Essays on Technology and Culture

Know What to Quit, and When

Deciding to blog daily comes with a cost. It’s another thing on top of a job, a personal life, a social life and a podcast. I knew I had to quit something to make it all work. So, I quit my novel. Maybe I’ll take it up again, in time, but quitting the damn thing was the best choice I could make. Without the huge, unfinished, nebulous project of a long-form piece of fiction hanging over my head, I freed up a great deal of mental energy better spent on projects with a more concrete deadline and payoff. Like this one.

Sometimes, you have to quit. In my own experience, knowing when it’s time to quit comes well after the actual time to quit. I started work on my novel in December of 2008. At last check, it clocked in at about 40,000 words of incomplete first draft. It’s been a sporadic process of inspiration, manic typing, burnout, recovery, inspiration, manic typing, burnout… and diminishing returns. If its not going to get done any time soon, and I don’t want to do it any more, why even think about it? Dump it.

Quitting things is far too often seen as a failure, unless you’re talking about quitting something that is obviously bad for you like binge drinking, or heroin. Even then, the folks who still do those bad things will likely look at you with scorn. Writing a novel isn’t like doing heroin, but it’s damaging in its own way. As Dorothy Parker said, “If you have any young friends who aspire to become writers, the second greatest favor you can do them is to present them with copies of The Elements of Style. The first greatest, of course, is to shoot them now, while they’re happy.” She should know.

The reason we associate quitters with failure is that quitting is often seen as, like failure, a permanent state. We tend to associate quitting as a concept with things like walking off the job or dropping out of school. Rare is the company that’ll rehire you after quitting, even on the best of terms, and we know what happens to kids who drop out of school. Even though the culture is filled with stories of quitters who go back and pick up where they left off, we view them as outliers, and question their plausibly. How many times has Homer Simpson quit the power plant, anyway?

If you’re looking to quit a project, know that it doesn’t have to be permanent. You can start it again when you’re ready—if you’re ready. There’s a lot to be said for commitment, but as much as that’s valued, quitting should be valued as well. It’s another form of commitment, re-evaluating your life and focusing on a new priority. For me, it’s daily writing for an audience. For you, maybe you should quit your blog and write a novel. Maybe quit designing websites and learn iOS programming. Quit basketball, and take up baseball—or not. If the returns of what you’re doing are diminishing, dropping it for another thing may be the ticket. If it doesn’t work, you can try your old thing again with renewed vigor. What do you have to lose?