Quitting well


I have a little team of bloggers that I consider my consultants when I’m working to develop my professional skills, especially in the areas of effectiveness in my work. Heidi Grant Halvorson of Columbia University is a member of that team. Her work focuses on the psychology of motivation–you can read her blog, The Science of Success, here. If you’d like to read one her books, I’d recommend Nine Things Successful People Do Differently (Harvard Business Review Press).

I recently read her Wall Street Journal piece, “Quit. Do it now.” Hers is a simple thesis: in order to do things excellently we have to limit the things we give our time, attention, and energy to. Simple and yet immensely challenging in an economy where workplaces often expect us to do more with less and in a society saturated with media that scream for our attention. 

Saying “no” is difficult. For that matter, hearing “no” is difficult too. Writes Halvorson,

So, why is it so hard to throw in the towel, even when on some level you know you should? For one thing, it’s embarrassing to admit to others that you’ve bitten off more than you can chew, or that you’ve made an error of judgment. No one likes to be thought of as a “quitter.” For another, quitting means contemplating the sunk costs – all the time and energy that you’ve already put into reaching your goal that you can never get back.

Each of these reasons is compelling not simply on the rational level, but in a visceral or emotional sense as well. What will they say? Will I regret the change? I’ve put so much time/energy/money into this…. I don’t need to rehearse all of the voices that speak in our minds as we contemplate quitting.

Halvorson offers a strategy for overcoming our internal “naysayers.” You can read the full list on her blog, but two key questions jumped out at me:

(a) What do I need to reach this goal, and can I get what I need? Look at the whole picture. If successfully reaching this goal means more time and effort than you can spare without sacrificing other important goals, you may need to walk away. (Maybe you can’t work 50 hours a week, spend time with your kids, and write that screenplay, and that’s OK.)
(b)Will reaching this goal cost me too much? Will it make me unhappy? Sometimes the problem isn’t limited time and energy, it’s that you really don’t like what you’re doing as much as you thought you would. You find the process of reaching the goal boring, frustrating, or unrewarding. Circumstances change, and it’s OK for your goals to change too.
Asking these questions and answering them honestly requires our time and dedicated attention. It also requires the counsel of others. Consider how our society tends to make all of these rather scarce resources. Could it be that the way we choose to structure our lives makes it difficult for us to live happily or contentedly? Could it be that our time famine and our shortage of deep friendships (especially friendships that are not mediated by technology) is depriving us a key resource for making decisions well and shaping our life in a way that will lead to greater fulfillment?
The answer to these questions is yes. My hope is that the church, as a counter-culture instituted and led by Christ, can be a force in nurturing deep friendships and coaching in the sort of spiritual disciplines that allow us to be present to self and to God in the midst of a chaotic world.
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