In our competitive culture, we admire those who persevere in the face of adversity. We root for the underdog who overcomes insurmountable odds to come out on top. Many of us also put a high value on perseverance in terms of our personal goals, striving to emulate cultural icons like Rock Balboa, J.K. Rowling or Steve Jobs who fought their way to success through determination and hard work.

No one wants to be thought of as a quitter, but are there times when it makes more sense to admit that a goal is unattainable and give up?

Or is it good for one’s mental health and sense of well being to keep on trying?

Researchers who study the psychology of quitting have examined the link between long-term persistence and both mental and physical health. Psychologists Carsten Wrosch and Gregory Miller performed a series of experiments that tested two personality types that they call Bulldogs and Quitters. They describe Bulldogs as relentless by nature while Quitter’s are more accepting of life’s ups and downs. The researchers found that Bulldogs are more likely to suffer from stress-related illnesses including skin disorders, indigestion and insomnia. Their stress hormones are more likely to be at abnormal levels, indicating a state of chronic stress. Instead of being a good thing, their tenacity makes them susceptible to long-term health problems like diabetes and heart disease.

Perhaps the most interesting thing revealed by Wrosch’s and Miller’s personality tests is that people who re-engage and set new goals after giving up on an important goal have a greater sense of purpose in life and are less likely to spend time worrying about the past. This is true for both Bulldogs and Quitters – setting new goals lessens the emotional impact of failure, especially for those who have a hard time accepting defeat.

Stephen J. Dubner, New York Times journalist and co-author of the 2005 best-selling book Freakonomics, recently commented on his public radio show about the benefits of quitting when the time is right. According to Dubner, we tend to delude ourselves into thinking that good things will always happened to us. This often influences our decision about whether or not to quit working toward a life-changing goal. Dubner sees the conflict in terms of two economic concepts: sunk costs and opportunity costs. We think we shouldn’t quit because of the time and effort we’ve sunk into the goal, and we don’t consider the opportunities we’re missing out on. Dubner believes that by ignoring sunk costs and focusing on opportunity costs, we’ll find it easier to make the right decision when it comes to quitting.

These are some of the signs that it may be time to throw in the towel and call it quits:

  • Sunk cost. Are you sticking with your goal because you’ve sunk a lot of time or money into it? Maybe it’s time to cut your losses and quit.
  • Opportunity cost. Could the time and money you’re spending on your goal be better spent elsewhere?
  • Energy drain. Is working towards your goal lowering your energy level instead of boosting it?
  • There’s no end in sight. If you’ve hit a plateau or feel that you’re going around in circles, then you’re probably stalled and may not ever move forward.
  • Your priorities have changed. A dream that you held dear 5 or 10 years ago may have lost its meaning in your present life.
  • Your heart’s not in it. Do you feel deep down that it’s time to quit? This could be your subconscious mind trying to send you a message.

Despite the pervasive message in our culture that winning is everything, it’s important to recognize when a goal is unattainable, even with hard work. According to Miller, “Our take is that persistence is good, but there are times when the most adaptive thing is to say, ‘This goal is not going to work out.’ ” The most difficult part of determining if you should rethink your goals is the term “unattainable.” Each of us must decide on our own if our goals are attainable, whether the timing is right to quit, and what our next goals will be. Recognizing the tipping point for quitting is, according to Miller, “the million dollar question.”

Perhaps it was W.C. Fields who best summed up the psychology of quitting when he quipped…

“If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Then quit.
There’s no point in being a damn fool about it.”

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