Why We Quit

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I’ve recently started running again after having been forced to take a four-month break by an injured knee.  This turned out to be a long enough hiatus to decondition me, so for the first few weeks I found running my usual four-mile route tremendously hard.  I would start out strong, but by the last mile I’d be dragging:  my legs seeming to thicken, my breath coming in ragged gasps, my energy waning, my body’s weight seeming to increase several-fold.  But I’d force myself on knowing that only by completing my route would I be able to re-establish a level of aerobic fitness that would make running four miles as enjoyable as it used to be.

Except that, for the first few weeks, somewhere around three and three quarter miles, I’d stop.  At the start of my runs I’d manage to get into a good rhythm, a good stride, and send my mind off to the places it tends to go, managing the discomfort pretty well—until I rounded the last corner of the large loop I take around downtown Chicago.  Then I’d notice something curious:  my mind would return from wherever it had gone and begin to think about finishing the run, projecting itself forward several city blocks to where my route ended.  And then I’d abruptly find myself wanting desperately to stop.  And usually, I would.

Once I’d begun to think about the end of my run, reaching the end of my run—and therefore the end of my pain—was all I could think about.  The idea that my pain was about to end became so enticing that my ability to withstand it dramatically declined.

Of course, the amount of pain I was feeling at that moment was no worse than the amount I’d felt the moment before.  What changed was my ability to handle it.  Why?  Because when my mind started to visualize the end of the run, it shifted from managing the pain my body was feeling to preparing for it to end.  And in preparing for it to end, its ability to resist the influence of that pain rapidly fell apart.

I think this sequence occurs often in other areas of life as well.  From the moment we embark on any endeavor numerous reasons immediately present themselves that push us to quit (e.g., fear of failure, fear of success, laziness, failing to believe in ourselves, etc.).  One way of thinking about why we don’t quit is that other, more powerful motivations to keep going command our attention more (e.g., the desire to improve our level of fitness or reduce our level of fatness).  The idea to quit remains present in our minds as long as reasons to quit exist, but the likelihood that we will quit only increases when we start to pay attention to them.

We don’t end up quitting because we find ourselves facing too many obstacles or obstacles that are too strong.  We end up quitting because we’re too weak.  I firmly believe, however, the inflection point at which we can no longer avoid paying attention to the idea of quitting—that is, the point at which our strength fails us—can be changed.  We can become stronger by challenging our weakness even if at first we don’t succeed.  Increasing resilience, both mental and physical, is an arduous process that’s rarely linear.  That is, it’s a process filled with stops and starts, periods of progress and periods of regression.

I quit running before I finished my route many mornings at first.  But the benefit of the effort I made in running up to the point I quit weren’t nullified by my quitting.  Those efforts strengthened me enough over time that eventually I became capable of meeting my goal consistently, i.e., reached my previous level of fitness.  But only because I didn’t allow my quitting on any one day to stop me from going back out the next.

This same principle applies any time we make an effort to break new ground in any arena.  The key to success is simply to keep coming back for more—even if you quit short of your goal several times over—until you find yourself strong enough not to give in when your body or your mind are telling you to.  Just because you do quit—even a hundred times in a row—the experiences you have up until the various points at which you do are the very things that develop the resilience you need to win in the end.  What if you need to fail a hundred times to gain the ability to succeed on the 101st?

The risk of becoming grounded in self-defeating thoughts when you’re defeated by yourself (i.e., you choose to give up), we should note, is far greater than when you’re defeated by something else .  It may very well be psychologically easier to get yourself to try again in the latter case than in the former because in the former you’re far more likely to buy into a narrative that defines you as a quitter and therefore undeserving of success.

But this is a false narrative.  Even if you failed because you chose to give up, you can still try again.  You must constantly remind yourself that having tried at all has increased your chances of ignoring the voices in your head urging you to quit the next time.  Always remember, the key to victory is strength, and the key to developing strength is trying again, no matter what the reason you failed before.

Next WeekRedemption

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  • This is a really encouraging post, but I just have to ask, as someone who runs, if maybe it was GOOD to stop at 3 3/4 miles for a bit at the beginning?

  • Alex,
    The title should be Why We Never Quit. We should each time challenge the situation with daimoku—Nam myoho-renge-kyo (if you practice SGI Buddhism). I can assure you that you will be able to grow as a person and end up happy and creative. This has been proven again and again through my experience.

