When you have a history marked by regrets for projects not completed, you can exalt finishing anything as the ultimate virtue. Granted, following through on the right activities for your optimal development is critical.
But trying to finish everything can ultimately hinder your ability to get the most important projects done by diluting your focus and weighing you down psychologically and emotionally.
In The Dip, Seth Godin offers a great primer on strategic quitting. He explains the difference between “dips,” something really difficult but with the opportunity to be the best in the world on the other side, and “cul-de-sacs,” where continued time and effort leads you right back to the same spot.During my seven-plus years as a full-time entrepreneur, I’ve navigated quite a few professional dips and cul-de-sacs both for myself and with my time coaching clients. In this journey, I’ve discovered some of the most common cul-de-sacs that can trap creative professionals.
Here’s how to identify when quitting is the winning option:
If it’s supposed to be fun, but it’s not
Getting started—even on things you really want to do—can require a huge amount of effort. But if it’s the right investment of your time, you usually end up enjoying the process, feeling accomplished when you’re done, or at least appreciating the results. However, if you keep at an optional activity for a month or more and don’t experience any reward for your efforts, it may be time to call it quits. Just because you started something, doesn’t mean you have to finish it, especially when you took it on primarily as a source of fun and pleasure.
For Example: Stop attending classes, going to events, or practicing skills where you dread beginning them and at the end of doing them, you wish you hadn’t.
If more effort produces little value
If you’ve extracted the value you needed from a particular pursuit, spending additional energy on it can waste your time. In other words: the law of diminishing returns.
For Example: If you read what you needed to from a book or an article to complete the project at hand, you don’t need to pressure yourself to finish reading the rest simply because someone wrote it.
Stop practicing skills where you dread beginning them and at the end of doing them, you wish you hadn’t.
If short-term gains lead to long-term pains
Sometimes you need to go the extra mile and push yourself to the next level of achievement (the equivalent of some muscle soreness after a strenuous work out). But when your strivings lead to debilitating consequences, you’ll want to pull back to avoid burnout (the equivalent of serious, potentially life-long injury).
For Example: If you start to experience extreme physical consequences as a result of trying to complete a particular project, you may need to slow the pace or stop the work. Red flags of acute stress reaction include sleeplessness, constricted throat, agitation, depression, and panic anxiety.
If it’s no longer the most important task or project
Moment by moment, you need to make decisions about what’s most important now. In a perfectly controlled environment, you could decide on your priority, execute, and then move on to the next item. When completing your current project puts you at risk of not doing or completing something that’s now more important, you should stop or delay the previous item.
If it’s not worth the cost
Does this sound familiar?: “If I had known how long this would take, I never would have started.” When you encounter these sorts of scenarios, the emotional response is to feel that you must continue because of how much you’ve already put into the project. (In the financial world, they call this “sunk costs.”)
However the rational way to approach this scenario is to consider whether to quit in this way: “I have invested quite a bit of time and effort in this project. But now that it’s taking much longer than expected, is the value of completing this project worth the amount of the additional time needed to finish it?”
For Example: You initially decide that you would like to build a completely custom website because it would make you stand out from other designers that use a template. One month into the project, you realize that you haven’t even gotten your website to the point where a template would start it. You can decide to continue wrestle with the custom design. Or you can stop that approach, and pick a template to begin again because the greatest value is in having the website up—not in it being perfect.
How About You?
How do you know when it’s good to quit?
Are there times when you wish you had quit sooner?