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The art of quitting

Walking away is hard, but it can be empowering.

Allie Volpe is a senior reporter at Vox covering mental health, relationships, wellness, money, home life, and work through the lens of meaningful self-improvement.

Cece Xie doesn’t mince words. “I really do think that I hate quitting,” the 32-year-old says. Although she was raised with the notion that quitting was bad, somehow, the lawyer and writer became an advocate for quitting. She never quite pictured a career outside of law, but when Xie connected with a literary agent, she began to imagine an alternate future, one as an author, beyond the large law firm where she was a sixth-year associate. The problem was, she never had time to work on her book proposal. “The fact that my current career was getting in the way of me even working on this book proposal at all,” Xie says, “I kind of came to a fork in the road and I was like, it’s stupid for me to not pursue this thing just because I have a career that I have spent time on.”

So, in early 2022, she quit. Stepping away from her day job afforded Xie the time to not only finish her proposal, but to sell it. Now, she has the time and mental space to work on the manuscript and start a new law firm with a former coworker. “It’s kind of fun,” she says, “to just see where life leads and follow the possibilities in a way that I don’t think I ever let myself, or that corporate structures really don’t allow you to do.”

The act of quitting has earned notoriety. In American culture especially, those who give up on a practice, a hobby, or a goal are considered unambitious, lazy, even a failure. In the book Quitting: A Life Strategy, author Julia Keller traces the origins of the negative view of quitting to the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century. Success was equated with hard work and perseverance through adversity. “If you weren’t successful, it just meant you didn’t work hard enough,” Keller says. “That very much served the interests of the people in power, because if you want to say to people, ‘Well, the reason you’re still poor and downtrodden is because you didn’t work hard.’”

Success is hardly won on grit alone. Rather, Keller argues, quitting can help you achieve your goals just as effectively as perseverance. “You abandon old ways and embrace new ways,” she says, “you abandon old things and do new.”

Instead of being seen as a failure, quitting can be an opportunity to reclaim time and to rethink passions, relationships, and accomplishments. There is power in abandoning what no longer serves you — that is, if you’ve given it a fair shot.

“You can’t just be pursuing all the time,” Xie says, “without quitting.”

Why quitting is so hard

Aside from the negative cultural messages around quitting, throwing in the towel can be difficult, in part, because of internal, self-imposed rules. If you’ve been taught to endure, no matter the cost, you may equate resignation with failure. Maybe you see quitting an intramural kickball team as letting down your teammates. Or perhaps you think your current job is as good as you’ll ever get without considering alternatives. “We can update and question the lessons from childhood,” says Ellen Hendriksen, author of How to Be Yourself: Quiet Your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety, “and take what works and what was the intended message and leave behind the childlike all-or-nothing blanket statements that we might have absorbed.”

A less obvious barrier to quitting is the common tendency to persevere over giving up, says Annie Duke, author of Quit: The Power of Knowing When to Walk Away. When faced with the option to quit or stick it out, Duke says, people are almost always inclined to persist, because we want to know how a scenario resolves. We want to say we exhausted every option and therefore giving up was out of our control. She cites an example of a marathon runner who broke her leg eight miles in and still finished the race. “We have this intuition that when things get bad, and it’s completely obvious that I should quit, I’m gonna stop,” Duke says. “But we don’t.”

We ignore all the signs urging us to throw in the towel because we may mistakenly assume that our previous efforts were for naught if we move on. Known as the sunk cost fallacy, we believe that once we’ve already dedicated extensive time and resources to a project or relationship — a small business, a romantic partnership — it’s too late to give up. Instead of looking back on how much you’ve invested in the past, Hendriksen says to focus on the future: How much would it cost you — in time, energy, or both — to continue? Is it worth it?

The thought of quitting may bring up feelings of guilt or shame. You may be embarrassed by what others will think of you if you walk away from a project. In Xie’s case, she says her people-pleasing tendencies would’ve impeded her ability to reach personal goals. So she eliminated that drive altogether. “For me, it would be better if I took that external third-party demand out of the equation so that I was forced, essentially, to work on my own projects,” she says.

Generally, most other people don’t have strong thoughts either way about your choices: No one is keeping tabs on your resume or accomplishments besides you. Even if you feel guilty for potentially letting down your colleagues at work, “our company will probably replace us in a couple weeks,” Hendriksen says.

To detach these uncomfortable emotions from moving on, you should consider whether you’re actually hurting anyone or breaking any rules besides your own. “Guilt is the emotion for when you’ve done something wrong,” Hendriksen says. “We can say, ‘What did I do wrong?’ Because there might not be anything we did wrong.”

Signs it’s time to quit

Every goal or achievement comes at a cost — what you’ve sacrificed or overcome for success. However, if hitting milestones is proving detrimental to your health, emotions, and relationships, and is contrary to your values, it may be time to take your foot off the gas. Getting a promotion at work may bring you satisfaction, but you may have missed dinners and bedtime rituals with your kids in the process. “It’s important to work hard, important to set goals,” says Raj Raghunathan, a professor of marketing who researches decision-making at the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas Austin. “But there comes a point at which … you might not be better off pursuing those goals at whatever cost.”