  • I LOVED running. (An injury prevents me now.) But what I loved about it was the absence of goals. I ran regularly and got faster and stronger for it, but whenever a goal was put before me, the pleasure and the performance was drained from the experience. My question is, how to transfer this “goalless” strategy of mine to a professional arena. Everyone I work for demands I set goals. They insist upon them, and it sucks the pleasure right out of what I would otherwise enjoy. Do any of you share this trait with me? Have you devised a good work-around?

  • Alex,

    Very timely post, for I am in exactly the same situation. Well, my deconditioning was self-inflicted, because I just chose to take a break. But the end result is the same.

    More interesting to me has been my failure to “push myself” past the point of fatigue, which often is where the real strength building comes.

    I find it’s easier to do so with others (group motivation), but still, I’m interested by my lack of willingness to inflict additional discomfort on my body.

    I appreciate your assessment that the most important step, however, is to just show up the next day. Quitting “in the small” can be overcome tomorrow. But quitting “in the large” (never coming back) will result in a failure to meet your goals.

    So here’s to perseverance, I guess, while I wrestle with what it takes to push myself further each day.

  • There seems to be another factor involved in this process. Quitting when running, for instance, is a form of gratification. By not quitting one is delaying gratification. I read an article (“Don’t!” by Jonah Lehrer) the other day where they explain how delaying gratification can be more easily achieved by “distracting” ourselves. Which is exactly what you are doing when thinking of various things when running but NOT thinking about the end of the run. It seems so counterintuitive because we are always told to focus on the goal…

    Maria: You’ve got it exactly right, I think.


  • Thank you. You have no idea how much I needed to read this. I usually have the opposite problem in that once I’ve made up my mind to do something, I can’t quit until I’ve done it, even when not doing so is harming me. But at the moment I am doing something I find terrifying and for some reason, my usual ability to push myself through any fear has been replaced by a repeated freezing up with terror every time. I keep going back but it is incredibly hard and so far I have only managed tiny amounts, way short of even the smallest goals I set myself. I hadn’t been looking at this as any kind of achievement or step toward something; I’d been seeing it all as a failure, and myself also…but I keep turning up, and maybe that’s not nothing.

    Hazel: Far from not nothing. Quite a bit of something.


  • I have often wondered about this! It has always seemed strange that I can be close to being finished with something, and then suddenly can’t deal with the last bit. I’ve beaten myself up about that on more than one occasion; you’re right that the self-defeating thoughts take hold easier when you quit on your own. So the answer is “just try again”? I wonder whether that’s enough. Sometimes it seems like (using your running example) if I decide to make it to Tree X but stop short at Tree Y that the next time it may even be harder to reach Tree Y. Or is something else going on there?

    Catrien: I do think more is going on. I think it has to do with our goals and reasons for running in the first place. And whether or not we like to continually challenge ourselves to accomplish more, to grow, or become satisfied in certain arenas with standing still. I’m not arguing the latter is necessarily bad, just that if you’re struggling with the former, the key, as a previous commenter noted, is not “quitting in the large.”


  • So once again it’s about my mind—specifically, how I direct my attention towards what I want/can do, resulting in what I actually shall and be able to do…

    Thank you for the post, it’s a good start of the week!


  • Don,

    Regarding your question on applying this to a professional arena: I am in a similar situation. I love what I do, but I have a big (annual) deadline for completing a report on my work. My projects are large, and finishing them within a year is sometimes hard, causing me a lot of stress as the deadline approaches. I deal with this (and enjoy the work) by setting my own short-term and intermediate goals along the way. Because they are MINE, I can motivate myself to accomplish them. I think this advice is similar to what Maria said: ignore the ultimate goal and focus on the work. Until the final months before my deadline, I find that this works well. When crunch-time hits, I focus as much as I can only on what needs to be done each day, even though by now I can’t ignore the looming deadline.


  • I can totally relate to that feeling while running. The amount of fatigue I feel is closely related to how I view the run mentally. I think that is why so many people (myself included) have trouble with treadmills. The digital display is a constant reminder of the struggle.

  • If you’re in pain while running, and what you describe seems to be incredible pain and suffering, you’re running wrong.

