The Truth About Taking a Break, Quitting, and Walking Away

Woman sitting on a bench next to a lake. The Truth about taking a break, quitting, and walking away.
Image by Mircea Iancu from Pixabay

We’ve moved into the second month of the new year. For many, resolutions have fallen by the wayside. You may be critical of yourself if you haven’t stuck with your goal, but this may be a mistake. Not all reasons for ceasing effort are the same. Have you fallen short or simply made a wise decision about where and how to spend your time? Let’s dig into the truth about taking a break, quitting, and walking away to find some answers.

I often say that life is both hard and twisty. Many of us tend to move through it “aspirationally,” meaning we focus on what we wish our lives were like. We envision our circumstances as we want them to be, often having grand plans for how we will change. Then we get stuck, failing to follow through. Sometimes, this happens because we allow our feelings to determine our actions, giving up when we lack motivation. In other cases, external circumstances derail our plans, leaving us feeling out of control. In either case, when the dream feels unachievable, we tend to give up.

Unfortunately, walking away from a goal or project can potentially leave us feeling like failures. For example:

  • We begin – but then abandon – a project, leaving physical remnants of the project in our space, which repeatedly mock us and spotlight our ineptitude.
  • We attempt to address a problem, hit a roadblock, and then freeze up, vowing to deal with it “later.” Since the problem still exists, we carry guilt about our avoidance, anxiety about what to do next, and feelings of insufficiency with which to cope… all now coupled with incremental time pressure.
  • A hurdle or difficulty reminds us of similar, previous failures, undermining our confidence and rendering us unwilling to keep trying.
  • We invest money in products and/or supplies which we fail to implement, leaving us feeling guilty every time we glimpse the “wasted” investment.

As I said in the opening paragraph, there are different reasons why we may stop seeing forward progress. Therefore, whenever we fall short of success, it is important to apply a bit of critical thinking to understand what happened. Hitting roadblocks, in any initiative, is common, and understanding exactly what happened helps us decide what to do next.

Let’s consider three scenarios:

Scenario #1: Taking a Break

In this situation, we undertook an effort but then decided to temporarily take a pause. Often, this is typified by unexpected external circumstances interrupting our plan, such as:

  • Illness
  • Change in job situation
  • Financial pressure
  • Family emergency
  • Environmental change (e.g., weather, work setting, relocation, etc.)

These developments may make it impossible to proceed with our original plan. When this happens, often the most intelligent thing we can do is stop, take a breath, and reconsider our next steps.

When you find yourself taking a break, ask yourself the following questions:

  • What, if anything, has changed in my life since I began my effort? (If the answer is “nothing,” skip forward to “quitting.”)
  • Is this change likely to persist for a long time?
  • When will I have the time and bandwidth to return to my goal?
  • Is it possible to pivot my plan in light of the change?
  • Do I need to seek new resources in light of these developments in order to proceed?

Moving forward after taking a break can look like tweaking, adjusting, restructuring, or redesigning. If you are hitting a wall, never be afraid to take a break and consider all your options.

Scenario #2: Quitting

In many cases, we start off with high and lofty goals, give it our “all” for a period of time, and then lose our motivation. We get sore, hungry, tired, grumpy, frustrated, and otherwise emotionally discouraged. Feeling like failures, we throw up our hands in surrender and quit.

Unlike the first scenario, this change in behavior is largely driven by internal factors. We start listening to negative self-talk, allowing these destructive emotions to discourage us from persevering. This is the classic “devil on the shoulder whispering in our ear” scenario. We lose faith in our ability to succeed, turn to our attention to some distraction (which often makes us feel worse), and end up convincing ourselves that we will never succeed, so why bother?

Honestly, this is probably the most difficult hurdle to overcome because we are acting as our own opponent. I’ve heard it said by long-distance runners that the mind frequently wants to quit before the body does, rendering racing a test of mental, as much if not more than physical, stamina.

So, what can we do when we feel like quitting? Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Acknowledge that you are hitting a mental wall and that you need to pursue other mental pathways.
  • Seek external reinforcements who can see your situation objectively and provide needed accountability.
  • Refine your efforts, biting off smaller, more sustainable mouthfuls of effort. If you can’t keep up the pace with which you began, that is ok. Reduce the “weight” of the task rather than walk away completely.
  • Focus more on the action you will take than the result you desire. Actions we can control, results we cannot. Track and celebrate consistent effort, trusting that results will appear, even if they feel painfully slow in coming. I cannot emphasize this enough! The victory is in the effort, because this builds confidence in our confidence and empowers us to keep trying.
Thought bubble that says "Focus more on the action you will take than on the result you desire."

Quitting often leaves us feeling bad about ourselves, so I suggest you try to find some way to move forward. Remember that progress is most often achieved through small, repeated steps. If you are giving up by choice, that is a different story, and leads us to the next scenario: walking away.

Scenario #3: Walking Away

Not every path on which we embark is meant to be our indefinite road. Periodically, we begin an initiative, only to find it isn’t a good fit. For example:

  • We enroll in a course of study and then discover it doesn’t suit us.
  • We take a job and find it isn’t what we anticipated and are unhappy.
  • We begin a relationship, only to discover that we aren’t a good match after all.
  • We undertake a project or hobby and find it is a poor fit with our skills and interest.

There are lots of reasons why we may conclude that our plans, dreams, or goals have changed. In this case, we aren’t falling short or giving up on a goal as much as we are coming to a realization that we want to mindfully move in a different direction. This can require courage, especially if others in our lives are invested in the previously stated goal.

The key difference between quitting and mindfully walking away is intentionality. Past choices, momentum, and tradition are not always helpful motivators in decision-making. It is important for all of us to periodically review our goals, be honest about our desires, and re-evaluate our priorities.

