a qualitative approach, and it fits neatly in the narrative the world has been pitching us since childhood. Get good grades (quantitative), get into a top ranked school (quantitative), get a job with a great salary (quantitative), etc., etc. See the pattern? But when asked what aspects of life matter most to us, people always respond with the opposite: meaningful work (qualitative), enriching relationships (qualitative), personal freedom (qualitative).

Define the things in life that matter most to you. Write them down. Rank them. When you look to evaluate whether to stay or leave, assess your decision using that list, and avoid getting trapped by numbers.

Symptom: When searching for new opportunities, you are dissuaded by lower compensation or benefits.

I suffered through this symptom firsthand less than a year ago. I was ready to move on from my last position, but speaking with recruiters about salary goals made it clear that my options were limited, unless I accepted a pay cut. When we are well compensated in our field, it’s easy to get trapped into thinking that this is the best we can get — that anything better will need to come through our efforts in our current jobs. This leads to many employees suffering through unsatisfying jobs, believing that the grass could never be better on the other side.

Solution: Determine what you really need, and aim accordingly.

Remember the list of the most important things we made? Now we can determine what sort of income we need to support those things. It’s likely far less than we might think at first glance. Eliminate expenses that don’t add to that list. Find a number that, as a bare minimum, will keep you comfortable and moving towards your goals. Be honest here — the $6 latte every morning does not qualify as a bare minimum expense. Set this number as your new minimum for job searching, and the number of opportunities will increase dramatically.

Symptom: You keep telling yourself that things will get better.

“Once this project is wrapped up, my hours will drop off”

“I’m due for a promotion soon, and that will really improve things”

“Once this deal gets completed I’ll feel a lot less stress”

Telling yourself these stories (and that’s all they are) isn’t logical thinking, it’s rationalizing. We rationalize decisions that are emotions have already made, in order to feel as though our decision making is more logical and practical. It’s natural to be resistant to and fearful about making the leap — after all, there’s no guarantee that the next opportunity will fare any better.

Solution: Set a timelime and stick to it.

Sometimes unhappiness at work is temporary. If you think this is the case, set yourself a clear and well defined timeline for when you will leave if things aren’t improved. Make clear and measurable targets for what needs to change in order for you to stay — hours worked, projects ongoing, etc. Take away every opportunity for yourself to cheat, and then follow the plan. If your timeline expires and you aren’t any happier — it’s time to quit.

Symptom: You want to leave, but are not financially stable enough.

You need just a few more months saving up, and then you’ll be ready to quit. Maybe a few more years to give your retirement fund a good buffer. You want to quit, but you just have too many expenses and not enough savings to be unemployed for a while. If this sounds familiar, you’ve been trapped by golden handcuffs.

Solution: Plan your jump.

Start by cutting down your expenses to what we listed earlier. The lower our expenses are, the less we can afford to save (or the longer we can afford to go between jobs). When those expenses have been minimized, save everything extra. Calculate how long it will take until you have enough savings to jump — 6 months expenses would be a good target, anything longer than a year is just making excuses not to jump. Mark that date in the calendar, stick to your spending plan, and when the day comes, get out.

You might also find yourself trapped by retirement account savings, stock options, or other bonuses that have not yet vested. You’ll have to weigh the value of these against your satisfaction like you did when setting your minimum salary. Can you afford to walk away from these? If so, do it. If the extra money from these is worth waiting for, then you’ll have to embrace your handcuffs for a while. Just remember to plan your exit for the day those assets vest, so you won’t have any reason to hold back.

Ultimately, the decision to pursue happiness and job satisfaction over financial compensation is something that every person needs to weigh on their own. There may be good reasons for accepting a less than ideal position for a higher paycheck, but recognizing when you’re wearing handcuffs is key to ensuring we don’t stay a slave to them forever.