Are you tired of quitting? Try boosting your willpower!

Tom is working on a novel. He’s 60 pages in and close to giving it up. This is Tom’s 3rd novel, or actually the 3rd novel that he’s started. This is the farthest he’s ever gotten, but it looks like he may be starting #4 soon.

Sara’s determined. She’s got to lose 10 pounds, so help me, and so off to the gym she goes. Great the first 2 weeks – up at 5:30 am, hitting the treadmill by 6:15, already lost 3 pounds. But then it rains all the next week, she’s tired, she makes it in 3 days that week, has lost a half pound. This is not going as she expected. Two weeks later, only down another half pound, she’s out of there.

Quitting, dropping out, giving up, enough already…. Tom’s struggling with the Great American Novel, but he could just as well be struggling with repainting the outside of his house. Sara is having a hard time staying steady with her workout schedule, but it could just as well be her struggle to stop smoking or cut back on her drinking.

Quitting can leave you with that awful taste of guilt, but it’s actually less a problem and more of a bad solution. The real problem is the underlying obstacles and emotions that undermine your commitment and stick-to-it-ness. Here are the common interrelated culprits that can sabotage your follow-through:

Perfectionism. Tom’s 60 pages in, rereads what he wrote, decides it is garbage, and is ready to toss it. He has this critical voice in his head that is constantly judging what he does. He thinks in terms of black/white, all-or-nothing. This novel, he decides, will never measure up to his standards so out it goes.

Solution: Tom’s apparently never heard of or believed in the concept of First Draft – that you get your preliminary ideas down, know that it’s the first step of work in progress, certainly not perfect, but that you can and will circle back a second or third time to make it better. He needs to curb his expectations and be patient with himself.

Frustration. Tom may be also dealing with frustration – because he hasn’t fully developed the plot line (or anticipated how long it might take to paint his house). Sara is struggling with the same. After her initial burst of enthusiasm and energy, the getting up at 5:30 is difficult (especially after working late), and after doing the elliptical for 2 weeks, she is starting to get shin splints. And, she thought that she would be able to lose at least a pound a week, and this half pound stuff is bumming her out.

Solution: This is all about the middle stages of any endeavor. Like Tom and his perfectionism it may be about all-or-nothing thinking, but often if is about the natural wane of enthusiasm and the complexity and commitment that comes with doing something new. The writing or the losing the 10 pounds is more difficult than Tom or Sara thought. Tom expected the house painting to be a 2 weekend job but because he’s never done it, it takes longer than he thought it would. Sara had some initial gains but now her metabolism is hitting a new plateau and her poundage is leveling off.They both need to understand that this is part and parcel of longer-term projects and  adjust those initial expectations.

They also may need to look at ways of overcoming the obstacles that contributing to the middle-stage hump. Tom may realize, for example, that he really doesn’t know how to create the suspense he is hoping for in his novel, or that the paint job would go quicker if he used a spray gun rather than a brush. Time to take a writing course or hire a writing coach, buy a spray gun.

Similarly, Sara may need to have a mix of exercises that she can do so she doesn’t get injured, or that she needs to work harder at changing her diet. Like Tom she needs to take action – go online and look at training programs, or find a trainer who can work up a doable and realistic work-out program for her, as well as provide encouragement and support; ditto for the diet.

Boredom. Tom may actually have untreated AD/HD and easily gets bored when he doesn’t have a enough stim. The opening chapters of his novel are engaging enough, but by page 50 or so, he gets bored living in that same fictional world that he has created and his brain automatically jumps to something new which, of course, seems better. Similarly, Sara is bored with the same routine at the gym, making the warm bed at 5:30 am feel pretty good.

Solution: Another characteristic of the middle stage. As with frustration it helps to anticipate a shift when the adrenalin wears off. Time for support, Tom working in smaller chunks (or checking out whether he really does have AD/HD); Sara switching to a group class, even taking a few days off if getting burned out. Again, having a plan to counter that urge to find the next-best-thing or give up.

Developing Perseverance

Of course you can have 2 or all 3 of these saboteurs operating at the same time. The key to keep them from derailing your goals is to tackle them one-by-one as they arise. But there’s also a prevention side to avoiding becoming a quitter, namely, developing perseverance, stick-to-it-ness.

This isn’t just about the novel or the 10 pounds, but overriding in a broad brush way the emotional issues that make your brain say “Why bother, it isn’t very good, you’ll never get there.” It’s about proactively attacking the triggers that cause you to get stuck and discouraged. It’s about stepping outside your comfort zone, changing your brain, developing willpower.

