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The Art of Quitting: When and How to Move On

Quitting is rarely easy; here's how to do it right.

  • Kate’s husband has been unemployed, on and off, for several years, and Kate is fed up with doing all the heavy lifting in the relationship. She’s thinking that it’s time to consider a separation, if not divorce.
  • Jake feels like he’s doing his best, but his job supervisor is never happy, always critical. The pay is good, but the emotional cost is taking its toll.
  • Maggie quit her job to write the Great American Novel. A year into it, she feels like she doesn’t have much to show for her efforts — in terms of pages, but also, in her mind, quality. She’s thinking of abandoning the project all together.

Sometimes you know it’s time to pull the plug — Kate’s husband isn’t just not working, but spending his days playing video games or staying stoned and ignoring the kids. Jake’s boss humiliates him in front of the entire staff and lets him know that he’ll never get that promotion he is aiming for. Maggie has spent the last year on the Great American Novel and only written three pages.

l i g h t p o e t/Shutterstock
Source: l i g h t p o e t/Shutterstock

But more often, it’s not so clear. You sit on the fence, leaning one way or another depending on the day, your mood, the weather. Your mind goes back and forth: Am I really done? When is enough enough? Should I try harder? Are my expectations too unreasonable? Can I accept being a quitter? What will other people think?

This is what makes for the struggle. There’s often a hairsbreadth of difference between those feelings associated with the notion of giving up and those of needing to move on. But the reality check is that quitting is often the only or the right thing to do, but it requires that you also give up the wishful or magical thinking that a miracle will happen, or that if you just figure out the right steps in the relationship dance, it will get better — the other guy or you will suddenly change. We’re back to that well-known definition of insanity — continuing to do the same thing, but always expecting a different outcome.

There’s a before-and-after process to the art of quitting. If you’re on the fence, struggling to pull the plug, here are some guidelines to help you move through the process:

1. Look at your values.

The decision to quit or not is usually entangled in lots of “shoulds” — those rules imposed and absorbed by you from parents, or larger society. To think about violating them leads to pangs of anticipatory guilt and caution. But these rules are different from your own values — adult decisions that you make based on your own beliefs and priorities about what is important to you: What does it mean, and what are the limits of Kate’s values about marital commitment, or Jake’s notion of perseverance or work ethic, or Maggie’s view of life as filled with challenges or built around fulfilling one’s dreams?

By taking time to look at your values, you are stepping back, taking a deep breath, and before jumping in, placing the notion of quitting or not in the larger context, as one decision in a line of many decisions that you’ve made and will make that create the life you believe is important to live. This is also a good way of slowing down any impulsiveness, and it can pull you out of the tunnel-vision that the stress itself creates. By building your values into the equation, you may realize that you understandably will feel sadness, but are less likely to feel guilt.

2. Look at your patterns.

Values are about proactively shaping the life you want to live; discerning patterns are about reflecting on what you’ve done before. The patterns we’re talking about are those of past leavings. When you look back on your life — jobs, relationships, projects — when and how did you decide to stop? When you look back on your past, do you see yourself as making good choices, or do you see yourself perhaps being too impulsive, staying too long, not staying long enough? The aim here is not to stir old wounds and regret, but instead to use reflection to glean the lessons that life is trying to teach you.

You may decide that you have no regrets, that you feel good about what you’ve done before, and you’re confident that your decision-making approach will likely work again. Or, you realize that you do tend to react too impulsively, that you cut-and-run or never really do a good job of letting others understand what you need. Whatever you decide is the moral of your past experiences; see how they fit in the current situation you are facing, and decide if you want to experiment with trying something different. This is now not only about your immediate situation, but about taking a broader view and challenging yourself to revamp your life, to become more flexible.

3. Set bottom lines.

Looking at values and patterns sets the foundation, so to speak, for now tackling your problem. If you’re sitting on the fence, you need some criteria for getting off, some bottom lines to pull you out of that gray world of ambivalence. This is usually the hardest and most important step, but you can’t afford to skip it. You can use time, you can use action: Kate will give her husband three more months to find a job, or he needs to steadily apply for five jobs a week. If he doesn’t, she separates.