    There should be no pain or discomfort while you run.

    If you run while trying to push yourself through pain, you are injuring your body.

    Your post is really good and inspiring otherwise, but you’re running very wrong I feel 🙂 (Check out minimalist running.)

    Gary: I can’t agree. When getting into shape, there always exists the discomfort of trying to increase your cardiovascular fitness, of trying to push yourself past your current limits. That’s the only pain to which I was referring, not the pain associated with injury.


  • This is one of the best in a long line of excellent articles. Thanks, Alex. You are the highlight of my Monday mornings (or evenings, if there is too much work to do).

    To reinforce your testimony—I recently read an interview with the Czech female world champion in speed skating. There she says that she is able to win despite the pain of her injuries because her trainer taught her that when in pain she should concentrate on her technique and the pain would go away—which it does … i.e., when she concentrates on the immediate moment, and not on the goal, she does not succumb to her pain and quit.

  • […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Eric Davis. Eric Davis said: RT @AlexLickerman: Why We Quit: https://bit.ly/fKYZNe […]

  • I absolutely do not understand people who hurt them selves on purpose so they can live longer or what ever the rationale is. I can understand and believe too that exercise is good for you but to hurt yourself is not rational. People who hurt them selves in other ways (razors, staples) are considered to have some sort of mental problem. What is the difference in the hurting yourself part except your desire to live longer and be some sort of iron man?

    I pride my self on being the second laziest guy in my county but I bet I will live as long as you and hurt less unless my horse falls on me or I get hit by a semi.

    David: Surely you can recognize the difference between healthy pain that accompanies (or spurs) growth, growth that strengthens us (both mentally and physically) to handle the obstacles life throws at us, and the unhealthy pain of injury that warns when something is wrong. In the post, I was writing about the former.


  • Buddha tried all sorts of painful things until one day under the Bodhi tree a child offered something to eat and he had a realization of the middle way. When his health returned he walked about the country talking of the middle way and lived a very long time walking. I don’t think he advocated pain in any way after that. It did not bring true happiness or realization.

    Now I am not trying to change you but just a different slant from the “American way” and I say it with a smile on my face.

    Lastly, mental pain may teach you something but physical pain is trying to tell you something it seems to me.

    David: This is an important point, so I want to reply to what you wrote above. The Buddha didn’t advocate seeking pain but taught that life is inherently painful. Further, he taught that pain can have positive uses: to alert us to injury, obviously, but also to promote growth, which creates happiness. In Nichiren Buddhism, the kind I practice, pain is viewed as both inescapable but also as a means toward growth and happiness. I’m certainly not advocating pain for pain’s sake, but rather a point of view that recognizes pain can be useful and even necessary for a happy life. In medicine we recognize the value of pain in alerting us to injury, but also as a signal of physical growth that weightlifters, for example, recognize well. Studies have also shown that elderly patients who have trouble with ambulation are able to significantly improve their functioning by lifting weights and experiencing a degree of pain associated with working their muscles hard. I agree that the motto “no pain, no gain” can certainly be taken to extreme, but it certainly has validity.


  • I find it always helps to not think about the finish/time. In a treadmill this means getting very involved in a podcast or actually hiding the screen displaying time and distance. Either that or focus very intensively on a goal. The in-between is bad and does make it hard to keep going when you want to stop.

    You get close but do not seem to complete an important thought—”What is the why?” (a M. Chabon line from one of his books). You need a compelling purpose. If the purpose was to escape a machete carrying person—you would not stop. If you can create a strong enough “why,” thinking about the end will not effect your propensity to quite. Your motivation—to be able to run 4 miles, really isn’t a very strong “why?” Like, so what? You need to “fool” yourself into some real meaning if same does not exist. One of my stronger motivators is—”The average person would stop or not do this…all I have to do is to do this thing and in some way I will be the exceptional one.” I have no explanation why this works. It’s silly and not true in any meaningful sense. But there you go. I take solace in a quote from Mark Helprin: “If you really want to enjoy life, you must work quietly and humbly to realize your delusions of grandeur.”

    Marc: Excellent point that’s spot on. Motivation is key.