Here’s what to do:

Figure out where you get stuck. Tom’s struggling with this novel, but his perfectionism and critical voice are his nemesis in everything he does. Similarly, Sara has a consistent pattern of always starting strong, but always getting quickly frustrated or bored and is ready to bail. For Tom and Sara their emotional minds are overriding their rational minds.

Countering perfectionism: Tom needs to learn to not pay attention to his critical mind and learn to tolerate (in his mind) mistakes – deliberately saying to himself that his first draft is a first draft not a crappy book.

But because those who are perfectionistic tend to get caught up in doing what they “should” rather than what they “want”, it also may be helpful for Tom to step back at some point and ask himself whether he really enjoys the writing process on the day-to-day or whether he is just caught up in the notion of calling himself a writer. Maybe he is writing because someone told him he has talent and he feels he shouldn’t squander it, or he doesn’t really enjoy the process but thinks it is good way of making lots of money. If he doesn’t enjoy the process, these reasons quickly fade as motivators.

Countering frustration: Frustration often gets in the way of Sara moving forward and accomplishing things that her adult, rational mind says is important. Like Tom who needs to learn to over-ride his emotional perfectionistic mind, Sara needs to learn to over-ride her frustrated mind.

She can do this anywhere – when she is stuck in a traffic jam and worried about being late, when she has to learn new software at her job. It’s about learning to calming the feelings of frustration – taking a deep breath in the traffic jam and calling her partner to let her know she is running late; calling up IT and have someone walk her through the steps for the new software. It’s not about the situation, it’s about countering the emotion.

Countering boredom: If your brain is wired for high stim, boredom is always lurking. Like perfectionism and frustration you want to acknowledge that this is your challenge, and both anticipate and learn to increase your tolerance for it. Here you can be proactively break down large tasks into smaller ones – writing 2 pages rather than 5, doing 20 minutes on the treadmill rather than 40. Then take a timed break to help you refocus your brain and re-engage. See if you can gradually increase your endurance — doing 3 pages rather than 2, 30 minutes rather than 20. Again, it doesn’t where or when you practice. It’s about building your willpower muscle.

Finally, are there times that you should quit? Sure. Tom decides it’s worth the money to hire a crew to paint his house. Or he realizes that he’s not cut out to do the sustain focus of a novel and decides to switch to writing short stories, or that he really doesn’t enjoy the writing process and wants to direct his creativity elsewhere. Or Sara rationally looks at herself and realizes that she is needlessly giving herself a hard time about her appearance, and more realistically can slowly work at just being more active and not obsess about poundage.

This is about stepping back, looking at the larger picture, setting priorities and goals based on your rational mind and innate instincts rather than your emotional mind or shoulds. Might Tom still feel a bit guilty if he gives up writing? Sure. But this is the irrational guilt that naturally comes from going against your own grain, over-riding your likely little-kid mind and commands; it subsides over time. And of course, he is always free to change his mind if the real desire to write sparks again.

So are you ready to quit being a quitter? Time to build up those willpower muscles? Now is the time. Figure out where you get stuck, and practice pushing back.

You can’t make a mistake.

Author’s Books

© Copyright 2015 Robert Taibbi, L.C.S.W., All rights Reserved.
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Bob Taibbi is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker with 40 years experience primarily in community mental health working with couples and families as a clinician, supervisor and clinical director. Bob is the author of 7 books: Doing Couples Therapy: Craft and Creativity in Work with Intimate Partners Doing Family Therapy: Craft and Creativity in Clinical Practice, now in its 3rd edition, and recently translated into Chinese and Portuguese Clinical Supervision: A Four-Stage Process of Growth and Discovery Clinical Social Work Supervision: Practice & Process Boot Camp Therapy: Action-Oriented Brief Clinical Approaches to Anxiety, Anger & Depression The Art of the First Session Brief Therapy With Couples & Families in Crisis In addition to his books, Bob writes an regular online column for Psychology Today magazine entitled Fixing Families, as well as a monthly parenting advice column for Charlottesville Family magazine. He has also published over 300 magazine and journal articles, and has contributed several book chapters including Favorite Counseling Techniques: 55 Masters Share Their Secrets which cited him among the top 100 therapists in the country. He served as teen advice columnist for Current Health, a contributing editor to Your Health and Fitness, and has received 3 national writing awards for Best Consumer Health Writing. Bob is a graduate of Rutgers University and the University of South Carolina, and has served as adjunct professor at several universities. He provides trainings nationally in couple therapy, family therapy, brief therapy, and clinical supervision. He is currently in private practice in Charlottesville, Virginia with Lewis Weber & Associates: