How do I quit quitting?
July 16, 2008 10:34 AM   Subscribe

I am a serial quitter. How can I quit this bad habit?

For the last 4-5 years, I've fallen in to a cycle of quitting. Activities, classes, jobs, fitness, relationships-- I quit them all, or have to constantly fight the desire to quit (which means underperformance at school or work). I'm a generally smart and successful person, so I do well in many things, but at the first sign of potential failure, boredom, or second-guessing has me bolting for the next thing to do.

Surely, some level of quitting is fine, especially as a young person trying out new things, but it's gotten to the point of inevitability. I've developed a reputation of being a flake, which upsets me greatly. I guess this is a two-part question:
1) How do I make better decisions to realize and satisfy my long-term goals, rather than appeasing my short-term gut feelings, which are almost always fleeting?
2) When faced with difficult or monotonous situations, which I really shouldn't quit, how do I stop myself from quitting?

Any books, inspirational things, or other advice would be greatly appreciated.
posted by acidic to Human Relations (12 answers total) 51 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: A couple of general tips, announce your decisions to friends and family. It's a bit harder to quit something when you know that it's out there and there's the possibility of disappointing people. As well, find aclose friend who knows you well and looks out for your best interest. Ask them to be your "accountability buddy" to call you out if you're quitting something and to give you some encouragement when things get tough and to push you forward.

Make decisions based on things that will interest you long-term, things that you feel passionate about. It is inevitable that every project will come across the boring, monotonous periods, but remind yourself of the big picture and the satisfaction that will come from hanging in there. Perhaps write yourself a letter to remind yourself why you made the decision to begin with. When short-term difficulties arise, do not make any major decisions immediately. Hold off on it and let the emotions settle a bit and re-visit the issue when you're in a calmer state of mind.

An inspirational quotation that has carried me during many difficult times comes from Theodore Roosevelt:

"It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming, but who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself for a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat."

Failing while daring greatly lends a Romantic quality to things. Another thing that I repeat to myself when things get rough, or even in the midst of failure is that there's no such thing as failures-- just delayed success. :)
posted by perpetualstroll at 10:52 AM on July 16, 2008 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Following Through: a Revolutionary New Model For Finishing Whatever You Start

This book is a good start. It'll help change your mindset about everything you start and don't finish.
posted by Corky at 10:54 AM on July 16, 2008

I know a guy just like you. One of his problems is that he has such a strong support group behind him that there really isn't any substantial fallout for his chronic quitting.

I would probably be just like you, except I fell in love with a girl who doesn't take that kind of quitting crap.

I don't think your problem is unique, and I hope somebody here has some insight.

The guy I know just like you? He's my little brother, and I've only recently decided to stop supporting his decisions to constantly quit.

So my advice [based on purely personal experience, and perhaps not applicable to you] is to: (a) fall in love with a person that won't let you quit, and/or (b) realize that your support group thinks you're a quitter and a failure, despite their support for you.
posted by jabberjaw at 10:58 AM on July 16, 2008

You need to bring a certain attitude to your life, one that is driven by a certain amount of passion for projects you get involved in. Difficulties in your projects should motivate you, as for monotony in projects -- if you're really involved in what you're doing there is not much danger of being bored.
posted by the_ancient_mariner at 11:14 AM on July 16, 2008

Best answer: I've done the same thing over the years. This helped me: the now-popular video of Ira Glass talking about how the gap between your good taste and your still-sorta-crappy work causes people to quit. I'm now actively not quitting fiction writing.
posted by booth at 11:19 AM on July 16, 2008 [12 favorites]

Fear of failure is a tricky one. It's a common problem. I have this as well, but not to a crippling degree. Usually, I say to myself, "if XYZ can do it so can I" and "I just need to show up and get this done." Like Woody Allen says, "Eighty percent of success is showing up." Is that ever true. I committed myself to 14 weeks of dog training classes. Sometimes it was boring. Sometimes my dog was the worst in the group and I was embarrassed. Sometimes the instructors were annoying with their sexist and stupid comments. A lot of times I was lazy and didn't want to load the dog up and drive halfway across town, but I did every week. I would barely practice with my dog at home, but just going once a week gave me a well behaved dog that actually listens to me.

I've completed 5K and 10K races when I thought I could never do such a thing. The more things you complete, the more confident you'll become. The more you quit, the worse you'll feel.

I think a healthy dose of guilt can be beneficial. Remember the studies that said people with guilt were more successful? I often feel guilty for not completing something. I tend to stick to most things (not all) until the end, not because I'm overly enthused, but because I'll feel bad if I don't complete it.

