Knowing When to Quit

I call my friend Betsy “Best-y” for two reasons: first, because she’s one of the best-beloved people in my life, and second, because anything she tries, she does better than anyone else in the world. The one thing that occasionally ruffles our mutual affection is that we’re both rather competitive, in the sense that if you wondered aloud which of us could most quickly remove her own gall bladder with kitchen implements, Besty and I would be fighting for steak knives before the words left your mouth.

That doesn’t bother me, though, because I’m less competitive than Besty. If someone were to rank us on noncompetitiveness, I would definitely win.

Anyway, one January—resolution time, goal time, gotta-shed-holiday-weight time—Besty and I joined some pals at a spa, planning to refocus, get in shape, prove that when the going gets tough, the tough get going. Instead, that week taught me to honor W.C. Fields’s profound statement “If at first you don’t succeed, try again. Then quit. No use being a damn fool about it.” The thing is, science supports this. Contrary to conventional wisdom, the ability to quit easily makes us healthier—and wealthier—than does leechlike tenacity.

Quitters Win and Winners Quit

After settling in at the spa, Besty and I considered the activities being offered the following day.

“Oh, look!” said Besty. “There’s a morning hike at 5 a.m.!”

“Great!” I said, trying not to show horror. If Besty could haul herself out of bed and frolic athletically in the middle of the night, then, dammit, so could I.

“We’ll be back in time for water aerobics,” said Besty. “And after that, weight training and then kickboxing. This’ll be so fun!”

“Fun!” I echoed. Then I heard my own voice, like a train with no brakes, saying, “How about Pilates and Jazzercise after that?”

“Cool!” said Besty. “I’m in!”

Dammit!

The next day was a blur of sweaty, exhausting, recondite competition. Besty walked faster than I did on the hike, because I’m not a morning person. Then I edged her out in weight training. Kickboxing was a draw—her kicks were higher, but she’s tall, which must be considered. Besty got more praise from the Pilates coach, but I got more in Jazzercise. After seven straight hours of strenuous exercise, I felt as though my muscles had been taken apart, scoured, then badly reassembled by a team of evil student nurses. Besty still looked fresh. Pert. She looked really pert.

“Ready to call it a day?” I asked.

“Well…” Besty said. “There’s still an advanced yoga class before dinner.”

I looked at my schedule. Dammit! Dammit! Dammit!

“Shall we?” asked Besty, like a kid on Christmas morning.

“Absolutely!” I gagged. “Wouldn’t miss it!” That class lasted approximately as long as the Pleistocene epoch. I try never to think of it. Sometimes, though, despite heavy medication, the memory returns unbidden, and I hear again the yoga instructor’s comment, “The key to success is persistence. Quitting is failure.” My mind reacted to this with numb acquiescence—I’d heard it so often, after all. But my body silently screamed, “Not always!”

Turns out my body was right.

Recently, psychologists Gregory Miller and Carsten Wrosch set out to investigate the mental and physical health of people who resist quitting, and of those who throw in the towel when facing unattainable goals. The second group—the quitters—were healthier than their persistent peers on almost every variable. They suffered fewer health problems, from digestive trouble to rashes, and showed fewer signs of psychological stress.

In another study, which followed a group of teenagers for a year, subjects who quit easily had much lower levels of a protein linked to inflammation than did their more tenacious peers. This made them less likely to develop many debilitating illnesses later in life.

The mechanism that helps people quit appropriately, Miller and Wrosch discovered, was not wisdom but dejection. People who are trying in vain eventually get depressed about their ongoing failure, and those who respond to this depression by quitting when it first appears enjoy all kinds of benefits.

I didn’t think about this scientifically during that yoga class—though I experienced it subjectively when the teacher guided us into a shoulder stand. The pose caused my body to quake violently with exhaustion as my workout shorts fell back around my pelvis and my gaze was forced upward. Gentle reader, you cannot imagine a ghastlier view: The depression evoked by the gelatinous consistency of my thighs beggars description.

I should’ve quit right then. I would have, if Besty weren’t so competitive.

The Quitting Bonus

The fact that I continued with the class exemplifies my approach to life and no doubt explains my digestive troubles, rashes, and inflammatory illnesses. But the implications don’t stop there: Not quitting may be at the root of fiscal problems as well as physical ones. That’s right—quitters prosper not only physically but financially.

