The power of quitting

When done right, it allows you to achieve your goals more quickly

By Melinda Wenner Moyer

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Published: Tue 29 Nov 2022, 11:20 PM

Quitting is hot right now. There was the Great Resignation, in which 40 million Americans reportedly left their jobs for better ones. Then there was the recent hullabaloo over quiet quitting, in which people were choosing to do less at work. Now, there’s a new book out about the many benefits of quitting all kinds of things.

“Quit: The Power of Knowing When to Walk Away,” written by professional poker player and decision scientist Annie Duke, argues that in many cases, sticking to our goals — whether they’re career objectives, personal aspirations or home projects — actually holds us back. I interviewed her about the benefits of quitting and what we should keep in mind as we ponder New Year’s resolutions.

Q: Why do we usually think of quitting as a bad thing?

A: If you think about the aphorisms we have about quitting, they’re things like “winners never quit,” or “quitters never win.” Even in cases in which people stick to it in very dangerous circumstances, they become the heroes of our stories. If you take Rob Hall, who was one of the main protagonists of “Into Thin Air” by Jon Krakauer, he decided to persevere and continue up Everest under conditions which very much warranted that he turned around. But he stuck to it. And he perished on top of the mountain. And we think of him as a hero.

One of my favorites is Siobhan O’Keeffe, a recruitment consultant who was running the London Marathon in 2019. She broke her leg — literally, her fibula bone snapped — at mile 8. But she continued running and finished the race, obviously against medical advice. Now, there’s all sorts of reasons why our logical brains are like, “Oh, that was really bad.” You can end up with a compound fracture. You may never run again. But let’s all admit that we are also like, “Oh, she’s so tough.” We admire that. It’s the persisters who get all the credit, and the quitters are just cowards.

Q: It makes sense that quitting is smart if persevering could be dangerous. But why and when else is quitting useful?

A: Anytime that you decide to start something, you’re making that decision under conditions of uncertainty. When you take a job, how much do you really know? How are you going to like the culture? You don’t know.

What this means is that after you start something, you’re going to discover new information. That information can be about whether you’re happy. It could also be information about your own changing values: “I thought I wanted this, but now I realize that I want this other thing.” The option to quit is what allows you to do something about it.

Also, quitting, when done right, allows you to achieve your goals more quickly. This is counterintuitive, because we think of quitting as stopping our progress. But that’s not true when the thing you started isn’t worthwhile. If you quit, that frees up all of those resources to switch to something that will actually help.

The only time that quitting would slow your progress down is when you quit an option that’s really good for you.

Q:How do you know when it’s time to quit?

A: Just as the decision to start something is made under conditions of uncertainty, so is the decision to quit. Which means that at the moment that you quit, if you do it at the right time, you’re not going to be 100% certain that you have to. And we’re really good at coming up with reasons why it’s worth it to continue. That’s why people die on top of mountains. Or people keep running marathons with a broken leg or people stay in toxic jobs.

I suggest creating what I call “kill criteria” in advance. Don’t trust yourself to do it in the moment. Ask yourself: What are the signals I could see in the future that would tell me that it’s time to quit? If I’m entering a marathon, I could make a commitment in advance that if the medical tent at any time advises me that I need to quit, I need to walk away. An example from a job would be: If you’re unhappy, ask yourself, “How long am I OK being unhappy like this?” Maybe you give it three more months. Then think about: What are the signals that would tell me that things are good? What are the things that would tell me that I’m still unhappy?

What’s even more helpful is to combine kill criteria with a good quitting coach. That person could be a good friend, or it could be a mentor or a therapist. Find people who have your long-term best interests at heart and tell them, “I want you to tell me what you think is best for me in the long run, even if you think it’s going to hurt my feelings in the moment.”

Q: The new year is around the corner. What are your suggestions for how we should — and shouldn’t — make resolutions?

A: Goals are fixed objects that don’t take into account new information that we might learn along the way. So, we’ll keep heading toward a goal that maybe no longer is serving our values, that maybe is hurting us in some way that we didn’t anticipate.

Every goal needs a really good “unless.” Like, “I’m going to train for a marathon unless it turns out that that makes me miserable and I really miss my family.” Or “I’m going to climb Mount Everest unless I don’t make it to the summit by 1 p.m.” Because we have to remember what the goal really is. The goal isn’t to get to the top of Everest. The goal is to get back down to the bottom alive so that you can climb more mountains in the future.

– This article originally appeared in The New York Times

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