Not to brag, but I’m pretty good at sticking with things even when they get hard. Bad relationships, toxic workplaces, demanding sports — I’ve hung on for months and even years longer than I should have, convinced the situation would improve if I refused to give up. After all, isn’t every success story littered with setbacks, a battle of stamina versus everyone else’s ambivalence? Didn’t Beyoncé lose Star Search and Oprah get fired from her first TV job? Quitting is a sign you lack resilience and fortitude, or so I was raised to believe.
Obviously, this is not true. Looking back on all the things I eventually quit, my only regret is I didn’t do it sooner. I’ve wasted immeasurable time and energy dragging my heels, determined that I could wow everyone (or at least not disappoint them) if I just kept going — and going. A few years ago, I gave notice to quit a dead-end job and then stuck around for six more months because I promised to help find my own replacement.
The problem is it’s hard to know when to quit. We’re taught it’s good to challenge yourself and lazy to throw in the towel too quickly. “If this was easy, anyone could do it,” said every terrible boss and sports coach I’ve ever had. But there’s a big gray area between “easy” and admitting it’s time to move on. How do you pinpoint that spot or at least get better at recognizing it?
“What you first need to understand is why it can be difficult to give up on goals,” says Dr. Carsten Wrosch, a psychology professor at Concordia University who has researched the effects of goal setting on mental and physical health. He cites a popular psychological theory called the “Rubicon model of action phases,” which hinges on an important life transition — known as the “Rubicon passage” — when we go from considering our options to actively chasing after one of them. “People cross the Rubicon when they decide to pursue a certain goal and not another one, like becoming a journalist and not a psychologist,” he explains. It’s the same thing when we commit to a partner, put down roots in a particular city, or adopt a habit such as exercising.
Once you cross the Rubicon, it’s hard to go back. You start to identify with your path, and you can’t imagine your life without it. “People put more value on the chosen goal, they become more optimistic about being able to reach that goal, and they devalue other goals,” says Wrosch. On the one hand, this is an important step in accomplishing anything: You have to make it a priority. But the problem, according to Wrosch, is that “it can be difficult to de-commit” even when all signs indicate you should.
To break this spell, most people go through something called an “action crisis” — a dramatic turning point when the tension between lack of progress and wanting to persist becomes too much to bear. This “aha” moment (which, in my experience, usually involves months of crying in my apartment) strips away the optimism you had about reaching your goal and helps you to reevaluate whether it was achievable after all.
Can you trigger these moments of self-examination before a full-blown action crisis? “It’s a difficult question,” says Wrosch. “People make mistakes with this all the time: They give up too early, or they keep doing something that is futile for too long.” His tip for avoiding this is to get a second — ideally less biased — opinion on the matter. “You could ask people close to you who you trust,” he says. “They may know long before you do that your relationship will not work out or that your goal is not attainable.”
Even if you’re lucky enough to get good, objective advice, the timing is still tricky. When I brought this up to Dr. Angela Duckworth, the author of Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance and a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, she suggested a couple of questions to ask yourself when quitting might be in the cards. “One is, Am I quitting on a bad day or a good day? It if was a bad day and something happened that was discouraging or acutely hard, maybe hold off,” she says. “People under times of stress and intense emotion don’t always make the best decisions. But if it was a good day, or a normal one, and you’re still contemplating quitting, then it might be a good idea.”
Another question is whether you’ve fulfilled your commitments. “It’s important to consider, Is this a good decision for me? But other people should be a factor, too,” she says. There’s a moral component: Can you walk away in good conscience?
Duckworth points out that all of us are constantly making tricky choices between going further into familiar territory (“the devil you know”) and backing up and expanding our horizons. This is known as the “exploration-exploitation trade-off” — the classic example is whether a squirrel should keep looking for acorns in the patch he already frequents or ditch it for a new spot that could have more acorns but might have fewer.
When we are younger, it’s advantageous to err on the side of exploration, trying lots of new things because we have plenty of time to specialize later. But as we age, it’s often smarter to double down. “I could try a new career as a bartender, and it might be better than being a psychologist or it might not,” says Duckworth. “But if I spend that time trying to be a better psychologist, it’s almost surely going to pay off.”
Of course, this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t quit something just because you’ve put a lot of time into it. (Duckworth also notes that we all live and work longer these days, so we have more years to explore than previous generations.) And in my experience, it always feels too late to give up on something — but then it gets even later. Economists call this “the sunk-cost fallacy”: People are more likely to stick with something if they’ve invested a lot of money or effort into it even when it’s clear they should cut their losses and jump ship.
This type of stubbornness is normal and human, but it’s also irrational. If an activity or relationship is making you miserable, that’s important information you shouldn’t ignore. “I think it’s revealing to ask, Do I get energy out of doing this? After I do it for an hour or two or three, do I feel more energetic or less energetic?” says Duckworth. “That can be an indication that this is not for you or that there’s something better you could be doing.” Or it’s a sign you should modify your aspirations, she adds. Maybe you’re never going to be on Broadway, but you could be a great acting coach; your yogurt start-up might not win over investors, but you could still make and sell it at the farmers’ market on weekends.
In fact, dogged persistence in the face of energy-sucking disappointment (or even just a long plateau) can be actively bad for you. In his research, Wrosch has found that people who gave up on unattainable goals more quickly are more likely to have better mental and physical health. “If you pursue a goal that cannot be attained, the consequence is that you will continue to fail in trying, and that failure triggers negative emotions that can dysregulate a lot of your biological systems,” Wrosch explains. As a result, you’re more likely to develop higher levels of cortisol — the stress hormone — which can trigger depression, create systemic inflammation, and put you at further risk of certain clinical diseases in the long run.
Unfortunately, I can relate to this. When I had a particularly hard-to-please boss in my early 30s, I became irritable and unhealthy, unable to sleep and prone to bad colds. At one point, my hair even started falling out. But the good news is people can learn to pay better attention to these moments when they’re happening and make changes. “The adaptive part of quitting isn’t about just letting go whenever there’s an obstacle. It’s about being able to let go when there’s no pathway to success anymore,” says Wrosch. In other words, feeling tired, sad, or vaguely depressed could be a helpful indication that it’s time to give up even if you can’t quite bring yourself to call it that.
At the beginning of the pandemic, I started volunteering as a tutor for kids via Zoom for two hours every Friday. I felt good about doing it, and I really wanted to help them. But I wasn’t awesome at it (turns out it’s really hard to explain how addition works over Zoom even after I bought special blocks to demonstrate), and most weeks I basically functioned as an onscreen babysitter. I eventually stopped looking forward to the sessions and was secretly thrilled whenever someone canceled. Finally, I finished out the school year and told the volunteer coordinator I had to stop. I felt guilty about it, and I told myself I could always start again in the future. But I should probably just admit it: I quit.