Every first-year economics student learns about the “sunk-cost fallacy,” though virtually no one remembers it when making spending choices. The sunk-cost fallacy is a universal human error. It refers to our tendency to throw good money after bad, trying to justify our mistakes by devoting more resources to them. For example, a gambler who’s lost a small fortune is likely to stay and keep hemorrhaging cash precisely because he’s losing. “I’m down $10,000,” the thinking goes. “I have to keep playing until I get it back—this rotten luck can’t go on forever.” This is how human psychology works.

It is not how reality works.

A gambler is no more likely to win on the 500th roulette spin than on any of the previous 499. But a huge amount of effort goes into attempts at redeeming things—lemon cars, money–pit houses, horrible relationships, wars—that just aren’t working. Learning to quit while you’re not ahead, when the dull ooze of depression tells you things are not going to get any better, is one of the best financial and life skills you can master.

This should have occurred to me well before Besty and I hit that yoga studio. It should have occurred to me several years earlier, when I first realized that she was simply better than I was at everything. But even after a thousand failed attempts—and even though I once actually taught at a business school—I forged on.

How to Quit

Moving from shoulder stand to triangle pose, I was hit by two things: a back spasm and the realization that though I was ready to quit, I didn’t know how. I’d never practiced quitting. I didn’t know the right path out of the room, the right facial expression, the right way to give up.

So there I stood, befuddled, trying to touch my right foot with my right hand while bending sideways, when I heard a complicated thumping from the other side of the studio. By rolling my eyes far back into my skull, I saw what had made the sound. Besty had toppled from triangle pose directly into corpse pose.

She seemed too tired to speak, but from her feeble movements, she might have been trying to signal something—perhaps that she wished to be rinsed. But I took my own message from her example. In that moment, I saw with great clarity that (to paraphrase poet Elizabeth Bishop) the art of quitting isn’t hard to master. We can always just go limp.

That’s something any toddler intuitively knows. For instance, when my daughter Katie was 3, she said she’d just met “that fat lady next door.” I told her that was wonderful, except that it was better to refer to “the fat lady” as Mrs. Ellis.

“What if I forget?” Katie asked.

“Well, honey, then I’ll remind you.”

Katie thought for a minute and asked, “What if I refuse?”

That, frankly, was a stumper. I had no real way to force my daughter—or anyone else—to continue doing something she simply refused to do.

So, how do you quit doing something when depression, inflammation, and financial disaster loom? If worst comes to worst, just stop. The formalities will take care of themselves. I’m not advocating this, but if you stop showing up at work, they’ll fire you. If you refuse to act married, your spouse will eventually drift away or file for divorce. It’s far better karma to be up-front and honorable about quitting. I’m just pointing out that you always have the power to quit something at a physical level. In other words: Corpse pose is always an option.

This applies to everything, including (stay with me here) the process of quitting itself. If you’re trying in vain to quit something you do compulsively, like overspending or smoking or macramé, try quitting the effort to quit. As therapists like to say, “What we resist, persists,” and this is especially true of bad habits. Imagine trying not to eat one sinfully delicious chocolate truffle. Got it? Okay, now imagine trying to eat 10,000 truffles at one sitting. For most of us, the thought of not-quitting in this enormous way—indulging ourselves beyond desire—actually dampens the appetite. It’s a counterintuitive method, but if the “I will abstain from…” resolutions you make each year are utter, depressing failures, you might quit quitting and see what happens. When my clients stop unsuccessful efforts to quit, they often experience such a sense of relief and empowerment that quitting becomes easier—it’s paradoxical but true. (Try it before you dismiss it.)

I didn’t know what made Besty hit the floor of the yoga studio. I assumed she’d simply misplaced her center of gravity, due to having lost so much weight in one day. But I was wrong. She’d had enough—and her giving in to the force of gravity had a liberating effect on me. I found myself shuffling toward the door, and as I did, my depression lightened. I’d stumbled across a transformative resolution I’d keep all that year: to quit when I was behind, without shame or self-recrimination. It was a watershed moment in my life and in my friendship with Besty. She was fitter and more determined than I was, and even when it came to quitting, my friend had done the job first, and best.

Dammit.

31 replies
  1. Ginger
    Ginger says:

    O, this is SO great! And perfect for today. Martha, you’ve reminded me that when I quit smoking after starting at age14 and trying to quit for about 15 years, it was by quitting quitting! I gave up quitting, smoked my brains out for a year, then put the leftover cigarettes, lighter, and ash trays in the trash one night and that was that. Well, it was hard, but I never smoked another one. Now, to figure out how to quit quitting my job–I think I’ll quit figuring.

