I Give Up: The Benefits of Quitting

A woman sits by a river reading a book, while leaning up against a tree.

Whenever you read interviews with successful entrepreneurs, they all seem to mention the same career advice: “Don’t ever give up!” or “Stick with it!” 

We’re told time and again that we can achieve our dreams as long as we persevere. Or that grit is more predictive of success than talent. Nike says “Just do it.” Beloved children’s books say “I think I can.” It seems ingrained in our culture that as long as we’re determined, we will always succeed. 

But what if sticking to a goal or a project is actually holding us back? What if we just want to throw in the towel and say, “I give up”?

If you’ve ever had doubts about a goal or a project, here’s a guide to help you evaluate the situation and reassess. You might find that giving up on a goal can actually be a positive thing. It could even open up space in your life for another opportunity that’s a better fit for you.

Grit vs giving up 

Maybe you’ve always wanted to be a musician and you’ve spent years and money dedicated to your craft. How do you know when it’s time to double down and keep working away at it - hoping that the next big break is just around the corner - and how do you know when it’s time to give up?

In her article “Knowing when to quit is as important as grit”, psychologist Susan David says:

“You can persevere—working like a dog at a project or task, and possibly even deriving a sense of accomplishment from it—but if all that effort and determination is not in service of your life’s goals, then it’s just not serving you.” 

If you’re currently feeling stuck or hopeless with your goals, before simply deciding to work harder and plow ahead, it might be good to ask yourself why this goal is important to you. Is this still worth your time and energy? Are the reasons why you first started this goal still true for you today?

  • Why is this work meaningful to you? 
  • What are your values? Does this goal align?
  • Does your goal excite you or exhaust you? 

Being clear with what’s important to you can help you determine if you should stick with it or quit.

Grit is not the only valuable quality a person can have. You also have to consider your time and energy, and what they are worth. Sometimes the smart choice is to stop trying to be tough, and admit that you’ve hit a wall and your efforts would be better spent elsewhere. It is never a bad decision to invest your time in things that are going to work for you.

Adjust your goal

If, after some careful thought, you feel that your current goal is unattainable or no longer applicable to your life, it could be that you feel you’re ready to give it up. However, that is a lot easier said than done. If it feels too hard to quit completely, maybe you don’t have to do exactly that. It could be a matter of shifting your target, by focusing on the experience rather than the outcome.

Sometimes, when we stay super focused on a goal, we actually lose sight of what really matters to us or what our original goal was in the first place. For instance, if your goal is “to become a successful magazine editor” and you find yourself pitching every website and magazine without receiving a single yes, it’s completely understandable that you’d feel frustrated and second guess your dreams. 

Rather than continuing with the same system, you can try adjusting your aim.

This BBC article suggests trying the following approach: 

“Instead of focusing on where you want to be in five years, set a goal based on the experience you want to have along the way.” 

You know that saying, “it’s the journey, not the destination.” Why not try applying that idea to our goals? 

So let’s take our original example “become a successful magazine editor” and readjust it:

  • Ask yourself what “successful” means to you. Maybe you will get that dream job, and maybe you won’t. Assume you *won’t* get the job someday: what will make this experience still be meaningful for you? Maybe you’ll discover that only the job outcome matters. Okay, then it’s time to refocus your efforts on new ways to make that happen. But if what really matters to you is being a writer and seeing your name published in cool magazines, there is a lot you can do to achieve those experiences without the pressure of ending up with a job
  • After rejection, remind yourself why this work is important to you and your values. The “why” will help you keep going and will help you find ways to adjust, as necessary. If you are doing work for the love of it alone (and not to achieve a certain job or pay level), this can be all the motivation you need.

And how can we take this goal and make it about the journey, not the outcome? 

  • Remember to celebrate all parts of your journey, not just when you get to your destination. Maybe you could sign up for a writing class. Or attend a panel with a journalist you admire. Or when you get your first byline, you could take the time to celebrate this achievement. Frame it or buy yourself a new notebook that you’ve been wanting. 

Here’s another example: what if your goal is to lose weight?  It’s easy to feel discouraged with this goal, especially if we’re not seeing results right away. Also, it can be hard to find pleasure in the journey when we’re dieting and feeling deprived! 

So ask yourself: what do I really want? Is it really to hit a specific number on the scale, or is what you are craving simply to be more active than you are right now? Try to get in touch with what is really motivating you -- it might be less about the goal and more about just changing your day-to-day life to feel better.

Maybe you could adjust the goal to “work out 3 times a week.” Or “eat vegetables with every meal.” “Or try a new vegetable dish from a cookbook I like.” By adding these tweaks, you’re giving yourself something specific and measurable to work towards, without locking yourself in to a strict outcome.

And here are some options to make this goal more fun and memorable:

  • Go running after work and catch the sunset
  • Take a walk by the river
  • Ask an old friend to go jogging with you and catch up
  • Take a fun dance class

If you’re not seeing results with your goals, you don’t have to give up entirely. You can give up the systems that aren’t working. And you can adjust your goals so that they’re oriented towards giving you more fulfilling experiences.

Benefits of giving up

Giving up on a goal doesn’t mean that you’re a failure or that you’re giving up on your dreams. In fact, it’s the opposite. You’re actually taking the time and doing the hard work to identify what’s really important to you. As Susan David says

“These are tough, often scary decisions to make, and it’s easy to feel like a quitter if you’re hooked on the idea that ‘grit’ is a quality to be valued above all others. But there’s no shame—in fact there’s actually a lot of virtue—in making a logical, heartfelt choice. Instead of looking at these transitions as giving up, look at them as moving on. You’re letting yourself evolve and grow along with your circumstances, choosing a new path that is full of possibility. That decision is filled with grace and dignity.”

So the next time you feel like saying “I give up,” go ahead. You may even feel a huge weight lifted off your shoulders. Once you let go of what’s not working, you’ll be in a good place to help you find what’s right.

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