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The Counterintuitive Reason You Need To Quit More Things Earlier

We’re always told to persist, but sometimes the smartest thing to do is quit early.

The Counterintuitive Reason You Need To Quit More Things Earlier
[Photo: Yuji Sakai/Getty Images]

Spencer Glendon is a very impressive guy. He was a Fulbright Scholar, earned a PhD in economics from Harvard, helped charities on the South Side of Chicago, and is currently a partner at one of the biggest money management funds in Massachusetts.

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While doing these things, he was almost always extremely ill. In high school, Glendon suffered from chronic ulcerative colitis. This led to serious liver problems, and eventually to a weakened immune system. For Glendon, there was no negotiating with his body. It would fail him and he would be bedridden again. Sounds awful, but as he likes to say, “I’ve had what I think of as the good fortune to be physically compromised almost through my entire life.”

Glendon couldn’t live life like his peers, but that didn’t mean he had to be miserable. In fact, a big source of his persistence in the face of such health troubles–and of his success overall–was Glendon’s readiness to quit.

Grit Needs Limits

Early on, Glendon’s therapist told him to focus on accomplishing one thing a day. If he could do just that one thing, he could feel good about himself. His energy was limited, but if he focused on just one thing, he could still do some of what he wanted. So that’s what he did.

Sometimes it was just making dinner. If he could cook dinner that night he would have accomplished something. He had to quit a lot of activities, but he could still achieve one thing. He would do the one thing that day, and one thing the next, and the next. Now, when he’s at his sickest, Glendon still makes dinner.

Coming to terms with his illness taught him something that almost all of us overlook: Everything we do in life is a trade-off. There was no way for Glendon to say, “I want to do this” without also saying, “And I’m willing to give that up to do it.”

We don’t like to think about limits, but we all have them. While grit is often about stories, quitting is often an issue of limits–pushing them, optimizing them, and most of all, knowing them. Glendon could not deny or ignore his. He was forced to acknowledge trade-offs and focus his little energy on the things that mattered–and to quit doing everything else.


Related: Your New Job Is A Nightmare But You Can Still Quit And Save Your Career 

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“Quit” doesn’t have to be the opposite of “grit.” This is where “strategic quitting” comes in. Once you’ve found something you’re passionate about, quitting secondary things can be an advantage, because it frees up time to do that number-one thing.

Quit With Intention–And Before You Burn Out

We all quit, but we often don’t make an explicit, intentional decision to quit. We wait for graduation or Mom to tell us to stop or we get bored. We fear missing opportunities, but the irony is by not quitting unproductive things ASAP we are missing the opportunity to do more of what matters or try more things that might.

They say time equals money, but they’re wrong. When researchers Gal Zauberman and John Lynch asked people to think about how much time and how much money they’d have in the future, the results didn’t add up. We’re consistently conservative about predicting how much extra cash we’ll have in our wallets, but when it comes to time, we always think there will be more tomorrow. Or next week. Or next year.

That’s one of the reasons we all feel so rushed, so tired, and like we’re not getting enough done or making enough progress. We all have only 24 hours in a day. Every day. If we use an hour for this, we’re not using it for that. But we act like there are no limits.


Related: 5 Myths About Burnout 


When we choose an extra hour at work, we are, in effect, choosing one less hour with our kids. We can’t do it all and do it well. And there will not be more time later. Time does not equal money, because we can get more money. We hear story after story of the great and powerful who persisted and won. Not too many stories get passed along about the great quitters of history. If persistence works so well, do successful people in the real world ever quit?

Pick One Thing To Quit Tomorrow

Jim Collins, author of Good to Great, did an exhaustive study of companies that turned themselves around and went from disappointments to huge successes. What he found was that most of the big changes they made weren’t about new initiatives but about the bad things they needed to stop doing.

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When we hear about the 10,000 hours of deliberate practice that experts perform to become great, that number seems overwhelming. But it all starts to click once you realize how many other activities successful people are discarding in order to free up more time for improvement. It’s no surprise that hours matter.

Merely knowing how many hours a student spent studying in college is predictive of how much money they make later in life. That’s not a huge surprise, but they could have been partying, they could have been doing extracurricular activities. They made a choice, conscious or not. Once you get into the working world, it’s not all that different.

Think of it this way: If you practice something one hour a day, that’s 27.4 years to reach the 10,000-hour mark of expertise. But what if you quit a few less important things and made it four hours a day? Now it’s 6.8 years. That’s the difference between starting something at twenty and being an expert when you’re 47 and starting at 20 and being world-class at 27.

So what’s the first step? Know your number-one priority. Then start quitting stuff that isn’t as important, and see what happens. You’ll learn really fast if something really is more essential than you thought.


This article is adapted from Barking Up The Wrong Tree: The Surprising Science Behind Why Everything You Know About Success Is (Mostly) Wrong by Eric Barker. It is reprinted with permission by HarperOne, a division of HarperCollinsPublishers.

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