    Reply
  2. Teresa
    Teresa says:

    I recently quit my horrible job and now have a fear that any new job I start will somehow be horrible. How can I get over this fear or quit thinking about the bad experiences from the prior job?

    Reply
    • Wendy Haxton
      Wendy Haxton says:

      Hi Teresa,

      Can’t help with your problem directly, I’m afraid, but I thought you might like to hear about my experience, so that you will know you are not alone.

      When computers were first introduced into offices, and everyone was stumbling through how to use them together, I was at home looking after small children. By the time I returned to work, everyone could use a computer standing on their head. I have taken every computer course under the sun, but it is evident to me and everyone else, that this is not something which I am ever going to master to a high level, though I can usually manage to get by if there is someone kind and helpful nearby. I find this really frustrating as, before computers came in, I held senior administrative and PA jobs down without any difficulty at all and now I can’t get office junior level jobs.

      Anyway, by the time my story takes place, I had been divorced for some years, had managed to find a job for seven years in a firm which was computerised and had then left this because I could no longer manage on the low pay and bought and ran a shop for three years. I sold greetings cards, but as you will know, every kind of shop under the sun now sells those, so business went down and down and in the end I was forced to sell.

      By then, all offices were computerised and so I was unemployed for three years before a kind friend got me a job in the school where she was the Head’s secretary. It required quite a lot of computer work, but I managed with the help of a kind colleague. The job was not a fixed one, but rather a sort of floating temp job,so that when the Accounts Assistant begged me to help her out by taking over her job so that she could ‘try out’ the Accountant’s job which had become available whilst not losing her current job to a new permanent employee, I was happy to do it. Once we were settled into the tiny office on our own, she gave me the least help she possibly could in doing her job, but despite this, I still managed to knock out 1500 orders and invoices in the first month with only three errors, so I felt quite pleased with myself. However, she had arranged the office so that she had her back to me, she did not speak to me from the time she came in until the time she went home and I discovered that she was going into the main office telling everyone that I was hopeless and that she could not get on with her own work because I never stopped talking. It was true that there were a few other, small aspects of the job which I had found difficult, mainly because she showed them to me in the most peremptory and disagreeable way, that I felt I couldn’t ask any questions about them, but the rest was an out-and-out lie! I had not really even wanted to do the job as I am not good at and do not like figures, and did so out of kindness to her. I was so upset when I found that the whole school had heard what she was saying about me, that I just walked out.

      This experience, followed by another of horrible bullying in the next temp job I managed to get, have completely ruined my confidence. I have applied for nearly 2000 jobs since then, have had to sell my house and move to a cheaper area at the other end of the country, have spent all the money I made on the difference in cost between the houses and am now back on social benefits again. It is five years since I have worked and I should really have received my state pension by now, because I am nearly 61, but the Government has put retirement dates back and essentially stolen the pension money of millions of hard-working people in my position. I have 35 years of pension contributions, but find myself now with the prospect of losing even the awful little house I now own as the £71 a week in state benefits does not even cover the most basic of household bills.

      If you are actually able to do what is required in the workplace, get back in there and just do your best. You have nothing to lose and you don’t want to end up like me!

      Reply
  3. Yirmeyahu
    Yirmeyahu says:

    I am at the office now. I literally need to go into the corpse position at this very moment … but can’t. I have a family to support, a mortgage to pay, a wife who isn’t working … I really am burnt out. Was that what you’re blog post was trying to address?

    Reply
    • Michael
      Michael says:

      Surprised no one responded to your posted question, and I feel your predicament. I would say this does sound like an example of wgat Martha is talking about, real as your reasons for feeling forced to continue are. Perhaps if it’s not the job you quit (though I do hear of cases of a lesser paid, yet more present father being a net gain, and possibly leading to a more holistic success, eg as a freelancer just as one possibility ), but it could also be the persistence of certain thoughts over and again that cause stress and burnout that are quit. And if you’ve been trying to, then quit that. All the best. I do a little coaching and am available, out of the Tree of Life Bay Area.

      Reply
  4. Penelope
    Penelope says:

    Thanks for talking about this – I’m glad to hear I’m not the only one who enjoys quitting. The few times I’ve done a meaningful quit, it’s been so liberating! It’s like I’m a new person with new opportunities.

    Reply
  5. Geraldine
    Geraldine says:

    I opened this email just prior to beginning my work this morning…it was meant to be that I should do this since I too struggle with the quitting thing. I have longed to live and work in the US and the more proactive I have been the less productive the result. As a consequence, I just get deeper into depression about it. One year after the other slips by and I wonder if it will ever happen for me.

