On quitting things

(Obligatory note: No, this isn't a post where I quit my job or the tech industry.)

A couple weeks ago I was lucky enough to get to attend AndConf, an intersectional feminist code retreat and unconference in a delightful redwood forest in California. Aside from being overall an amazing event in terms of creating an atmosphere of safety and inclusivity throughout the entire experience, it provided me with some really great opportunities for reflection on things that had been on my mind for a while. Specifically, there were unconference sessions on burnout and quitting things that really helped me get some much-needed perspective on how I've been spending my time.

I've written previously on saying no to things, but there can be a lot of difference between declining to take on a new commitment and figuring out if and how to quit an existing one. Especially for those of us who are socialized to be agreeable and put others' needs before our own, quitting something that you've previously agreed to do can be extra difficult. Based on some great conversations I had at AndConf and my success at having quit a non-zero number of things recently, here are some thoughts that you might find helpful if you find yourself debating if it's time for you to quit something in your own life.

Should you stay or should you go?

Part of adulting is doing things that aren't necessarily at the top of your list, which is why we do things like put on pants and go to work or pay our taxes or eat things other than only dessert foods. There are things that we have to do - I have to pay rent, so I have to have a job of some sort instead of just playing video games and napping 24/7 - and there are things we choose to do - there aren't any dire consequences in my life if I don't play my violin, but rather it's something I choose to do for fun. But even with things we choose to do, that doesn't mean that every moment is going to be 100% happy fun time.

How can you tell when you're running into a difficult patch that you just have to get through versus something that you really just don't like doing anymore? To use my violin playing as an example, I don't like practicing scales or etudes, but they're worth it because they give me the skills necessary to play "real" pieces (including ridiculously fun bluegrass covers of heavy metal songs), which I get a lot of joy out of. But what if you aren't getting any joy out of something anymore? And how can you be sure?

One thing that I've done is to keep track of how I'm feeling about an activity more consistently, so I have more data points than just when I'm feeling stressed or frustrated about something. Every time I play my violin, I might note how I felt about that session on a 1-5 scale in my calendar, so over time I can get a feel for how my attitude towards it is trending. It's normal for interests and enjoyment to wax and wane over time, but if you notice a longer-term trend of not enjoying something, that might be a sign that it's not for you any more.

What are you giving and what are you getting?

Every activity involves some give and take. If I join an orchestra, for example, I will have to give in some ways - I'll have to set aside time to go to rehearsals, I'll have to practice music for the concert instead of only what I want to play, and I might even have to pay dues of some sort. I'll also be getting something out of this as well, such as expanding my musical repertoire, getting recordings of concerts I've performed in, or just the fun of playing with other people.

If you're starting to think about whether or not you should quit something, a good step to take can be to sit down and carefully consider what you are currently giving to and getting from that thing. It's important to keep in mind that this can change over time! Maybe the thing itself changed - in my orchestra example, maybe over time other people in the group stopped rehearsing as much so I might not feel like I'm getting as much out of playing with them. Or maybe your own needs changed - if I joined an orchestra aimed at beginning players, I'll get less and less value from it as my own skills improve above that range. Either (or both) of these sorts of changes can happen, and if you aren't aware of them, you might not be able to figure out why something you used to enjoy now feels like a burden.

How are you taking care of yourself?

Because not everything is 100% happy fun time and because pretty much every activity involves giving as well as getting, it's important to make sure you're deliberately taking care of yourself. There were some really good takeaways from AndConf on this topic, including:

  • Make a list of things that recharge you or ways you can practice self-care. This list will vary from person to person (introverts will likely have a lot more solo activities on their lists than extroverts will) but might include things like scheduling time with friends, going for a walk in nature, or getting a massage.

  • If you can, post your list of rechargers in a place that's visible to you. This will remind you that self-care is important, because it's easy to forget that, especially when you're busy and stressed.

  • After big projects/commitments/deadlines have passed, deliberately put time in your schedule to recharge and recover. Once you're in the habit of being busy it can be tempting to immediately jump into the next thing you're doing, but without time to unwind and reflect, this can lead to burnout.

  • Make sure you also set aside time to reflect on what you're doing. Yearly planning can help you get a more holistic view of how you are spending your time, as can something like bullet journaling. Things like this can help you figure out if you're spending more or less energy on big areas of your life than you'd prefer.

  • Ask yourself what advice you'd give to a friend who was in your situation. I know that I tend to be a lot harder on myself than I am on people around me, expecting myself to "just deal with" something where I would tell a friend "ZOMG you are way too stressed out, you should take care of yourself and maybe quit something". If you would tell a friend that they need to take care of themselves in this situation, then you should take care of yourself too!

What are you afraid of?

Often times, the reasons we shy away from quitting something come down to fear, and it can be very helpful to figure out where that fear is coming from. It might be a fear of how other people will react ("I don't want to be labeled as a quitter") or the additional burden that will be placed on other people without your presence. When the thing you're thinking about quitting is something that you've been taking a primary role in (doing a majority of the work or even being a founder) a big fear can be what will happen to it without you.

Identifying your fears and concerns can help you determine whether or not they outweigh the benefits of quitting. It can be hard to part with something that you've been a part of for a while, especially if you can't be sure of that thing's future without you. If I've been playing my violin with small group of people and I'm the only one who's scheduling rehearsals or concerts or even practicing, I might rightly wonder if the group will even continue to exist if I left. It might not, and it's important to be able to come to terms with that.

It's okay to let something disappear. Especially if the alternative is you (or your health) disappearing instead. In college, after a decade of doing pretty much nothing but playing violin, I got incredibly burnt out and quit. It was hard to put down something that had been such a significant part of me for so long, but the stress and obligation were having negative impacts on nearly every other part of my life, and it had long since stopped bringing me joy. Five years later, I picked it back up again, and playing (much much much more casually than I did previously) has once again become something I enjoy. Quitting doesn't have to be permanent.

When it comes down to it, I've usually found that actually doing the quitting is the easy part. The hard part is figuring out if I really need to, and then giving myself permission to follow through. As difficult as it can be, quitting things is a great way of helping to keep your life balanced, fulfilling, and healthy.