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Conscious Quitting: Walk Away with Your Head Held High

Contributed by: Dr. Ari Tuckman

Ari Tuckman is a clinical psychologist in West Chester, PA.

Funny story. I agreed to write an article for an e-newsletter and decided to write it about knowing when to walk away from something that just isn’t working out. Not bailing out in a panic, but making a well thought-out decision to move on. I had a bunch of ideas, but whenever I sat down to write it, nothing great would come. So I wound up with a bunch of bits and pieces, but certainly not an article. Finally, as the deadline loomed, I quit! Yes, I quit my article on quitting. It felt really good too—a real weight off my shoulders. I came up with another topic that worked much better and got the job done.

So why was it that I could walk away from that topic and feel OK about it?

Everyone starts more projects than they finish. If you don’t finish something, is this a sign of good judgment or yet another example of dropping the ball?

To answer that, we have to look at things that happened before I got stuck on that article. That is, it’s much easier to give yourself permission to walk away from something if you feel like you’ve done a good job on other things. You earn a free pass or two by hitting other deadlines and meeting other commitments. This is where folks with ADHD struggle, especially if they spent a big part of their lives undiagnosed and untreated (which most adults with ADHD did). If you feel like your batting average is much lower than you would want it to be, it’s hard to cut yourself slack, even when you deserve it. The problem is that this moment of decision is haunted by the ghosts of past failures, so you may sometimes stubbornly stick with a plan or a project that may no longer be worth it. Maybe it was worthwhile at one point, but the situation has changed. Or maybe it was never a great plan, but you didn’t realize that at first.

So how do you figure out when it’s smarter to walk away? And if you do, how do you do it with a clean conscience?

To answer these questions, let’s first talk about some of the reasons why people with ADHD tend to start more than they finish. It’s easier to stay on track if you understand how you get off track.

  • They start too much. There are lots of interesting projects out there, so it’s easy to get pulled into the next big thing, even if you’re still working on something else.
  • They forget what they’ve started. Sometimes they unintentionally forget about a project in the hustle and bustle of daily life, so they never circle back around to finish it.
  • They get bored. Some projects start out interesting but then lose that shine and are abandoned.
  • They avoid a dreaded project. Some projects acquire an aura of impending failure or other uncomfortable feeling, so it’s hard to bite the bullet and face those feelings.

If you’re prone to having a flood of guilty memories from prior abandoned projects, it can be difficult to make good choices about whether to keep going on your current projects. So let’s talk about how to stay on track better, so that you can feel more free to decide that a project isn’t worth finishing.

  • Start less. Just because something is interesting, doesn’t mean that you have to do it. Try to stop for a moment and think through whether this new project really deserves your time. Some things will, but some things won’t.
  • Remember what you’ve started. This is easier if you occasionally clear the decks and put things away when you’re done with them. It’s easier to keep track of what is still in process, if you have less stuff lying around.
  • Look for something interesting in the boring project. You may need to look beyond the obvious to find something to inspire you in this old project, especially if you’ve mastered the parts that initially interested you.
  • Bite the bullet. Sometimes it’s better to just face that uncomfortable feeling and be done with it, rather than allow it to continue to hang over your head.

Remember that good decisions usually fall somewhere between avoidance and stubbornness. Give yourself permission to walk away from projects that are no longer worth it by improving your batting average on other projects. These two are connected—the better you do on one, the better you will do on the other.

Ari Tuckman, PsyD, MBA is the author of “More Attention, Less Deficit: Success Strategies for Adults with ADHD” and “Integrative Treatment for Adult ADHD: A Practical, Easy-to-Use Guide for Clinicians”. You can subscribe to his free podcast and learn more about both books at www.adultADHDbook.com.

Posted on April 25, 2009