    Reply
  6. Ann
    Ann says:

    Thanks for this, at work my peers wanted to get me an “Abort” button, when I just go “too far” trying to figure something out, figuring it’s “just around the next analysis”..but I leave the day exhausted, and not much farther ahead ( but just go at it one more time!)
    Also, it’s a great idea for me to implement with my daughter (to try another strategy) for a daughter who mostly seems overwhelmed all the time. Seems to work wonders when she has the power “not” to go to basketball sometimes.
    There’s a question someone said to me yesterday ” How much energy are you bringing to the time you have”. From this, and your blog post, I am going to also pay attention to when I am putting too much energy into something, and quitting wisely and gracefully…

    Reply
  7. Laura
    Laura says:

    So great! I had a similar experience in my 30’s. A spa retreat week, early morning walk, feeling like I had to be in the lead and deciding I didn’t care. Deciding that I would enjoy the walk, enjoy the beauty and experience coming in last – glorious! It’s not always been that easy to give up coming in first, but I keep working at coming in last!!!

    Reply
  8. Janet
    Janet says:

    Martha, I know what you mean! I actually have a friend who is modeling “quitting,” and I am becoming more flexible & lightening expectations of myself. This was a great post, thank you.

    Reply
  9. Kayla
    Kayla says:

    Thanks for the amazing article, i took a job far from home because it was the right thing to do, now im depressed and bawl my eyes out every opportunity i get cause i miss my home and family, but im too scared of what others may say about me quitting, and out of the blue i get a job offer back home, which pays way less but it provides me which job experience which i need, and when i tell my friends im thinking about quitting they tell me im crazy and stupid but i realise im different from them, and if i should drop dead do i really want my last few hours to be agony and depression. i still fear quitting and the stigma attached to it like being called a failure or loser, but i realised this is my life journey and im going to do what makes me happy.

    Reply
    • Deborah Knittel
      Deborah Knittel says:

      Kayla you are not “quitting”, you are moving ahead on your journey to a more fulfilling life. The purpose of life is not to fulfill the expectations of others, it is to fulfill the purposes of your own life, one of which is to be happy and to be able to share that with others. Go for it!

      Reply
  10. Dianne
    Dianne says:

    Martha, You always make me laugh! Thank you for the hilarious depiction of competition and what it can do to and for us. I’ve been wanting to quit a job which is not right for me and can’t seem to make the break. I’ve been applying insights from your books and making plans. It’s time for action!

    Reply
  11. jennifer
    jennifer says:

    I have major painful health issues and to get relief I have to follow a sugar dairy grain free diet. I have been trying for years and keep failing and trying again. I have a lot more pain when I eat all these foods. So for people like me who to quit means pain how do you suggest “quitting”?

    Reply
    • Bridget
      Bridget says:

      Perhaps you can try accepting the pain from these foods?
      Then when you realise that the pain isn’t worth it, the food won’t be worth it.
      I only speak from my own experience.
      Finally, finally I realise that pain-free is for me.
      Sending love and light and hope that you resolve this difficult issue xxxx

      Reply
  12. Rachel
    Rachel says:

    Hi Martha! Wow, I didn’t know you were so funny! I’ve heard about you through friends and reading other’s blogs but I had never read anything of yours. This is great!

    Reply
  13. Kristine
    Kristine says:

    Thank you! I loved this! My brother used to call me “The Quitter” while we were all still home. Of course, this has been 50 years ago but lingering shameful thoughts stayed with me for a long time. Through lots of inner work I have been able to leap through this shame to the other side. This ‘quitter’ has been married for over forty years in a loving relationship, returned to college in my 30’s (with four young children and a supportive husband) and am still teaching at age 62. I am very grateful that I can try things, that interest me, but have no shame in quitting when, whatever I am doing, no longer supports who I am. Thanks again Martha Beck!

    Reply
  14. Judy
    Judy says:

    Martha: LOVE, LOVE,LOVE your insight. I quit something not too long ago and I have been having some anxiety and depression over actually the quitting of it. I bought a horse, raised her from a foal, and owned her for 8 years (actually that she owned me is more accurate). I am an experienced rider/owner and have another horse as well, but this little mare was just too much for me. I sent her to MULTIPLE trainers and berated myself for being too scared to handle her. I tried to ride her while other led her and we were both scared. Through this time trying to train her, I went through cancer as well as vocal cord paralysis due to the surgery to remove the cancer. THEN, because I had no voice, I lost my job. The answer for me was to give up- and I don’t do that well. I have a bumper sticker on my car that says ‘Cowgirl Up’- in other words, stop whining and just do it. I found a great home for the mare and took a significant loss on selling her to people I knew trained difficult horses and I quit. I’ve had many moments of panic after quitting, but your article today has given me a new perspective. Your advice is always spot on.

