Knowing When To Cut Your Losses and Call It Quits

Have you ever started a project or activity, ground away at it for hours/weeks/years, and wanted to just give up? Sometimes, you know you need to push past temporary difficulties or discomfort in order to get where you want to be. But sometimes, you feel as though you’re chasing after a worthless goal or outcome. Your interest and enthusiasm have hit rock-bottom, and you just want out.

What’s probably stopping you, though, is the time, money or energy you’ve already invested in this activity. It might be something quite trivial:
•    You’ve read 100 pages of this (very tedious) novel: you might as well finish it.
•    You bought a packet of not-so-great cookies, but you don’t want to waste the money, so you decide to eat them all
•    You started writing a poem which you’re not getting anywhere with. You’ve spent three hours on it, and you feel like it would be a waste of time to give up now.

Or your activity might be something huge – something where quitting it would mean quite a big change in your life:
•    You’ve been following a particular career path for six years, and you’re increasingly feeling that it’s “not you”.
•    Your relationship with your boyfriend/girlfriend has been deteriorating for some time, but you’ve been together for three years.
•    You’ve spent most evenings for the past four years playing World of Warcraft, but you’re starting to lose interest in the game – and you’re wishing you had all those hours back.
•    For seven years, you’ve been writing a novel. The feedback from writing friends is … polite, at best. Re-reading it, you’re not sure it’s so great yourself. You’re also sick of working on it. But you don’t want to lose all the time you’ve put in…
•    You’ve been spending a small fortune on vitamin pills and dietary supplements. But you’re not noticing any real difference after six months, and a nutritionist friend says you really don’t need them. You think of giving up – but then you’d be admitting that you’ve wasted hundreds of dollars.

Whether your activity is a trivial one or a huge one, don’t stick with it because of the time or money you’ve already put in. That time/money is gone: you’ll never have it back. What you can recover, though, is the future time or money you’d otherwise be spending on something you don’t really want.

Quit Leisure Activities That Are No Longer Fun

As a teen, I spent several hours every day playing a small online role playing game. When I eventually realised that the game had become less engaging (lots of players had left) and that I’d grown and moved onto new interests, I was reluctant to quit. I felt that I’d spent a lot of my life on the game – and stopping playing would mean that time was wasted.

What I realised, though, was that there was no point wasting more time. The best time to quit is when you realise you’re not gaining enough from something to justify the time/cash that you’re putting into it, and that the situation is never going to improve.

Your interests naturally change over time, and sometimes, a shift in circumstances can mean that something formerly fun becomes boring. Don’t get tied into things just because you’ve done them for a long time in the past: you’re allowed to quit at any time. If you’ve watched three seasons of a TV show and you’re bored, don’t make yourself watch the fourth “just because I’ve got this far”. If you read half a novel and it’s a monumental effort to keep going, just stop.

Leave A Dead-End (For You) Job

Tim Ferriss tells a great story in The Four-Hour Work Week, which describes the unsuccessful attempt to create a large carb-free cheesecake – and the subsequent consumption of the cake:

“This new masterpiece … tasted like liquid cream cheese mixed with cold water and about 600 packets of sugar. … I grabbed the largest soup ladel with a sigh … I had wasted an entire Sunday and a boatload of ingredients – it was time to reap what I had sown.
… Stupid? Of course. It’s about as stupid as one can get. This is a ridiculous and micro example of what people do on a larger scale with jobs all the time: self-imposed suffering that can be avoided.

(Tim Ferriss, The Four-Hour Work Week, pg 226)

Perhaps you jumped straight into a job after college and belatedly realised it wasn’t really for you. Whether this realisation comes after a month, a year or half a lifetime, it’s okay to quit. Don’t carry on making yourself miserable just because you feel like all that past misery would be wasted otherwise!

Make yourself, and yourself alone, the judge of what constitutes a “dead end” job for you. You might have plenty of opportunities for promotion within your workplace – but if none of those higher positions interest you, it’s time to get out.

Nothing Is Wasted

Something I find quite comforting when cutting my losses and ditching an activity is to remember that nothing is wasted.  You can always draw something good out:

A leisure activity that you now dismiss as escapism and a waste of time may have helped you through a difficult period in your life.

A relationship that didn’t work out will have shown you something about yourself.
A job that is going nowhere for you will have taught you some useful skills. These might not be directly related to the actual work: one of the most useful things I learnt as an employee was to get over my dislike of answering the phone!

New friends and contacts will probably have come into your life during your activity. Today, I have close friends who I initially met through playing the online game that I quit years ago. I’m still in touch with colleagues from my former job.

At the very least, you’ll have learnt something about yourself. Maybe your failed attempt at freelancing has taught you that you need the structure of an office environment in order to work effectively. Perhaps all those unfinished novels have convinced you that you’re never going to enjoy historical fiction, however often your friends recommend it.

What activities are you currently engaged in that you want to quit? Why are you sticking with them – is it because you really will gain something at the end, or out of a misguided sense that you don’t want to lose the time/money already invested?


Erin shows overscheduled, overwhelmed women how to do less so that they can achieve more. Traditional productivity books—written by men—barely touch the tangle of cultural pressures that women feel when facing down a to-do list. How to Get Sh*t Done will teach you how to zero in on the three areas of your life where you want to excel, and then it will show you how to off-load, outsource, or just stop giving a damn about the rest.

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