For a writer — or at least, for this writer — there are few worse experiences than realizing that an article you’ve spent weeks or months researching is, well, going nowhere.
There’s always the temptation to do even more research, to write something up anyway, if only to justify those weeks or months of reporting as anything other than wasted time.
This is a completely illogical impulse, but it’s a human impulse nonetheless.
The New York Times addresses this phenomenon in a recent article on the art of “strategic quitting,” a term borrowed from author and entrepreneur Seth Godin. Stephanie Lee explains why we’re so often loathed to stop pursuing a longtime goal, even one that has proven unattainable. Lee also explains why doing so would ultimately make us happier, and would free us up to pursue other, more realistic ambitions.
Reading the Times article, I thought back to Jon Acuff’s advice in his 2017 book “Finish”: “Choose what to bomb.”
Acuff virtually shakes readers until they understand that there is no way they can achieve everything they want to: think being an awesome parent, being a stellar employee, keeping a pristine home, cooking a nutritious dinner every night, and volunteering on the community board.
Instead, Acuff tells readers to choose in advance what they’re going to “bomb” — i.e. fail at — and to be okay with that. The logic here is that, the more thinly you spread your time and energy, the less progress you make toward each individual goal. Pick one goal and give it your all and you’ll have a better shot at success.
It seems impossible to become an expert in one area without giving up on some others
Psychologists have also documented the benefits — and sometimes the necessity — of quitting one goal to focus on another.
In the Times article, Lee cites a 2007 study published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, which found that when people disengaged from unrealistic goals, they were happier and healthier.
Meanwhile, Anders Ericsson, a professor of psychology at Florida State University and the coauthor of “Peak: Secrets From the New Science of Expertise,” previously told me that he doesn’t know of anyone who’s become a world-class expert in more than one skill. If you dedicate your life to mastering one field, other opportunities will fade away — which could be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on how much you want to master that one field.
Gabriele Oettingen, a professor at New York University and the University of Hamburg and the author of “Rethinking Positive Thinking,” developed a methodology called WOOP to help people achieve their goals. (WOOP stands for wish, outcome, obstacle, plan.)
Oettingen previously told me that WOOP-ing often requires you to step away from a goal if it conflicts with another one, or if it seems unfeasible.
To be sure, sometimes this process will be painful — there’s no getting around that. But in the long term, giving yourself room to work on something more achievable, or more impactful, is worth it.