How to Know When to Quit

You know the dilemma.

You’ve been doing something for awhile, but it doesn’t seem to be working. Should you keep going, and push through with it? Or quit and do something else?

There’s no right answer to this.

Sometimes, sticking through will be the right answer. My business took off after five years of work, and after a disappointing two years which were bad enough that I was nearly at the quitting point.

Other times, quitting early will save a lot of pain. I spent over a year in a project in university when it became clear it was a toxic environment with an ethically-questionable advisor. I stuck through, but part of me regrets not stopping a lot earlier.

The decision of when to quit isn’t just for big life-changing decisions. When you step on the exercise bike, start studying or decide to meditate. All of these will push you to ask whether you should keep going a few more minutes, or give up and do something different.

The Commitment Muscle

Sticking through things longer builds resilience. Not only do you increase your endurance, you start to trust that you are able to keep the promises you make to yourself.

However, sticking through on a bad idea, project or effort can lose you years of your life. If the environment around you was rotten, this can scare you away from anything similar in the future. Quitting ahead of time in a bad relationship, bad job or bad project can be the very thing you need to improve your ability to stick to good ones.

The goal is to increase your ability to sustain commitments you make to yourself, without undermining those commitments by over-committing to the wrong things.

Decide Your Quitting Points in Advance

How do you overcome this?

Simple. Choose your quitting points before you start. These are pre-specified periods of time, effort or stress that you decide you’re willing to endure before you step back and re-evaluate.

When I started setting new habits for myself, one of the best ways I learned was a thirty-day trial. The benefit of setting a new habit over thirty days isn’t that after one month everything will be on autopilot. Rather, it’s that thirty days is a good amount of time before you set a quitting point. Even a habit that is inconvenient and ultimately unworkable is worth thirty days of testing.

Similarly, when you set big goals, choose the points in time when you’ll be able to step back and re-evaluate.

In my business, for ongoing commitments to new projects, I usually aim for one year to test things out. That’s not enough to necessarily reach success with those projects, but it’s enough time to decide whether it’s worth continuing or whether I want to try something different.

How to Pick Your Quitting Point

There’s three ways you can pick your quitting points:

1. Set shorter lengths of projects.

The easiest way to do this is to simply set projects that are short enough that committing to them all the way is easy enough to do. Most big projects in work, health, learning and life can be broken into chunks of 1-3 months which aren’t too much to commit to.

2. Set re-evaluation points for ongoing habits and goals.

For things which you expect to pursue for a very long time, you may want to set up junctures for re-evaluating your progress. Here, the goal is to put in quitting points that are sufficiently far out so that you’ve gotten enough information before you decide to switch. They should also be spaced out enough so that day-to-day frustrations don’t turn into abandoning the whole project.

At the same time, defining these points in advance also gives you some freedom. It means, when things get bad, you know when to re-evaluate them in the future.

3. Based on impact to other areas of your life.

Time is the most straightforward way to manage quitting points, but you may choose other metrics. One way might be to look at how those things impact your life. You may decide to work on one goal, so long as it doesn’t start interfering with another area of your life.

This one is harder to do, because many of these boundaries are going to be subjective. However, you might decide, in advance, that a certain project is something you’re going to work on for a point, but you’ll put it aside if it gets too stressful or if you stop enjoying it.

The value of deciding this in advance, rather than simply quitting when things become unpleasant, is that you’re exercising your ability to set an intention to commit to a certain level and stick with it. If you want to be able to achieve goals that require pushing through some discomfort, you need to be able separate those commitments from ones you’re pursuing just for fun.

Making the Decision

Ultimately, picking your quitting points doesn’t help you answer the question of whether to continue or quit. There’s no general “right” answer that will cover all cases. But, by picking your quitting points in advance, you give yourself the ability to accomplish a lot more things.