Or Jake will schedule a face-to-face meeting with his supervisor, where he will do his best to lay out his job concerns, and if his supervisor dismisses what he says or makes no effort to change his approach in the next month, Jake’s going to start looking for another job. Maggie is going to hire a writing coach to help her with her novel and follow her suggestions for six months, or she is committed to writing 2,000 words a day, regardless of her mood or critical voice, just to see if she can gain some momentum. If there’s no definable progress, she’s done.

By setting firm bottom lines based on clear behavioral criteria of change, you step out of the endless crazy-making loop of wishful or magical thinking.

4. Imagine the future, and create a plan.

Often you sit on the fence, because your thoughts about the future quickly turn grim: Kate sees herself struggling even more with money; Jake imagines himself not being able to find another job; Maggie, even if she finishes her novel, sees it never getting published or selling one copy and feeling that all her work was for naught.

What you want to spend some time thinking about is not only what you are getting away from, but consciously knowing what you want to move towards. Imagining a better future pulls you forward, but you usually have to work at deliberately offsetting those negative thoughts with ones of opportunity and eventual success.

Then you need to gather information and create a plan. Here, Kate gets a consult from a lawyer, or talks to a financial advisor, or asks her sister about the possibility of moving in with her. Jake begins to look at the job market, or starts reaching out to contacts, or thinks outside the box and realizes that he has not much to hold him where he is, and he can look for work in other states. Maggie hires a writing coach with clear goals in mind, or she realizes that whether or not the novel is published, that is not what is really important — she really wants to be able to say to herself that she lived out the dream of completing a novel. Or no, she decides that she has given her novel a good shot, and she can envision and begin looking for a job that can incorporate more of her writing skills.

Information and action are the antidotes to pessimism. You want to have a plan, so you can hit the ground running.

5. Give the speech.

Okay, time’s up. Three months have passed, and Kate’s husband is still jobless. Jake’s supervision hasn’t changed. Maggie, even with the coach, is still stuck in the literary mud. Time to pull the plug.

What you do next is about closure, about saying goodbye in the best psychological way possible: Cutting-and-running tends to leave loose ends that can come back and haunt you later. Kate can write a letter to her husband spelling out in a clear, but also compassionate, way the reason for her decision, or she can schedule a session or two with a therapist to have a safe place to express her feelings to her husband. Jake writes an email to his supervisor or requests an exit interview with him or HR, so they have his feedback, and he gets things off his chest. And Maggie finds a way to say goodbye to her novel-writing self, for now perhaps, that includes her own appreciation for taking the time to try out a dream.

This is not about dragging things out, getting even, taking potshots as you gallop off. It’s not about slamming the door shut like an angry or resentful teenager, but instead closing it in an adult way.

6. Expect regret.

Okay, here it comes. Until you get your sea-legs in this new chapter of your life, you are going to be on an emotional roller coaster. Kate may be flush with relief once she leaves her husband, but may crash after a few months when the adrenaline and newness wears off. Jake initially likes his new job, but finds himself lonely on weekends in his new town. Maggie’s job is better than her last, but on a bad day when she finds herself writing boring copy, she wonders if she should have pushed longer on the novel.

This is all to be expected, especially in those early months. The reason is that we are constantly looking at our past through the lens of the present. Depending on where Kate is in her life three months or two years from now — happily in a new relationship or by herself and miserable on weekends — the state of now will color her view of leaving her husband. Ditto for Jake and Maggie.

Expect it, and when it stirs up feelings, say to yourself that you did make the best decision you could at the time, but then fix what now needs to be fixed in the present — maybe Kate needs to start talking to her ex-husband again after all, or work harder in starting a new relationship. Jake needs to make more of an effort to find friends or move back to his old town. Maggie needs to keep her job, but also consider writing short stories in her free time. What you don’t want to do is go down that rabbit hole of self-criticism, endless regret, and disasterizing.

The art of quitting is the art of combining rationality and reality with a leap of faith. Like other challenges in life, this one too gets better with practice . . . and strong doses of courage.

Is it time to for you to move on in some way? What supports do you need to get off the fence, take that next step? Are you ready?