In the future don't sign up for things you're not interested in. Sometimes you'll be faced with things that are necessary and less than thrilling (a boring college course, cleaning out the garage), but don't subject yourself to activities you don't want to do. I think it's okay to stop mid-project if you're not into it. I've abandoned many things (half-sewn quilts, novels, etc.) because they weren't doing it for me. It's okay to quit things like this without a second thought.

Also, don't set yourself up for failure. If you need to make a 8 o'clock class don't stay up until 3 in the morning. Do the things you need to do to get things done: showing up on time, clear workspace, clean laundry, proper supplies, proper sleep, etc.
posted by LoriFLA at 11:30 AM on July 16, 2008

I was thinking about this just yesterday because I have a similar situation going on. I thought of a theory that I haven't yet tested much but maybe you can try it too. If you actively look for little challenges in your everyday life, and tell yourself that you are going to attempt every one of these things regardless of whether you succeed or not (since they are random things that don't matter) and that that's just who you will be from now on, maybe you will be able to re-frame the concepts of challenge, success, failure, quitting, etc. You will become accustomed to seeking a successful end point and will also become more accustomed to what it feels like to fail, and will see that it's not a big deal and that you will learn things about yourself and about sticking to things and about finding ways to succeed.

I was jogging last night, for example. I always want to quit and walk, but I've noticed that it's not because I'm out of breath, or that my muscles are really protesting. I could go for another mile but might only get one block and then I walk for a while. My mind just says, "Nah, can't keep going." Nothing wrong with mixing walking with jogging but what is that urge to give up? I'm trying to get back in shape here! Nope, gonna walk. So I decided that I would set challenges for myself. I'd pick that white car way down the road and challenge myself to get there within X minutes. If I failed it didn't matter, but I wouldn't quit. Then another and another. It worked until I became actually tired.

I have also really let my house go for a long time. I could get started cleaning up but just quit and leave it. And there it sits. So I will set myself a challenge of finishing X number of things in 20 minutes and see if I can do it. If it's a report at work that you hate, make it a challenge. Say to yourself that you won't make a perfect report, but will make one that fits the bill by the end of the hour. Make yourself stretch to make it. If it's a more weighty project, you set a goal for that and its sub parts and make each a challenge. The focus becomes not quality so much as milestones. The challenge is not to make yourself like it or be interested - - it just becomes another of the things throughout your day that you are making into a little challenge. In that way perhaps your mind can release your feelings about the specific item and instead concentrate on what has now become your constant theme - meeting challenges.

The reason I've mentioned quality a few times is that often quitting is about fear of failure, which, on preview, I see others are touching on. You can't fail at something you don't attempt, so if you quit then you don't have to risk feeling bad about yourself, don't have to risk having to "admit" something about yourself that the failure is ostensibly proof of. Without being tested, you are able to preserve your idealized self, which is not your true self. The true self is the tested self.

When you were little, somebody probably told you the same thing people told me - don't ever start quitting, because once you start, you can't stop. I think that's really true. But I don't think it's permanent. Quitting is a learned behavior and a habit and it can be unlearned. I know that it feels like trying to pull yourself up by your bootstraps without having any bootstraps, but that's why I say start small and turn your daily activities into challenges. You'll get the proof that you can meet challenges, you'll get used to trying things until completion, and you'll reframe yourself in your own mind as someone who keeps going.

Just tell yourself you will take every one of these little challenges on. If you think of it, you're doing it, no deciding whether you want to. Don't think, do. And these things are small and private, so it doesn't matter if you fail. Build up your base in that way, your sticktoitiveness muscles.

For books, you might consider The Now Habit. It's about procrastination, but that's closely related to quitting. And the beginning of the book has a great section that explains why you procrastinate (pre-quit). That was actually the best part of the book.
posted by kookoobirdz at 11:48 AM on July 16, 2008 [4 favorites]

Meant to add specifically that perfectionism can often lead to quitting. "If it can't be perfect, I don't want to do it." That's why I was saying focus on completion, not quality. There's nothing wrong with average, especially if you've been below average. I hate the feeling of average myself, having grown up with an identify that said "I am gifted". But these days I make myself be OK with doing something at an average level. When I strive for something better, I strive for very good, not perfect. It takes some getting used to, and progresses slowly, but I know my life has improved some in that regard.
posted by kookoobirdz at 11:55 AM on July 16, 2008

are you really a quitter? or do you stop when you realize you are capable, then look for something else to try? i lived with the "quitter" label for a long time. then i realized that it was mostly coming from other people, not from me. i realized that i like to learn new things, try new things, experiment, see what i can and cannot do. i'd start something that sparks my interest, like sky-diving, etching, water color, motorcycles, mechanics, you name it, and i would get to a point and stop. has the appearance of being a quitter. but, what was really going on was that as soon as i realized i could get good at one of these things, or when i had a grasp of what it was about, i'd lose interest, stop, and go on to something else. if i spent the time and work and effort to get really good at something (or prove i would be really bad) i wouldn't have the bandwidth to learn something else.

