I have a bad habit that, in theory, sounds like a good one: I try to finish everything I start.
About a year ago, I was talking to my dad about a book I was struggling to finish. “It’s a tough read,” I told him, “I have about 100 pages left to plow through, and once I’m done, I’m moving onto a better book.”
Being the wise man that he is, my dad gave me some of the best advice I had ever received. “Chris,” he said, “if you are ever reading a book and you lose interest or it isn’t speaking to you, don’t finish it. Put it down right away, and move on to another one. You can always come back to it when the subject is interesting again. Don’t finish for the sake of finishing it, that is a waste of your time.”
Wow! Mind Blown! This advice challenged my way of thinking. All of my life I have felt like a failure when I didn’t finish a book. After all, I couldn’t then effectively brag at social gatherings: “Oh yes, I’ve read that one. Great literature isn’t it? Cheerio!”
However, thanks to this wisdom from my dad, I am getting closer to becoming a better quitter of books, and in turn, a better quitter of other things. Here is why.
First, I realized that we, all of us, have been told many lies about quitting. By osmosis, those lies have seeped into spaces of our lives that they weren’t intended for, like reading books. They have grown from a thousand little seeds to one big ugly weed of Ignorant Stubbornness. Here are some of those lies:
“Americans never quit.” — General Douglas MacArthur
“Never quit. It is the easiest cop-out in the world.” — Bear Bryant
“Winners never quit and quitters never win.” — Vince Lombardi (or Ted Turner, depending on who you ask)
“Finish what you start! Clear your plate! Don’t ever give up!” — Parents, teachers, and coaches everywhere
These phrases have become a part of our hardwiring, programming us to act as if, no matter the task, anything short of finishing would be failure.
I call “malarky!” on this concept once and for all.
Simply because you start a book, doesn’t mean that it has to be finished. Likewise, simply because you start any sort of task, it doesn’t automatically inherit the right to be finished.
Books are the easiest example, so let’s stay there. Often times, somewhere between page 5 and page 500, the author has completely lost my interest. Either the writing is bad, or the content simply doesn’t appeal to me at the time, or maybe I’m just not into it. In the past, I would have powered through these books, considering myself a failure if I hadn’t otherwise, and patting myself on the back when I finally reach the end. The problem is, after turning the last page, I realized each time that I only retained 30% or less of the author’s message. I wasn’t reading, I was scrolling over each line with my eyes. This happens due to disinterest and a wondering mind. Most importantly, I didn’t even enjoy the process of reading, as if I am back in 10th grade reading the Scarlet Letter. As an adult, reading is meant to be enjoyable, not a waste of time.
Books are obvious, but what about other things? Why do we convict ourselves into finishing tasks that we don’t want to? Because at some point we were convinced that it is “honorable” to not finish what we have started. Hogwash!
I propose that quitting is not only acceptable but should be encouraged and admonished for things that are:
- Not important, not productive, not urgent
- Not interesting, not compelling, not intellectually challenging
- Not healthy for body, mind, or soul
- Consuming otherwise valuable time that could be spent on more important tasks, hobbies, relationship-building
“Starting something doesn’t automatically justify finishing it… More is not better, and stopping something is often 10 times better than not finishing it.” – Tim Ferris, The 4-Hour Work Week (#1 New York Times Bestseller)
I agree with Tim, and as I look back, I can recall enhancing my life through quitting other things at the right time, such as:
- Varsity basketball senior year of high school
- Bad jobs with bad bosses with bad pay and bad hours
- Social media (see my post Why I Quit Facebook)
- News (see my post Fit for Gratitude)
- Toxic friends and social circles
- Half-full bowl of ice cream
- Half-full cup of ______ (insert unhealthy beverage)
- Books, articles, movies
Yes, perseverance and seeing-commitments-through are traits of discipline and integrity, but mindlessly working to complete a task without assessing its value is asinine and a waste of your precious time on earth. What I have learned from quitting is that while there is value in perseverance, there is possibly even more value in immediately ending anything that is not productive or does not make you happy.
What have you started that doesn’t deserve to be finished?
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