Imperfect Spirituality

How to connect to the energy of everyday life

Why Sometimes We Should Just Walk Away

Giving up on a goal can make you more successful, if you do one more thing.

Last week I read a 491-page book. The first 10 pages were fine. The 30 after that were slow. The rest? Repetitive and forgettable. I know, because I read every single word.

I am not a person who puts down a book midway through, even if it sucks seven hours from my life. I’m not a quitter. Even when it might be smarter to stop, I keep going.

That same kind of dogged determination has been an adaptive life strategy for me in other areas. It’s kept me getting up in the morning even when my joints are stiff and swollen with arthritis. It helped me to persevere until I found a publisher for my book after a zillion rejections. It’s been good for my relationship. It keeps me committed and working to improve even when I’m tired and ticked off.

Of course, I could quit any of these things too. I didn’t have to finish writing the book. I could blame the chronic illness for any lack of progress in my day. I could walk out on my marriage—people do it all the time. But knowing that I have the freedom to give up, leave, quit, or say sayonara, might actually fuel my drive to keep going.

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Researchers Rom Schrift of the Wharton Business School, and Jeffrey Parker of Georgia State University, found that we are actually more motivated to achieve a goal or overcome an obstacle if we know we can quit.

In several experiments, participants who knew they could quit a designated task, like solving a word puzzle, actually tended to persist longer. One way to motivate people then, might be to toss out a reminder that they can quit at any time.

Yet it could just be that people persist longer because they don’t want to be labeled a quitter. In Western culture, there is a stigma that comes with quitting.

Quitting as a Success Strategy

Perseverance is a prized quality in our society; our belief in grit and resilience contributes to our ability to manage the tough stuff and develop greater well-being. But if we persevere at accomplishing the wrong things—unachievable goals, insurmountable obstacles, or goal that we really just no longer care about—our perseverance can actually inflame our stress and chip away at our health.

Research by Gregory Miller at the University of British Columbia shows that quitting one goal to start in on another might be the smartest strategy for building success. When we stop investing time and energy in that one thing we’re never going to accomplish, we have more to give to the thing that matters now, the thing we can achieve, or the goal that can make a difference and add meaning to our lives.

Once you quit whatever effort has been draining you, you are free to channel your energy and talent into something else you're passionate about. It doesn’t mean the road will be easy—there are obstacles en route to any achievement. But if the obstacles are surmountable, you’ll persist in a healthy way and that leads to greater success.

This doesn’t mean that it's easy to quit or give up on a long-term plan for your life, but it's easier when you're not walking away simply to assume a life loafing on the couch.

How to Quit

When you recognize that the thing you’ve been after all these years isn’t going to happen, it’s time to disengage and pick a new pursuit. Here’s how:

  1. Identify the aspects of the initial goal that excited or inspired you. What was it that goal that got you moving in the first place?
  2. Consider other goals or activities that also require some of those skills and qualities.
  3. Develop a new goal, one that aligns with your values, desires, and passions. Your effort should be directed toward something that adds meaning to your life.
  4. Quit the first goal. Disengage. Write about the end in your journal. Or write the reasons you are giving up on on a sheet of paper and burn it in a fire as a symbolic way of letting go. Mourn the end. Identify too, the positive outcomes, the things you learned along the way. Celebrate those things, because what you learned will carry over into your next pursuit. This was not wasted time.
  5. Write down your new goal and get going. Today, develop a plan for achieving your new goal and take the first step toward it.

It isn’t easy to give up on anything. But when you replace the ongoing stress and frustration of one goal with a new one that excites, inspires, and motivates, perseverance takes on new power. And quitting becomes not an end, but the beginning of a whole new experience.

Polly Campbell speaks and writes about success, resilience, and personal development. She is the author of Imperfect Spirituality.

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