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When it comes to holiday wishes, no one ever hopes for less. With the new year comes new plans, new resolutions, a whole new litany of wants and shoulds. But in the rush to build all these new intentions and commitments into our lives, we sometimes fail to acknowledge one simple truth — namely, that to make room for all these good new things, some other things are going to have to go.

After all, it’s pretty hard to transform your body, deepen your friendships,
up your volunteerism and start work on a novel when you’ve already got a dozen years’ worth of old commitments and activities elbowing each other for your precious time and energy.

This year, before you saddle yourself up with a whole load of new commitments, take some time to see what kinds of burdens you are carrying. Then ask yourself which satchels you can lighten, temporarily repack, or take off and set down for good.

If At First You Don’t Succeed…

Have you made one or more of the same New Year’s resolutions several years running and still not seen them come to fruition? There’s a good chance that you may already be spread too thin. Basically you’ve got two options: Give up on a particular resolution, at least for now, or give up (or lighten up) on something else in order to make room for this new priority in your life.

Often, when you’re trying but the effort isn’t paying off, the knee-jerk reaction is to just try harder. In our culture you’re supposed to never say die. There is always room to work more diligently, to dedicate more energy, to strengthen your resolve. But the fact remains that sometimes the best thing a person can do is to simply give up, to walk away, to do something you’re told you should never, ever do — and that’s quit.

Some call it “constructive quitting.” Others call it “clearing the deck,” or “releasing anchors.” Whatever you call it, it’s a concept that runs counter to everything most of us have ever been taught about success, and it’s one that personal coaches across the country think that more of their clients need to embrace.

“The popular belief is that if you quit something, then you have failed,” says Rhonda Hess, lead trainer for the Coach Training Alliance, a Colorado company that trains life, personal, executive and spiritual coaches. “Actually, in some circumstances, quitting can be the success, the real victory.”

Sometimes, of course, quitting is essential. Thankless jobs, abusive relationships and addictions are blatantly destructive to your health and well-being. But these are the easy calls.

Tougher to identify are those low-grade miseries, drainers and downers that don’t threaten to kill us, but that aren’t really making us any stronger, either. What personal coaches are discovering is that in cases like these, many clients need help pulling the plug. So, rather than relegating quitting to the status of last-resort solution, more coaches are now considering it an important skill, and doing their best to help overburdened clients develop and employ it to advantage.

Choosing Your Battles

Constructive quitting involves mastering two things. One is the art of identifying obligations, goals and energetic sink- holes that are costing you more than they are worth, or that are preventing you from doing something even more rewarding and important. The other is the art of canning those things before they morph into massive problems.

But therein lies the catch: In the absence of a serious crisis — when the decision you are facing is less life-and-death and more “fish or cut bait” — how can you be sure you are making the right choice about quitting?

Many life coaches insist that the secret to navigating such quandaries lies in having the faith, strength and chutzpah to “sacrifice the good for the best.” With so many good and important things vying for your attention, they say, it takes real discernment to remain true to your highest vision, and only your highest vision. (See sidebar below for some clarifying questions that might help you make the call.)

According to Hess, although there are lots of circumstances under which people may want to quit, the reasons they should quit generally fall into one of two categories: “Either they have committed to something they can’t continue giving resources to sustainably,” she says, “or they have outgrown something and they’re no longer getting enough juice from it.” Either way, she insists, “if they aren’t passionate about it any longer, in order to stay true to themselves, they have to let go of that obligation.”

Although getting this kind of blanket “permission to quit” may elicit a sigh of relief from some, for others it can be a bit hard to swallow. After all, there are always extenuating circumstances. It is the nature of certain passions to come and go with astonishing frequency. And besides, isn’t quitting, well — for quitters?

Hess acknowledges that in our culture, the stigma around quitting is deeply ingrained. As we grow up, we learn that success equals doing more, trying and pushing harder than the next guy, having it all, walking our talk. We come to acquaint not quitting — powering through — with success, progress and integrity.

Cantwell notes that even stronger than the cultural messages is the power of simple habit. Essentially, we get so used to being busy and stressed all the time that we don’t know how to do it away from that fate on any given day), it takes real focus to stay the course we’ve set for our own sanity.

Shameless Quitting

Bill Dueease is a former business coach and the president of the Coach Connection (, an online referral service that matches people with personal coaches. Dueease says that before you judge yourself a quitter in the traditional, negative sense, you have to look at what you’re quitting in the context of your whole life. You have to get to the bottom of why you do things in the first place.

“We all burden ourselves with projects and pressures — ‘shoulds’ and guilts that we feel because they are imposed on us by other people,” he says. “So many of us are so busy, so active, and yet we’re not getting anywhere because we’re chasing things we don’t really want, but rather, things that are expected of us.”

Cantwell cautions, however, that giving yourself permission to quit is not license to abdicate all of your responsibilities to others. “If you are part of a family, you have to look at your commitments in that context,” she says.

Sometimes that water is murky. You may be committed to a job that allows you to live at a certain economic level but that leaves you (and as a result, your family) stressed out and Cantwell notes, however, that there are certain aspects of your personal life that are nonnegotiable. Health and fitness are two of them. Many people give up their nutrition and fitness routines to take care of other obligations. Not a good idea, says Cantwell. “If it has to do with your health,” she says, “then the most unselfish thing you can do is to eat right and exercise.” It’s the same principle as getting your own oxygen mask on before assisting others: If you’re blue and gasping for breath, you’re not going to be much use to anybody.

