Sometimes quitting is a definitive act that requires soul searching. We tend to reserve this for big changes in our lives: leaving a job, breaking up with a partner, moving to a new city. Contrast that with those things we simply give up on—the things that fall by the wayside, without an explicit decision on our part. You forgot to keep up that meal planning routine. You don’t journal in the mornings anymore. Why not?
Marie Kondo, who now has three children, recently told reporters she has “kind of given up on [tidying] in a good way for me.” I think the big revelation for all of us is that you can “give up” on things in a good way. You don’t have to fight until you are defeated; you can tactically surrender and save your energy for something else.
Understand the value of pressure
When we want to keep up a habit, we’ll often put pressure on ourselves to do so. We’ll commit to a personal training contract, or we’ll tell the family that all dinners will be planned in advance, or we’ll buy a stack of books and promise ourselves that they will all be read by the year’s end. The idea is that the pressure will keep us motivated when we’d rather give in. The fear of breaking a streak in a workout app is supposed to act as a guardrail on our path to greatness.
But pressure can become oppressive. In our guide to letting kids quit sports, one of the signs that it’s time to quit is “when the strain outweighs the joy.” It’s one thing to work your way through speedbumps and growing pains; it’s another to put yourself through misery with no foreseeable reward.
So ask yourself whether the difficulties of your habit are worthwhile, as when you lift more weight, making the workout harder, in service of gaining strength. Or are you subjecting yourself to pressure for pressure’s sake, as in the case of 75Hard, a “challenge” in which you suffer for no other point than to endure suffering? If it’s the latter, it’s probably time to give up.
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Consider how much work it takes
Everything takes work. But the more excited we are for something, the less work it feels like it is.
If you’ve ever given up on a hobby you were once excited about, you know the difference. The hobby hasn’t changed; you could still pick up your camera and get back into photography. But now the tasks of choosing subjects and setting up lighting and editing the finished photos are just grunt work, not expressions of your enthusiasm.
The same goes for a lot of daily habits. For me, eating enough protein and getting plenty of exercise are fun and easy. But other things like maintaining my yard and keeping on top of my finances (I’m supposed to put retirement money where?) are just plain work. Both physical work, in the sense that I need to get out there and probably prune some bushes or something; and mental work, in the sense of keeping track of what needs to be done and figuring out when and how and who will do it.
We can’t tackle everything in life with the enthusiasm of a pet hobby. If you’re getting entertainment value out of a daily chore, enjoy! But if you’re not, it’s okay to drop down to just the most basic level. Eat a vegetable every now and then. Set up auto-pay for your bills. Mow the lawn just often enough that the neighbors don’t complain.
Beware making something your whole identity
I’m not surprised at all that Marie Kondo gave up on being tidy every minute of her life. She had a personal practice, a career, and a public identity all tied to the same thing: being impeccably tidy. That’s pressure, and it’s work, but it’s more than that, too.
It’s already stressful territory when something is both your job and a thing you do at home. Think of child care workers with kids at home, or chefs who cook for themselves. After I write all day at work, I’m not really interested in journaling for myself.
When you add your identity to that mix, it gets even harder. Ask anybody who thinks of themselves as an athlete and then gets injured so they can’t engage in their sport anymore; depression and other mental health effects are a common result.
So it’s okay to back off of a hobby or personal practice if you notice it taking over your life, even if you haven’t been forced to give it up yet. Sometimes the answer is to add a hobby, like getting really into painting or knitting or chess so that the overwhelming thing isn’t able to take up as much space in your brain. But whatever you do, remember that it’s okay to give up sometimes—so long as it’s “in a good way” for you.