If you are ready to walk away from the way you have been doing things – potentially for a very long time – this might represent a very positive choice. Reaching out to new resources and supporters can be a powerful and positive way to move forward.

*     *     *

The most important thing to do when we find ourselves veering off a previously charted path is to consider the cause. Positive change is possible, even if it is slow, twisty, messy, exciting, scary, or all of the above.

Can you think of times you took a break, quit, or walked away? How did these moments feel?

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20 thoughts on “The Truth About Taking a Break, Quitting, and Walking Away”

  1. Excellent distinctions between the different reasons for stopping doing things! I talk a lot about putting projects “on the back burner” for awhile (#1 Taking a Break), including projects of my own. And there are things I’ve intentionally walked away from (#3). But doing it and explaining it are two different things, much less helping others to reframe their “I’m a quitter” self talk (#2) and helping them either get back on track, take a break, or walk away intentionally. Thanks, Seana!
    Hazel Thornton recently posted…Witches in the Family?My Profile

    1. Thanks, Hazel. I’m glad this makes sense. Sometimes we make the mindful choice to be finished with something, and that is a wise decision. Other times, it’s avoidance, procrastination, or just a temporary shifting of priorities. As with so many aspects of behavior, what we select to do can be complex in nature!

  2. This is an amazing post explaining how we fall out of the commitment we did to ourselves because of all the reasons that you explained. The key here, is to get back to it and finish it. Yes you might need a break for all the reasons or some others, promising ourselves and putting in on the calendar and set a date eill help up keep moving.
    Don’t give up, it can be done.
    Janet Schiesl recently posted…“Kiss Your Clutter Goodbye”- Part 4My Profile

    1. For so many initiatives, it truly is possible to see where we got off track and to simply start again. It doesn’t need to be “all or nothing.”

  3. While I didn’t do a deep dive like you, we were on similar wavelengths this month. When you are pursuing change and lose your motivation or energy, what can you do? I love how you broke this into three scenarios with specific questions for each. Understanding when it’s time to readjust or walk away is essential.

    Jonda wrote about backsliding this week, which can have a similar effect on change. It can be demotivating and derailing until you realize how normal it is to go backward. Proactively making changes in your life is never a straight path. It’s filled with challenges and unanticipated issues along the way. We sometimes regress and then readjust and have the energy to move forward again.

    1. I think February must bring on these feelings of demotivation and backsliding. I understand it. It’s cold and can be dreary, and the enthusiasm of a new year has passed. I love that we are all looking at aspects of this phenomenon, and providing ideas for how to recharge and get going again!

  4. Seana, You have beautifully outlined the ways in which projects become derailed. The scenarios you have described are so appropriate. It’s interesting that so much of what works or doesn’t is driven by our emotions. Deciding, intentionally, to shift gears and let go of something is a difficult and courageous task. I really like the way you brought that piece forward.

    1. Thank you so much, Diane. Sometimes shifting gears is the best decision. We need to be ever-mindful of where we are in a process and constantly reviewing our goals and objectives. Stuff happens, and sometimes, we just choose to shift our plans accordingly. No shame!

  5. Love the clarity on the reasons why we don’t move forward with a plan or a project. Life events are big obstacles on moving forward at a particular time.
    Walking away takes courage. I did that on my last job.
    One point I like to make with my clients is that if you have decided to quit on a project, remove the visuals that are around concerning that project. Especially anything that makes you feel uncomfortable.

    1. What a great suggestion! Once you’ve made the decision, it is time to move on. Removing the visuals is a great way to do this. Prioritization means making space for what matters most, and then removing what doesn’t!

  6. This is good advice. I have a project that I have been working on for years. I’m not ready to walk away but I need to take some action. Thanks for helping me analyze the reasons.

  7. Oh, such excellent points! There is such a fine line between quitting and walking away. I sometimes realize that although I want the end result, I don’t want it enough to make any effort toward the thing. Other times, I’m halted by a frustrating lack of guidance. Knowing whether it’s the former and it’s OK to say, “yeah, that’s not going to happen” and when it’s the latter and I need to seek support is a key skill that needs to be developed in all of us.

    You’ve done a stellar job identifying the different ways we are halted and how we can (if we indeed should) get back on the path. You always make superb distinctions between related concepts and then provide the essential wisdom to handle each. Great work!
    Julie Bestry recently posted…Blending Libraries: How To Organize Books with Your SweetheartMy Profile

    1. Thanks for the kind words, Julie! Perhaps it is my own experiences doing all three of these that made me wonder how they differed and why it mattered. I don’t want to feel lousy about every project or initiative that I don’t complete, and I was coming to realize that I didn’t need to. Sometimes I just knew I was ready to walk in a new direction.

  8. Walking away, taking a break and quitting are all ways we face a derailment of our plan. The key to me is to assess whether the value of the plan remains as important as when you started. If you assess and find that this plan doesn’t really serve you, it is time to quite and move on. So many times we focus on finishing a plan that doesn’t really serve us, we feel stuck in a different way. I love that you are focusing on these obstacles as a way to move forward.

  9. I think this is great timing for a post like this. You have shared so much wisdom here. I agree that when we hit a wall, it is time for a break (for me that can be hard to do) but I do know how important it is. We recharge and gather up the energy to move forward when we are ready. The secret is that if its something that is really important to us we need to push ourselves to get back to it. Otherwise if it is something we have decided to end that is okay too. I love the use of the word “intentionality”
    Kim recently posted…Creative Storage and Organizing Solutions for Small SpacesMy Profile

    1. It can be hard to push ourselves back up on the horse when this is necessary. Really hard. This is when I think external resources can prove especially valuable, be it someone we’ve authorized to check in with us, or someone we hire to help us.

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