  • Last night at karate I was exhausted after the warm up, a few minutes jogging around the room. After that we did lots of star jumps, press ups, squats, hitting the bags, passing medicine balls, full speed kata, and focus mitts. Many was the time I was about to ask the teacher if I could sit down because I couldn’t take a breath, but then we had to do something else and the moment was lost. I finished the class without so much as a break for a mouthful of water, somehow.

    I’m feeling it today; I feel like I was thrown down the stairs, but the point is I didn’t have TIME to think self-defeating thoughts. I barely had time to notice how exhausted I was, and when I thought I couldn’t possibly go on, I somehow managed to anyway.

    The mind is our best friend or our worst enemy. I’ll take up running soon and see if I can build on my success.

  • I think we’re having compassion towards ourselves when we work out. It’s got to do with how we view our health. Is it simply a matter of weight or are we building stamina and muscle? It should be the latter. Keep up your routine and use wisdom when it comes to pain. It’s the body’s way of telling us something. We need to listen and adjust accordingly. I want to succeed in life and one of the key elements is health and sufficient energy. That’s why I exercise, when I can. It just seems to me we quit when we don’t see something as a means to an end. That goes for anything.

  • I work out on a stationary bicycle—usually for 40 minutes. I agree with those who say the digital display makes it difficult to forget about the time. But if I’m tired or not enjoying it, I tell myself I can stop at 30 minutes, and then I get there and can keep going for the last ten.

  • Alex, this is something I can’t get out of mind. First, your thoughts have been helpful to me because the are full of logic and common sense. But how can daimoku work? Science would have to change into the supernatural. How do you explain this to yourself.


    Don: The ability to keep going is really a function of life-condition. By maintaining a consistently high life-condition, you guard yourself against the impulse to quit.


  • I have read and re-read your post and the responses. I have the experience of hitting the wall. I have the experience of the Tae Kwon Do master telling me to push myself. I have had injuries/consequences. It is hard for me to see the balance—self-protection vs. pushing myself through the pain/wall. Sometimes I can do it and sometimes I cannot push any more. I find I have been inspired by the “Finish Strong” mantra I have often heard in my Ironman-daughter’s circle of athletes. But I myself am inconsistent. When I don’t finish, I ask myself several questions: have I lost my conditioning or let it slip? How is my blood sugar, my mood, my nutrition and hydration at this given moment? Is there any correction I can make to any of the above circumstances? I do not ask myself how my mind is. Maybe I should. Or, as one of the responses indicated, “How is my motivation?” I believe that if one has had recent defeats or a long list of defeats in life, one is vulnerable to self-defeating thoughts that nag ever after. But, if the principle “from this day forward” is in my belief system, I may “recover.”

    As you can see, I am stumbling through this blog post, trying to find my own way. Trying to get it . . . thanks for the provocation, Alex.!

    Chris, MSN,RN

  • If I had a dime for every time I quit running due to weather, physical or emotional reasons I’d never have to work another day in my life.

    I’ve just decided to celebrate the fact that I’m a perpetual newbie runner. It’s a little easier because my athletic skills are pretty much zero. So I never have these overwhelming expectations to do really well or get better. So being down in the basement is never anything to be ashamed of (just ask me about my tennis skills).

    And that makes starting over at 3 minutes walking 2 minutes running every couple of months not that big of a deal. I just consider it getting back on the wagon with humility.

  • The differentiation between healthy and unhealthy pain isn’t as obvious as you think—the reason your muscles and joints hurt after a workout is that they are injured, just that they happen to be injured in a way that your body responds to by making them better. Overuse injuries are still quite possible.

    In a very real sense, life is an endless succession of struggle and suffering and accomplishment and serenity, tumbling into one another. That’s what gives it its richness.

    Michael: Agreed on all counts.


  • […] But this is a false narrative. Even if you failed because you chose to give up, you can still try again. You must constantly remind yourself that having tried at all has increased your chances of ignoring the voices in your head urging you to quit the next time. Always remember, the key to victory is strength, and the key to developing strength is trying again, no matter what the reason you failed before. HappinessInThisWorld.com […]

  • […] But this is a false narrative. Even if you failed because you chose to give up, you can still try again. You must constantly remind yourself that having tried at all has increased your chances of ignoring the voices in your head urging you to quit the next time. Always remember, the key to victory is strength, and the key to developing strength is trying again, no matter what the reason you failed before. HappinessInThisWorld.com […]