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Art of Quitting Book Cover

A Talk with Alan Bernstein, LCSW, Co-author of Mastering the Art of Quitting

Art of Quitting Book CoverIn our culture, quitting anything other than a bad habit has a negative connotation—but you argue that quitting is positive. What are some situations in which quitting is beneficial?

Rumination and self-doubt can be physically exhausting. If you find yourself in an endless loop hoping for a positive outcome, it’s likely you’re operating in an energy deficit. Prolonged periods can impact your health. So, watch your moods and physical sense of well-being; are you routinely exhausted? Unable to enjoy activities other than prescribed ones? If so, you may be in a locked situation where you should consider whether quitting is a healthier choice. This doesn’t just apply to your habits—you can quit a job, a relationship, or even a hobby that no longer fulfills you.

Why does quitting have to be learned?

We’re primed toward optimism, and culturally speaking we admire stick-to-itiveness. Quitting should be an equal opportunity choice, and choosing to quit is not instinctive. We have to train ourselves away from the unconscious associations that quitting is for losers and a sign of weakness.

Are some people naturally better at quitting than others? What makes a person oriented toward approach or avoidance?

Oddly enough, pessimists may have an edge in judging the likely outcomes of situations. Optimists by and large overestimate their likelihood of success and their predictions exaggerate toward positive outcomes. As to questions of “approach” or “avoidance,” the tendency towards that psychological tilt is usually established early in life. Some of your approach may be genetic, of course, and part of your character make-up, but many tendencies may come from either integrating a parent’s style or the subtle rewards we received for following their approval. If you had been encouraged to try options where you might fail—like applying to a top tier college, for example—you may be biased toward “approach.” If, on the other hand, you fear the consequences of rejection and stick to “safe” schools, you may have an avoidance temperament. These tendencies usually radiate into other areas of life as well, encouraging some people to constantly expand their social circle while others are only comfortable with old friends. We can train ourselves to recognize these biases and allow for their unconscious persistence.

What are the factors that encourage people to persist?

Some factors are genetic and psychological as mentioned above, and others are moral and societal. Culturally speaking, most advanced societies treasure the notion of improvement and mastery. Quitting interrupts that trope and forces us to evaluate our self-worth at a primal level: are we failures? Do we lack the moral fiber to experience discomfort and maintain our position in life? Are we doomed to an ongoing series of failures and disruptions? The anxieties and fears raised by these associations may keep people locked into relationships or careers that are, in fact, troubling to their mental and physical well-being.

How can people tell it’s time to quit?

There is no single answer to that question. The first order of business is to examine the underlying issues which support the status quo. How prevalent is your anxiety about losing respect from key people in your life? How impacted will you be by the concern that you have labeled yourself a “quitter”? Once you have established some equanimity about these questions, you can go on to evaluate the choice from the perspective of a value proposition—what are you getting vs. what are you giving up? Our book takes you through the research of “choice” so you’re less likely to operate off unconscious biases and more likely to operate with a conscious sense of opportunity.

What are the basic steps to quitting successfully?

We have a number of different tables in the book which may help you decide your quitting style. It’s important to know the biases in your particular make-up that may orient you toward getting stuck or lurching precipitously toward the exit. Once you have established the possible tendencies in your personal psychological construct, you are more likely to review options based on their current and potential future outcomes. Our book is not a “how-to” manual; rather, it helps you understand through current research what the potential biases and blind-spots in your thinking may be and then how to form long and short-term goals to move your decision-making forward with a conscious sense of choice.

How should people manage the thoughts and emotions associated with quitting, especially regret?

There is no ultimate screen against regret, though some people charge ahead trailing less doubt and replay than others. In order to use regret to keep you focused on how to succeed next time instead of letting it keep you stuck in the past, you should think about how your regrets relate to the goals you want—instead of defending the decision you regret, putting off new decisions, or transferring blame to others. I also encourage people to operate with some time-limits on their “pity party”—such as taking a half hour for “why me” thinking—as needed– and then moving ahead with your next plan.

What is incomplete quitting?

Incomplete quitting, at least on the surface, often looks like a person disengaging from an unproductive goal, but it often leaves in place the mechanisms and motivations for persisting with it in the first place, preventing the person from moving forward towards new goals. A person could temporarily sever a relationship, or suggest a new course of action, but not stick with their new resolutions and fall back on existing patterns—or even just threaten to, and never follow through at all. Whatever shapes it takes, incomplete quitting is marked by an inability to disengage.

If the regret loop keeps replaying and seems out of control, shadowing your capacity to move ahead with plans, you’re likely caught in an incomplete quitting cycle. In the book, we have an example of a highly qualified person who kept reminding his friends and interviewers what a “mistake” he’d made in his career choice and what a hash he’d made of his young life. He had not organized himself to move ahead in new directions and >was <cueing his audience to see him as a “quitter.” Not surprisingly, until he was able to acknowledge his self-doubt he >was< unable to develop new pathways.

Quitting is a prime opportunity for reframing a situation, imagining new possibilities, and reinventing yourself. How should people establish new goals to move them in a better direction?

The most likely source of encouraging success in new directions is actually writing down goals, creating objectives to get to those goals and establishing workable timelines. All these can be modified or even eradicated as you move forward in your planning, but the act of committing your future plans to an organized series of thoughts and timetables seems to be a key factor in releasing yourself from rumination, stuck thinking and self-blame. The transition from past analysis to future planning seems to reorient the psyche, though as I mentioned some time should be reserved to “what-ifs” and self-doubt.

Instead of sayings like “winners never quit and quitters never win” and “no one likes a quitter,” what saying about quitting would you suggest society adopt instead?

Review your options and remind yourself: the creative life involves constant choice. No single maxim should control the decision-making process.

Peg Streep and Alan Bernstein, LCSW

Find out why the happiest, most successful people have the ability both to persist and to quit.  You can also read the New York Times review here!