How To Decide if it's Time to Quit?

Toby Hazlewood

It depends on what you’re doing and why you’re still doing it.


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Enough… (Photo by Nadine Shaabana on Unsplash)

I don’t usually give up on something once I’ve committed to it, no matter how trivial it might seem. I consider it both a strength and a weakness.

I often feel I’d be cheating myself if I gave up. I’d be letting others down too or at the very least, giving them cause to scorn or doubt my commitment. Often I take it to an unhelpful extent and refuse to let go of trivial and inconsequential things instead of quitting them.

When reading a book or listening to a podcast I feel compelled to finish it, even if I’m not enjoying it or finding it interesting.

If I’ve made a plan (to take a walk for example) then I’ll feel uneasy about changing that plan. I struggle doing anything less than I’ve committed to doing, even if circumstances change. If the rain is pouring and the wind howling, I’ll still head out for the walk. I may have slept badly or felt sick, but I’ll force myself onwards anyway.

I do it because I said I would and quitting would be wrong. Weak. Irresponsible.

I even struggle to select a movie on Netflix or commit to listening to an album on Spotify — I suspect because once I’ve committed and made a choice, I know I’ll feel compelled to see it through to the end regardless of whether it measures up to expectations.

Some might view this as tenacity, commitment or determination. It might be viewed as a strength to be nurtured rather than an issue to be overcome.

I’m coming around to thinking that I need to become more discerning about how I spend my time, and to allow myself to quit a bit more often when there’s a good reason for doing so. As it's put so elegantly in this piece on Thought Catalog, quitting isn't always negative - in fact it can be a beautiful thing when it gives us part of our lives back.

The worst reasons for sticking with something

There are a few common factors that stop me from cutting things off mid-flow if they’re not working out, or if I’m just not enjoying them any longer:

The sunk cost fallacy

We humans have a tendency to justify further investment of time in a project or endeavour by virtue of the time we’ve already devoted to it — a trait known as the sunk cost fallacy.

We may have studied for years to pursue a career and feel compelled to stick with it for life, even though we’re not enjoying the profession. The investment of money, time, effort and emotion are used to justify remaining trapped within the status quo even though the investment is lost and cannot be recovered.

I often use this to justify sticking with things and it doesn’t just apply to major life choices — I may have invested a few hours of my reading a book in spite of deciding early on that I wasn’t enjoying it. To give up on it now would be an admission that I’d wasted that time — time I can’t get back. And so I plough on with it, finishing the book and wasting further time in the process.

Just because we’ve put in a few hours, days or even years, that may not be sufficient justification to keep on doing it if it’s clearly not working out for us any longer.

Fear of missing out

If I give up on reading that book, I might miss out on a crucial nugget of wisdom or deny myself some life-changing piece of knowledge that’s lurking in the next chapter. If I skip today’s workout it might have been the day when I managed a new personal best. If I skip meeting friends in a bar tonight I might miss out on fun, laughs and opportunities as a consequence.

I often commit to things or stick by my plans out of the fear for what will happen if I quit, rather than out of a genuine and heartfelt desire for positive gain.

When FOMO is our main reason for doing something then chances of future disappointment are high — at the very least our commitment will be sorely lacking. Psychology Today points out that FOMO is a unique kind of anxiety and we have to ask ourselves - is anxiety ever a good driver to do anything?

What will it say about me if I quit?

I’ve found myself worrying that in contemplating quitting, I’m admitting inferiority or frailty. Am I simply not smart/cool/enlightened enough to understand or to get-it? How will others view me if I quit?

I’ve read books that other people rate highly, and have been completely unmoved. Films that are supposedly a big deal and have come highly recommended, have bored me to tears. I’m fearful of being judged by them if I quit on their recommendations or reveal my true opinions — and so I plough on, hoping eventually to figure things out.

To worry about the opinions of others unduly, and to allow them to shape our choices about what we commit-to and what we quit, is vain and misguided. Surely it’s better to be grateful for recommendations but to be selective about whether we commit our time to things that don’t capture our interest?

Blind optimism

A successful business will likely take more than a few months of work before the profits start to roll in. But if you’ve been grinding away for years without success, then maybe it’s time to call it a day.

If you’ve been practicing guitar for years but still can’t string a few chords together or tell when the instrument is out of tune then perhaps you’re not destined to be a musician. If you’ve read 44 chapters of a book and still aren’t hooked, chances are the rest of it won’t be any better.

I’d much rather be an optimist than a pessimist but sometimes we have to accept that things aren’t likely to improve if we’ve already put in a decent amount of effort or invested a reasonable amount of time

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Photo by Bethany Legg on Unsplash

A healthy approach to quitting

Just as it’s empowering to say no to opportunities that will drain our time, energy or attention, so too there is power in quitting.

I’ve shared a few poor reasons for sticking with something. There are bad reasons for quitting too:

  • out of apathy
  • out of a fear of failure (or success)
  • due to a lack of motivation or because you simply can’t be bothered to try
  • laziness or because something’s just too difficult

Some better, more valid reasons to consider quitting are as follows:

Opportunity cost

If our money is tied up in property, we can’t invest in the stock market. If we’ve promised we’ll take our kids to the zoo, we can’t go to the cinema at the same time. Every choice we make comes at the expense of other possibilities.

When you feel compelled to complete something out of duty, it may not be the best use of your time (or other resources), especially if you’re just going through the motions.

Maybe your priorities have changed, or the circumstances within which you find yourself have altered since you committed to something. Perhaps you’ve just grown weary of it and can no longer see the point.

If quitting one thing frees-up your time, attention and efforts to be directed towards something better, then it may well be worth doing so.

The ‘Tail End’ effect

If you’re ever in doubt about the preciousness of time, I highly recommend you check out ‘The Tail End’, an essay by Tim Urban. In the essay, Tim breaks down the average human life into a number of really simple graphics and measures. One that shook me the most was the simple analysis that reveals that most of us have spent about 93% of all the time we’re likely to spend with our parents in the course of our lifetime, by the time we reach the age of 18.

To cite an example from ‘The Tail End’, assuming I read an average 5 books per year for the rest of my life, and that I live to the age of 90, then in my 46 remaining years on earth I’ll get to read just 230 more books. I feel a pressure to make those 230 count, and that seems reason enough to quit those books that don’t grab my attention once I’ve given them a chance.

The same logic should apply to any other activity where the pressure to use time wisely outweighs the desire to stick with things out of sheer bloody-mindedness or a sense of duty.

Ask yourself, “Is this the best use of the time I have available?”

Summing up

There are few absolutes in life, and many shades of grey.

Some will say that every opportunity declined is an opportunity missed and that we should say ‘yes’ to as much as possible. Others advocate being more judicious with our compliance, reminding us of the power of ‘No’. Quitting is the grey area, after we’ve said yes, but wish we’d said no.

Certainly there’s a place for tenacity, determination and drive, particularly in sticking with projects through times of adversity and when confronted by obstacles. There’s also definitely a time for quitting too.

It shouldn’t be when times are tough or the chips are down, but rather when our motivation towards a particular task or endeavour has shifted and it’s no longer relevant to our goals or rewarding.

When we’re doing something out of a sense of obligation, duty or because “it’s what we’ve always done” then that might be a sign that it’s time to quit and do something else. The same applies if we’re doing it out of fear — of what others will think of us, or of what we might be missing out on — then perhaps that too is a sign we should think about quitting.

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