Happiness in this World

Reflections of a Buddhist physician

Why We Quit

Why quitting has more to do with attention than anything else

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I've recently started running again after having been forced to take a four-month break by an injured knee. This turned out to be a long enough hiatus to decondition me, so for the first few weeks I found running my usual four-mile route tremendously hard. I would start out strong, but by the last mile I'd be dragging: my legs seeming to thicken, my breath coming in ragged gasps, my energy waning, my body's weight seeming to increase several-fold. But I'd force myself on knowing that only by completing my route would I be able to re-establish a level of aerobic fitness that would make running four miles as enjoyable as it used to be.

Except that, for the first few weeks, somewhere around three and three quarter miles, I'd stop. At the start of my runs I'd manage to get into a good rhythm, a good stride, and send my mind off to the places it tends to go, managing the discomfort pretty well—-until I rounded the last corner of the large loop I take around downtown Chicago. Then I'd notice something curious: my mind would return from wherever it had gone and begin to think about finishing the run, projecting itself forward several city blocks to where my route ended. And then I'd abruptly find myself wanting desperately to stop. And usually, I would.

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Once I'd begun to think about the end of my run, reaching the end of my run—and therefore the end of my pain—was all I could think about. The idea that my pain was about to end became so enticing that my ability to withstand it dramatically declined.

Of course, the amount of pain I was feeling at that moment was no worse than the amount I'd felt the moment before. What changed was my ability to handle it. Why? Because when my mind started to visualize the end of the run, it shifted from managing the pain my body was feeling to preparing for it to end. And in preparing for it to end, its ability to resist the influence of that pain rapidly fell apart.

I think this sequence occurs often in other areas of life as well. From the moment we embark on any endeavor numerous reasons immediately present themselves that push us to quit (e.g., fear of failure, fear of success, laziness, failing to believe in ourselves, etc.). One way of thinking about why we don't quit is that other, more powerful motivations to keep going command our attention more (e.g., the desire to improve our level of fitness or reduce our level of fatness). The idea to quit remains present in our minds as long as reasons to quit exist, but the likelihood that we will quit only increases when we start to pay attention to them.

We don't end up quitting because we find ourselves facing too many obstacles or obstacles that are too strong. We end up quitting because we're too weak. I firmly believe, however, the inflection point at which we can no longer avoid paying attention to the idea of quitting—that is, the point at which our strength fails us—can be changed. We can become stronger by challenging our weakness even if at first we don't succeed. Increasing resilience, both mental and physical, is an arduous process that's rarely linear. That is, it's a process filled with stops and starts, periods of progress and periods of regression.

I quit running before I finished my route many mornings at first. But the benefit of the effort I made in running up to the point I quit weren't nullified by my quitting. Those efforts strengthened me enough over time that eventually I became capable of meeting my goal consistently, i.e., reached my previous level of fitness. But only because I didn't allow my quitting on any one day to stop me from going back out the next.

This same principle applies any time we make an effort to break new ground in any arena. The key to success is simply to keep coming back for more—even if you quit short of your goal several times over—until you find yourself strong enough not to give in when your body or your mind are telling you to. Just because you do quit—even a hundred times in a row—the experiences you have up until the various points at which you do are the very things that develop the resilience you need to win in the end. What if you need to fail a hundred times to gain the ability to succeed on the 101st?

The risk of becoming grounded in self-defeating thoughts when you're defeated by yourself (i.e., you choose to give up), we should note, is far greater than when you're defeated by something else . It may very well be psychologically easier to get yourself to try again in the latter case than in the former because in the former you're far more likely to buy into a narrative that defines you as a quitter and therefore undeserving of success.

But this is a false narrative. Even if you failed because you chose to give up, you can still try again. You must constantly remind yourself that having tried at all has increased your chances of ignoring the voices in your head urging you to quit the next time. Always remember, the key to victory is strength, and the key to developing strength is trying again, no matter what the reason you failed before.

 

If you enjoyed this post, please feel free to visit Dr. Lickerman's home page, Happiness in this World.

 

Alex Lickerman, M.D., is a general internist and former Director of Primary Care at the University of Chicago and has been a practicing Buddhist since 1989.

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