the benefit to you is that you become a multi-faceted, diversely educated, very experienced generalist. you have a broad understanding of yourself, the world around you, and the people in it. and you can adapt, do, fix, live in many many situations, and be happy to be there. think of someone you know who is an 'expert' at something. what else can they do? think of some of these people who "stick with it" thru the boredom, the dullness, the hard parts- even when they should quit; who then have a narrow range of experience, do know jack about things outside their domain and are lost if they are outside of their comfort-zone of knowledge and experience.

you will find things that you like, even if they are dull and hard sometimes that you will constantly stick with. i have enjoyed doing computer stuff ever since i got one one. i've played guitar since i was 16, i've had a few relationships that lasted years.

if you are taking advantage of other people, or other people are depending on you, or you make promises and comitments and then quit, that's not good. that needs addressing. but if you are generally self-supporting, have a good attitude, don't make promises and commitments that you don't keep, then do what you want. when you really find a relationship that is worth it to you- you will stick with it, no matter what. when you really find a job or activity that is meaningful to you, you will keep doing it. don't let the way others live dictate who you are.

"learn all that is learnable." - the vee-ger principle from the first star trek movie.
posted by karl88 at 12:00 PM on July 16, 2008 [3 favorites]

When it gets down and ugly, most soldiers don't really care about patriotism, or a higher calling, or the nobility of battle, or being on the side of good. When it gets really bad, what keeps them going is saving the guy next to you in the foxhole.

Overblown metaphors aside, I find this to be true in the not-so-dangerous trenches in life as well - It's really easy to cheat and fail on yourself. But it's not so easy to fail and let down someone else.

Use this to your advantage. Attach everything you do to SOMEONE ELSE's expectations - . It may seem strange, but if you're like me you probably hold everyone else other than yourself to a higher standard.

For example I suck at getting up in the mornings. If it's just me and a physics lecture with 200 anonymous students and an uncaring professor at 8:00 on a foggy morning, the temptation to sleep in is extremely strong.

However, let's say there's a cute girl I've started talking to, who I know will smile at me when I get there. Suddenly I have a lot of additional motivation to get to physics class.
posted by spatula at 12:06 PM on July 16, 2008 [2 favorites]

I agree with LoriFLA. It's OK to quit things you discover you really don't like, or things you aren't really into. I've got a bookshelf full of books I should admit to myself I'll never read. I just like knowing I have the titles, and even to me, that's pretty shallow. But if you're quitting things you know you like, that's probably something different. Guilt won't help that. In that case, I think you probably need to take a deeper look at your life beyond your commitment to things or others and look at your commitment to yourself. Do you lie to yourself, setting deadlines and breaking them and then telling yourself, "Oh, it's no big deal." Do that enough and you'll start to secretly see yourself in the same way Jabberjay bluntly, but accurately says an overly supportive group sees its weak one. And as far as accepting obligations, if you try to do more than you practically can or ideally want, you're going to drop stuff. If you don't like the looks or feelings you get when you do, don't accept so many obligations, whether self-imposed or not. We have become slaves to perfection when excellence works just as well and isn't nearly as destructive. This piece on how average can be OK is a pretty good one. But the ones you do accept, excel at. Examine your life and your relationships with people and ask yourself have you felt supported, trusted, respected. Or have people cursed you with the kind smile of low expectations? And think about some counseling too. Enough undone stuff can sour you in ways you might not be aware of. This is a great forum. Pull out the nuggets that speak to you and get to work.
posted by CollectiveMind at 5:54 AM on July 17, 2008

Maybe this thread is kinda dead by now, but here's my take -

I think at some level it's a self-esteem issue. Some things you will have motivation for, other things you won't. That doesn't make you less of a good person, it just means you don't know yourself well enough yet. If you can't muster the enthusiasm, quit. Don't force yourself to do things you don't feel like doing.

The flip side is, when you find something you really like, go nuts. Geek out. Spend all your time and energy at it. Seek out other people that like doing it and feed off each other's enthusiasm.

In summation, have strong preferences about how you want to spend your time. Feel free to pursue the things that really interest you and drop the things that don't with no guilt.
posted by milinar at 12:11 PM on July 17, 2008

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