Why giving up is good for you

Joanna Barry
Friday, September 23, 2011
When the tough gets going, the tough get going; try and try again; never say die... I could keep pulling out the idioms but I think you get the drift. We're constantly reminded never to give up. But what if we're fighting a losing battle? Could ditching an unrealistic dream be the best decision you ever make?

In the words of Homer Simpson, "If something's hard to do, then it's not worth doing". Laugh you may, but new research shows quitting may actually be good for you. Yup, our goggle-eyed, yellow-faced friend may be onto something! And we're not just talking smoking, cupcakes and a bad boyfriend but the big ones — life goals, a friendship, a marriage, a job, dreams that may no longer be worth your time and energy. But how do you know when to admit defeat and move on?

The beginning: when did 'quitting' become a bad word?
We've been dubbed the "Anything's Possible" generation, instilled with the belief that we can do anything as long as we want it badly enough. Quitting is not a quality we admire — in ourselves or in others. Countless catchphrases espouse this way of thinking — posters, teachings at school, pats on backs from strangers all telling us to "hang in there".

The findings: quit while you're ahead
But if you ask entrepreneur Seth Godin, quitting can actually be a good thing. "What really sets superstars apart from everyone else is the ability to escape dead ends quickly, while staying focused and motivated when it really counts. Winners quit fast, quit often, and quit without guilt," he says.

And he isn't alone. A recent study in the US revealed that giving up on unrealistic goals is physically and mentally beneficial. The study, published in Psychological Science, revealed that teenagers who gave up on hard-to-reach goals had much lower levels of a protein called CRP, an indicator of bodily inflammation linked to several serious diseases including diabetes and heart disease, than the teens who were more persistent.

The authors, psychologists Gregory Miller and Carsten Wrosch, advised that the healthiest life option in the face of an insurmountable obstacle was to cut your losses and re-engage with new goals that will help you overcome any lingering sense of failure.

Registered psychologist Jacqui Saad (www. jacquelinesaad.com.au) agrees, explaining that continuous persistence causes changes and shifts in our mood, sleep pattern, appetite and general wellbeing. "It can also lead to feelings of worthlessness, hopelessness and reduced self-esteem, which may lead to an onset of depression," she says.

The case studies: keep calm — and don't carry on
I know the feeling. Some time ago, I scored my dream job, requiring me to move from point A (home town) to point B (new, completely unknown state). It was everything I had dreamt about, my one life plan achieved. It took me five years and many shrink sessions to admit to myself that I was unhappy. I was done trying to fit a square peg in a round hole. So I quit.

Why did it take me five years to figure out it wasn't right? I've only recently come to realise that in my mind, success was equal to persistence. Moreover, after years of telling people it was my dream, it was hard to admit that it didn't make me happy. It's one thing to walk away from a life that is bad for you, going nowhere, or making you miserable. It's a whole other thing to walk away from a good life because it is not the kind of good life that you want for yourself.

Jacqui Saad warns, "A lot of our behaviour is about maintaining reputation in front of our family, friends and colleagues. We need to realise we don't have to be approved of all the time."

It's important to know when to cut your losses and walk away. Not that I have suffered any losses — the freedom and self-actualization of quitting that job was an absolutely amazing feeling. I'm now a quitter who makes more money and has better job opportunities precisely because I quit. Hindsight is a beautiful thing.

The tipping point: how to quit successfully
So when is it right to give up the life you planned? How do you know when to cut your losses and move on? It comes down to knowing when to hold 'em and when to fold 'em.

There comes a point at which the pain of giving up is worth it when compared to the pain of pushing forward. Re-evaluate how much time and effort you're willing to dedicate to a task. Ask yourself, "What are the rewards and outcomes attached? Are they greater than the amount of work required?" Approach it like you would any problem, weighing up the pros and cons. As Jacqui Saad says, "Quitting can be a well-informed and thought-out solution to a situation that is no longer fruitful to pursue."

Quitting goals — and setting new, more flexible ones — can be liberating and healthy. There's honour in recognising that one course has reached its conclusion, just as there's strength in allowing another to begin.

"Your perseverance may be holding you back from seeking out more effective opportunities," says Jacqui Saad. "One's energy may be directed toward more positive outcomes." It's easy to miss an intriguing, hidden path when your eyes are fixed on the map you drew before you left home.

You're the only one who can make that final judgment call, so listen to that voice inside of you. You've only got one life so if something isn't making you happy you should first try to fix it, before re-assessing whether it's worth your time and stress; or as the wisecracking W C Fields once said: "If at first you don't succeed, try again, then give up — no use being a damn fool about it."

Stick or quit?
Obviously quitting isn't always a good thing. Quitting flies in the face of persistence, hard work and sticking to something for it to be successful. So what are the telling signs that it's right for you to quit?

  • The passion is no longer there. You begin to dread and resent the task at hand.
  • It causes you to lose sleep and become irritable.
  • You find yourself making a half-hearted effort.
  • You know. Your intuition/gut feeling/inner wisdom/whatever you call it is telling you it's time.

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