The erosion of your health or relationships is slow and doesn’t present itself all at once. Over time, lost hours of sleep while pulling all-nighters working on your side hustle or little fights with your partner will add up, Raghunathan says. This slow-burn effect is because people are fairly short-sighted when it comes to goal achievement, he explains: If we meet this one milestone, then we can tend to the people we’ve been forgoing in the meantime. “But the problem is that oftentimes those aspirations are never really fulfilled because then the next goal steps into the picture,” Raghunathan says. “Or you might find that it actually takes longer for you to achieve this goal than you originally thought.”

While it can be difficult to see the negative effects of pursuing a goal, Raghunathan says we also get very clear signs: an injury while training for a marathon, an ultimatum from a friend or loved one, missing an important event or deadline because you’re distracted. These are signs you need more balance in your life.

When weighing whether to drop out of a community choir, for example, remember why you joined in the first place. If your reason was fulfillment, entertainment, enjoyment, an opportunity to learn new skills and to socialize, you might consider whether these boxes are being checked. However, if your motivation was to get attention, fame, or money, you likely won’t feel satisfied. “If I’m not enjoying the process of trying to achieve those goals,” Raghunathan says, “what’s happening is that things that really matter to me, like my physical health, the health of my relationships, my hobbies, my other interests, those are all being sacrificed in this process and that’s not good for my happiness.”

When you should stick it out

Although certain relationships and agreements are negotiable, there are responsibilities you cannot renege on, like parenting, caregiving, or providing for a pet. Similarly, quitting a job without another alternative when other people depend on you for financial support is not advised.

However, there are ways to transform a difficult situation, like a tedious job, into one less dire, Keller says. Rather than resign, Keller is a proponent of quasi-quitting, or changing aspects of your job. Think about your biggest pain points — can any of these be negotiated? If working the early morning shift interferes with school dropoff, is there a later start time that works for your employer and your schedule? If you spend time after hours compiling a weekly report, can that responsibility be reassigned to another colleague? Not all managers or roles will be receptive to these adjustments, but if it’s possible to quit certain aspects of your job, you may improve your overall situation.

Just because something is difficult or isn’t entirely enjoyable is not a valid enough reason to give up, Hendriksen says. “We do have to be willing to tolerate some discomfort to achieve our goals or live the life we want to live,” she says. Abuse or harassment is a different story: You should not grin and bear it through relationships or environments that are physically or emotionally harmful.

If you’re consistently giving up on people and hobbies, you might need to reevaluate your values and interests, says clinical psychologist Tiffany Brown. “There are a lot of different factors that need to be considered when a person is thinking, should I choose a different path?” she says. “Am I having commitment issues? Or am I having anxieties because this path is too hard? Or does this path remind me of a previous thing that I didn’t feel like I succeeded at?”

Tips for how to quit

To be an effective quitter, you need to first give yourself the option to quit. While this seems contradictory — if I tell myself it’s okay to drop out of this pottery class, won’t I do it immediately? — Duke says we hardly ever take that opportunity to bow out when faced with it. By giving yourself advance permission to throw in the towel, you can clearly think about the circumstances in which you can and should quit.

Before you even begin an endeavor, Duke says to give yourself “kill criteria,” or circumstances under which you’ll quit. “I’m going to run the marathon unless at some point, the medical staff tells me that I really ought to stop,” Duke says. This tactic is also effective for projects you’ve already begun. Say you’re unsatisfied with your relationship. Duke suggests giving yourself a deadline until which you’re willing to continue accepting the status quo; if nothing were to change, how long would you stay in the relationship? Then, think of how you’d like your relationship to look, followed by imagining the worst-case scenario. The “bad” version is the point at which you should quit, Duke says. However, what would you need to do to make the ideal version a reality? “It might be, I need to see couples counseling,” Duke says, “or I need to sit down and talk to my partner about what’s bothering me.” Hold steady on your deadline; if nothing’s changed, you should feel empowered to walk away.

Xie advises would-be quitters to have a plan. If you’re quitting a job, create a new budget. Determine a plan B if your new career path isn’t panning out. Determine how long you’ll try the new activity. “When I quit,” Xie says, “I was like, okay, I have a year: I’m gonna work on my proposal. If it gets picked up, great, I’ll reevaluate at that time. If it doesn’t, then I will just go back to work.”

Aside from a deadline and criteria, Duke suggests enlisting the help of a “quitting coach” — someone who can be objective, like a therapist or a mentor, and who can advise you on what they think is in your best interest. Set clear boundaries with this person: ask them to tell you the truth and promise you won’t hold their candor against them. “I’m in a job, and I’m trying to figure out, is this something I should quit or not, and I’m talking to a mentor,” Duke says, “and I tell them, ‘I’m really upset because I haven’t gotten a promotion yet.’ The quitting coach can say, ‘Look, you’ve been in the job for four months and you’re 25. You’re not supposed to have gotten a promotion yet. That’s not a reason to quit.’”

How quitting can be empowering

Quitting can feel like standing on the precipice of a cliff, not knowing what awaits. However, the sooner you recognize a relationship, job, or practice isn’t for you, the more time you have to dedicate to the people and hobbies you are passionate about. Walking away is about choice, Duke says, and agency — choosing to make the most of our lives instead of suffering through them.

Society hardly questions those who grind through life’s difficulties, but experts argue that is time wasted. Years spent questioning an unfulfilling relationship, months and thousands of dollars trudging through medical school when you changed your mind and want to pursue carpentry, weeks training for a race you no longer feel passionate about — this is time that could’ve been dedicated toward more satisfying pursuits.

“Our goal in life is to stick with things that are worthwhile,” Duke says, “and quit all the rest.”

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