Perseverance: How to Know If It’s Time to Quit

Over the last two years, there has been a great buzz about 37-year-old tennis phenom Serena Williams.

Williams has 23 Grand Slam titles and a dominant career, ranked number one for 319 weeks over 15 years. In 2017, Williams gave birth to her first daughter. Many wondered how motherhood would affect her career. Would she return with the same fight? Would she return at all?

Williams roared back to the semi-final of the 2018 U.S. Open and quickly regained top 10 rankings. Fans worldwide were inspired by her courage and moved by her transparency about her struggles.

Faced with a Crossroads

In life, you will face discouragement, wondering, “Is it time to quit? Should I alter my path or press on through resistance?”

On one hand, redirecting can be wise, helping you avoid harm or consider better alternatives. Conversely, quitting might weaken your character or prevent you from realizing an achievement that’s closer than you think.

Walter Mallory, an associate of inventor Thomas Edison, was expressing regret that the first nine thousand experiments with a battery yielded few results. Edison had a different perspective:

“Results! Why, man, I have gotten a lot of results! I have found several thousand things that won’t work!”

To Fish or Cut Bait?

Politician Newt Gingrich said, “perseverance is the hard work you do after you get tired of doing the hard work you already did.”

Pressing on in a project can build character, enhance your skill set, and build confidence that can only come through trial. The best leaders are those who’ve been tested.

When tempted to quit, ask yourself whether other alternatives seem tangible or rewarding. Does a change seem realistic? Could you tweak certain variables to make a situation more bearable? Perhaps your moments of greatest discouragement are those when you’re actually closest to breakthrough!

But whoever said “quitters never win” may have been wrong. Quitting is scary, but sometimes continuing is worse. Stubbornness can destroy important relationships, blind you to better alternatives, or make you oblivious to your destruction. It might be time to quit when:

  • Continuing will destroy friendships, family, health, or your character
  • Despite loads of effort, you don’t see results
  • You find yourself growing numb to red flags
  • Proceeding may eliminate other options
  • You’ve lost all joy or energy

In 2010, Mexican golfer Lorena Ochoa shocked fans when she retired at 28. At that time, she was ranked number one in the world, a winner of two major championships and millions in prize money.

An impulsive decision? Ochoa says no. From early in her career, Ochoa wanted to marry and raise a family without golf, projecting about 10 years on the tour.

“ . . . For me, getting married and having a family, that was more important,” Ochoa said. “Now that I’m a mother, I wouldn’t change that for anything in the world and I feel blessed. I’m really, really happy that I made the decision at the right time and now I can enjoy 100% this second stage of my life.”

Looking back, Ochoa said knowing there was a definite “end” actually helped her game:

“When I was in a difficult position and I was either upset or tired or angry or disappointed, I keep saying, ‘OK, y’know I have three or four years left. I’m going to do it and continue and I’m going to put everything into it’ . . . When I look back and I see what I did, I just feel even luckier because I made the right decision at the perfect time.”

Ochoa’s courage may inspire you to think of it this way: perhaps it’s time to quit when saying no to the good means you can say YES to the best.

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Use Short Deadlines to Get Lasting Results

In a recent study published in the Journal of Consumer Research, scholars found that longer deadlines can be a detriment to workers.

The study asked volunteers at a local community center to answer a short survey about retirement planning. One group was given seven days to access the online survey, while another group had 14 days to respond. Results showed that, though the 14-day group gave more thoughtful responses, they were more likely to procrastinate or skip the assignment.

A second study revealed longer deadlines affected outcomes on tax filings. In this research, a short deadline group received their “lost” W-2 tax form later (closer to the filing deadline) and had less time to complete their taxes. Despite the setback, the short-deadline group spent less money than their peers to get the same job done via tax professionals or self-help software.

Beat Those “Last Mile” Blues

Do you struggle to take projects across the finish line in an efficient manner?

There’s a reason! Parkinson’s law states that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”

Longer deadlines lead people to set easier goals and decrease effort, costing more time and stress overall. Researchers also found that longer deadlines sometimes make workers think an assignment is harder than it is. When people commit more resources to a difficult task, they procrastinate and are more prone to quit.

For managers and workers alike, it is important to set achievable goals and appropriate time limits using four simple strategies.

Think Small

Procrastinators who avoid finishing struggle to break projects into manageable tasks.

To overcome this barrier, psychology professor Joseph Ferrari (author of Still Procrastinating: The No Regrets Guide to Getting It Done) recommends a narrow focus. “People who have trouble finishing a project don’t have problems seeing the big picture,” Ferrari said. “It’s how to break it into manageable tasks that can be paralyzing. Just do something now. Start something and get going.”

Starting small breaks your fear of failure and shortcuts perfectionistic hang-ups.

Stay Disciplined

Sometimes when the finish line is in sight people accelerate the pace but lose focus.

Discipline slips, which can lead to delays. Overriding budgetary constraints, ignoring quality control checks, or fast-tracking publications can bring painful consequences. Instead, stay on track with small deadlines to ensure work on larger projects is done in a timely, precise manner.  

Call in the Closers

Burnout and fatigue are genuine risks near the end of a project, and high-value contributors are often needed to airlift the next big project.

Consider deliberately structuring your team so starters take a project to 90 percent, while fresh eyes step in for the final spit-and-polish.

Use Incentives

When deadlines are distant, shift attention to everyday outcomes.

“Can you get that to me by the end of the day?” isn’t a request many people like to hear. But quick turnarounds can actually boost morale because lethargy breeds inertia but accomplishment spurs accomplishment.

From cash incentives to extra work-day coffee breaks, consider attaching small perks to fast-action deadlines. Self-starter rewards can work for yourself too. When writing her thesis, one grad student filled a glass jar with tantalizing chocolates. Throughout a year of writing, she rewarded herself with one truffle per week as she stayed on schedule. Progress was visible, and the rewards were sweet. When the jar was empty, the project was done!

Short turnarounds on urgent tasks elicit attention and improve outcomes. Whether you’re managing yourself or others, consider adding incentives, bringing in closers, or breaking large projects into daily deadlines to achieve better results.