Beyond taking care of yourself and your basic needs, though, everything else comes down to value judgments. Cantwell suggests that you periodically examine your entire life in terms of what can change and what can’t, what you want to do and what you don’t. It may seem absurd to ask yourself such obvious questions, she notes, but if you don’t ask, you’ll never really know the true answers.

For those not into such probing self-examination, Bill Dueease offers a shortcut: “If doing something makes your stomach turn, then don’t do it,” he says bluntly.

“If there is a conflict between your inner values and your external pressures,” Dueease explains, “you’ll feel a tightening in your stomach.” What to do? “You don’t need therapy to fix it,” he says. “You don’t need counseling.” Instead, he suggests, it’s time to realize that there are probably some things you’ve been told or some values you’ve been sold “that fit somebody else’s view of the world.” That stomach churning is your body telling you that something about that particular reality no longer computes. If you’re smart, says Dueease, you’ll take the cue.

Factoring Values

The most important message that all these coaches deliver is that you’ll do best by living your life with integrity. Most of the misery we feel, they say, comes from the friction between what our hearts tell us we want to do and what our minds tell us we should do.

Constructive quitting isn’t carte blanche to run off and join the circus, but the “to quit or not to quit?” question does provide a useful way of investigating your values.

In fact, a quitting quandary may emerge in your life in order to help you re-evaluate
priorities you’ve outgrown — priorities that may be confusing or costing you in other areas of your life as well.

One useful exercise is to write down what is important to you (and to your family, if you have one). Then look at the various things you are doing with an eye to whether or not they support those goals and values.

The harder part, of course, is when you realize that the thing that needs quitting is a major part of your life. “Quitting your job is often the hardest one,” says Rhonda Hess. “People are afraid they may not be able to find a job that will sustain them.” They may also have feelings of loyalty that prevent them from considering alternatives, she points out, and all of these feelings may have merit. That’s why it’s important to invest time and energy in an alternate vision — to imagine something you can enthusiastically move toward rather than simply moving away without a clear sense of direction.

The Wheat From the Chaff

Sometimes it’s hard to identify what to quit because it’s tied up in responsibilities or commitments that are otherwise good. Bill Dueease tells the story of a client who felt she had to get up every morning at 5 a.m. to read sales instruction books and listen to motivational tapes. “She felt obligated to go to every sales seminar known to man,” says Dueease.

The woman sat down with a personal coach who asked her what she was gaining from all this effort. “That is when she got released from having to go through all those motions,” says Dueease. “Instead of getting up at 5 a.m. to read sales literature, she went to a gym and started working on her own body. Her sales figures came up because she was relaxed and she let her natural nonpressured talents come through. The best part: she worked half as hard at it.”

Say to yourself, ‘I’ve grown out of this job, but look at all I’ve learned from the experience’ — so you’re not running from the thing, but rather consciously leaving it behind.”

A personal or life coach can help you talk through the process of picking what to quit, but it’s also something you can do yourself. The most important thing to keep in mind is to never quit without good reason. “The first thing is to get clear about where you’re going, and what it is you want instead,” says Hess. “The other important thing is to honor what you’ve had. Honor what you’ve received from the activity, person or commitment you’re letting go. If it’s a job, be grateful for it. Say to yourself, ‘I’ve grown out of this job, but look at all I’ve learned from the experience’ — so you’re not running from the thing, but rather consciously leaving it behind.”

“There is a big difference between quitting reactively and quitting responsibly,” agrees Dueease. “If individuals take full responsibility for their life and decisions, then they are not quit- ting, they’re taking charge. The people who act irresponsibly are the ones who continue doing whatever everyone wants them to do because they won’t fully own their own choices and actions. When they let other people drive their life, they quit on themselves.”

Dueease notes that many of his clients begin the constructive-quitting process afraid they will make the wrong choice — that by listening to their instincts they will go down the wrong path. Dueease says that while the end results of constructive quitting can be surprising, they are invariably positive. “When people decide to follow their own intuition,” he says, “they always do good things.”

Off the Fence, On With Your Life!

If you’re teetering on the line about quitting something, here are some questions to ask yourself:

  • Is it inspiring and/or energizing to you?
  • Do you enjoy the results it brings or the promise it offers?
  • Does it represent you well and speak for the person you choose to be?
  • Does it support your values and the life you are choosing to lead?
  • Does it fulfill another commitment in which you are deeply (and contentedly) invested?
  • Is this the right and/or only time in your life for this thing, or is it possible that a more appropriate time will come?
  • Is the problem what you are doing or how you are doing it? Is it something you could trade or delegate?
  • Is it the best use of your time and energy right now? Would something else be better?
  • What would be necessary for you to do it enthusiastically?
  • Are you clear about why you made the commitment in the first place and what — internally or externally — has changed or become a “deal-breaker”?
  • If this thing was gone from your life, what would the impact be? How would you commit your time and energy differently?
  • What indirect costs and benefits deserve consideration? Whose input deserves to be heard?
  • Will you be able to own and make peace with your deci- sion even if other people disapprove or criticize? Do you have a support system in place?
  • If you are committed to moving away from this, what are you moving toward? (Hint: answers like “time to relax and take care of myself” and “a more balanced life” are okay as long as they represent value-driven commit- ments and not vague promises on which you’ve no plan to follow through.)
  • If you are committed to continuing, are you clear about what the desired outcome or eventual endpoint is? Would you feel better about continuing if you had a clearer sense of those things?
  • What does your gut tell you? How do you feel in your body when you think about quitting vs. keeping on?
  • What is the most courageous, honest, highest-integrity decision you could make?

This article originally appeared as “Quitting” in the January/February 2003 issue of Experience Life.

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