    Reply
  15. John R
    John R says:

    I am intrigued by this article by Martha Beck about persistence. She points out that people who know when to quit are actually healthier than those who don’t. When I was in my late teens I planned to go down a career route that was actually rather wrong for me, only I did not see it at the time. However there were added signals and stresses I might not have felt had I been on the right track. (The right track would have been easier). Being on the wrong track also wasted time. I have been in love with the wrong person, and sending e-mails to her, trying to phone her pushed her away-and then came the realisation that we were not compatable to begin with.
    The W.C. Fields quote “If at first, you don’t succeed, try again.Then quit. No use beng a damn fool about it.” is an adaptation of “if at first you don’t succeed, try, try try again.” THAT quote was from Robert the Bruce, King of Scotland. His situation was different from what is being discussed here. Robert the Bruce was taking shelter in a cave, and he saw a spider trying to build a web. She tried several times and only THEN succeeded. That give King Robert the inspiration to try again and win back the independence of Scotland, driving out the English. (The reality is not quite like Braveheart).
    But the fact is that the King had some chance of winning. And he knew he had a chance of winning. And the task was sufficiently important that a certain amount of persistence was worthwhile.

    Reply
  16. Luminita Pirvu
    Luminita Pirvu says:

    Loved this ! Knowing when to quit, a valuable skill ! (Also, triangle after shoulder stand in that yoga class, wondering what the sequencing strategy behind that would be :).

    Reply
  17. Sarah Lawrence Hinson
    Sarah Lawrence Hinson says:

    I do get the energy of the’quit quitting’ part. That’s how I quit caffeine in 2010, much like the lady who quit smoking. I knew it was bad for me…I just kept drinking and drinking until I was literally sick of the stuff. Then giving it up was simple because I didn’t want any more.

    Quitting bigger things (like a job) can be more complex. The energetic focus needs to shift to what is wanted and needed next, with the body feeling that it has already happened. For a while it will feel like a foot in two camps (or one on each wobbly canoe in some cases) then the energy will start moving.

    Thanks for reposting this on Twitter. ’twas a great read.

    Sarah

    Reply
  18. Jen
    Jen says:

    I liked your story about quitting but I liked it because you talked about being competitive with your friend! I’m competitive too but not nearly as competitive as my friend! I totally relate!!

    Reply
  19. Corina
    Corina says:

    Oh it sure is very stressful, NOT to quit, it will cause so much stress for the body – we all know what any form of negative stress does to our health. Well and then of course, stress makes the body acidic, which in longterm will create dis-ease, since an acidic environment is rather inviting and an alkaline body will not attract dis-ease so quickly, as for example in cancer of all sorts..I used to run marathons combined with an acid forming diet, I did not compete with anybody really, but was driven just the same by following the teachings of some fake spiritual leader – well the result was a nice burn out, and that was the point where that realization came: Listen to your intuition and don't be stubborn when it comes to accomplishments. Rather turn into your heart to check and also ground enough, so you don't get over excited and lose touch with what is good for you..Being competitive too much, it brings the focus so much on the outside, we completely miss the point of listening to our inner voice, and of course we will then feel unhappy in the long term. Why is "being better" so important to us anyway?? This is again a sign of not being heart centered. When we remain in the heart, there is really no interest on competing in any way, you just want to BE. Heart centered people are way more relaxed about all of this.

    Reply

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] representative, but because it speaks to the value of setting new possibilities in motion by making an affirmative decision to quit, which as The Professor assures us, is always OK.  If you are in adjunct hell or any another […]

  2. […] of us stick with something out of fear of failure or fear of disappointing others.  According to Martha Beck, three time Harvard graduate, author and life coach (not Martha Beck the lonely hearts serial […]

  3. […] representative, but because it speaks to the value of setting new possibilities in motion by making an affirmative decision to quit, which as The Professor assures us, is always OK.  If you are in adjunct hell or any another […]

  4. […] why was all this change so necessary for me? Then Barbara Winter posted an article on Facebook by Martha Beck called “Knowing When to Quit”. I’m an expert at quitting. I wasn’t always. Mom wouldn’t allow us to quit lessons […]

  5. […] reading this Martha Beck article, I un-enrolled in a class and boy did I feel […]

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