Knowing When it’s Time to Quit

There’s a mistake I make over and over in my life–I don’t know when to quit. I’ll press on with a project even though I’m tired, cranky, and no longer paying close attention.  It’s the road to perdition, clearly marked, and I’m driving the express train. But I won’t quit. I keep thinking that in the next minute, I will finish the project, solve the problem, complete the task.

A badly tangled thread diagram from an H-P article entitled, Ropes, Strings, Threads,

It doesn’t work that way. Right at the moment when the end is brushing my fingertips, almost in my grasp,  something goes wrong. Tonight the just-repaired part on the sewing machine failed again. I was stitching the last piece of a card I had promised to get in the mail tomorrow, and the needle flew out of the holder, followed by the thread manager and the entire chunk of sewing machine that holds the needle and the thread tender.  It tore a hole in the card. The one I’d been working on for two hours. The one you are not seeing a picture of.

I could give you a hundred other examples. When I made jewelry, I would press ahead to finish a clasp, even if I knew it required more thought than I had left. The instant I focused on the clasp, something would go wrong, and the necklace–a piece of intricate engineering–would be ruined. I did this more than once, more than a dozen times. I’d recognize the situation and think, “it will be different this time.” It was not.

It’s a combination of wanting to complete something ahead of deadline, the need to be done with a project I’ve been working on too long, and the bad decisions made when I’m overtired. It’s rooted in the idea that if I push harder I will do more than if I go to bed. It’s the nasty Catholic-school idea that you don’t rest until your work is done, no matter how tired you are. And I’m not even Catholic.

I want to find that moment I need to quit. Because I keep overshooting it,

Susan Long from Momma Mindy's Moments.

wasting too much time doing over what I should have quit doing while I was ahead.

Tonight, I think I found the answer. The time to quit is long before I make the mistake. I keep thinking I need to stop right before the mistake. But that’s not it. The time to stop is while everything is still going well. Before tired becomes exhaustion. It’s so counter-intuitive. We don’t go to bed when we are tired, we fall asleep in front of the TV and get up at 2 in the morning, drag ourselves to bed and find our eyes open and our weariness gone. The next day, our eyes feel like they’ve been rolled in panko crumbs and placed on the grill.

The time to quit a project is while it’s still appealing, before it becomes a chore. Yes, there are times to press ahead, but when you grimly fixate on getting it over and done with, you have jumped the shark. (Another example of not knowing when to quit.)

And instead of finding the perfect ending here, I’m going to bed. Before I wreck it. Feel free to give an example of your own.

Quinn McDonald is slowly learning when she’s had enough and needs to quit for the night. Slowly.

27 thoughts on “Knowing When it’s Time to Quit

  1. So I’ve been buying art journaling magazines and books for a few years. How many art journal pages have I created? Maybe 15-20. And in the meantime, I continue to write in my journal every morning which I’ve done for years and years. I seldom doodle even though I love the way it looks in other art journals, etc.

    To get to the point here. While I’m writing in my morning pages yesterday, it finally comes to me: I love to sew and I love fabrics with or without paper/photos, etc. And I thoroughly enjoy fabric collage. Here’s my big moment where I ask the question, “Why not just create art journal pages with my own photos, fabrics, etc., and later put them into a cloth book?” What a concept.

    I have a lot of magazines and a few books to trade at Bookman’s on art journaling with paper and paint.

    I never thought of quitting while I was ahead. I just kept batting my head against the blank journal. NOT!!!!

    Thank you for this article. Love it and forwarded it to some friends. And soon, I’ll start posting my fabric art journal pages on my blog to celebrate my awakening.

    • Why not, indeed? I’m creating loose leaf pages with fabric. Oh, and I don’t sew. I’m SO glad you quit batting your head against the paper and went for the cloth! Please post some photos as you go along–it will encourage others, and you know you are an art instigator!

      • Thanks, Quinn. I plan to do some fabric collaging this weekend. I took some classes with the fabulous KC Willis of Lipstick Ranch in Colorado. A wonderful woman and artist. I’m learning to be more free as a result of some things I learned in her classes. I’ll let you know.

        • Weekends can be wonderful that way. I’m so excited for you because you have a background in the technique, now all you have to do is let your heart race into the joy and meaning-making! Please do tell us what happened over the weekend. (I’m working on my pages, too. I’ll show you mine if you show me yours!)

  2. Oh Quinn, this is SO true….I find myself doing it before company comes over for a meal….I fix and fix and fix and think I have to have everything JUST right and worry if I’m going to have enough variety, if I should fix something else and keep going on and on until I get to the point I’m making a mess. Should have stopped earlier. Same way with wrapping Christmas gifts…..don’t know when to stop and I end up with — let’s just say mitered corners have never looked so bad. LOL

    Meredith in NC who is trying hard to learn to “know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em . know when to walk away……”

  3. Quinn, the title of your post really caught my eye in my inbox this morning. Not so much for the finishing of projects per se but my mind has been on ‘knowing when to quit’ some things I am involved in – committees, voluntary work etc. It really helped to remember that ‘going while things are running well’ is the best way to go and even though I may feel a little sad (there can often be a reluctance to give up ‘good’ things) I am really feeling the need to lay down some things in order to make space for the new so I found a new encouragement to go ahead with my plans to ‘quit’!! Thanks for your inspiration once again!

    • Volunteering and committees are a big reason to quit while you are ahead. Everyone will want you back then. Quitting when you have made a mistake or are being edged out will leave a bad taste in your mouth. Good for you for following that thought!

  4. There are many lessons I’ve learned from living with Fibromyalgia, and this is one of them. I often WANT to continue working, but know I won’t be giving whatever project I’m working on the proper attention it deserves, and anything I do past that point of way-too-tired-to-see will be sub-par. That wakes up the perfectionist in me, who only wants the best. Let it wait until tomorrow, it tells me, when you’ll be rested and refreshed. And usually, when I do that, I finish much faster and with less mistakes than if I’d stayed at it at my less-than-best. 😉

  5. Oh Quinn. I think most of us know this experience all too well. We all feel that time crunch, that there is not enough time in the day for everything. So we push too hard and too much and forget to take a breath and rest. And because we are tired or rushed or stressed, we don’t pay attention as well and we start second-guessing ourselves and end up with a mess. Taking time for yourself to “stop and smell the roses” and rejuvenate goes a long way towards helping things to run more smoothly. And I like that notion of not stopping Just before things fall apart, but stopping while everything is going well and you are still having fun. Then you will want to get back to it and finish (after you are rested). 🙂

  6. This has me thinking. There must be a slider here. Because my tendency is nearly the opposite, I get distracted or bored with a project and seldom finish a project in one sitting. I’m usually OK with going back after a few hours or the next day, but it doesn’t make it easy to hit deadlines. In fact, I hate deadlines because they force me to work at a consistent, sometimes too frenzied pace and I never feel like the work I do when I push is my best. Weird, huh?

    Considering what I now know about sliders and all that middle ground stuff that is so elusive, there must be a place to work more effectively in the middle. Yes?

    • Not weird at all. You are not experiencing the same drive to finish, to get it done against a deadline. You are experiencing the P in the Myers Briggs personality descriptions–I’m not distracted or bored, I’m driven to finish past the point of exhaustion. Or maybe you are feeling a resentment of a project–having a loss of control over it. I’m not thinking of the whole project, I’m just thinking of the end. Neither are good places to be, but they are quite different, in my view.

  7. I’m guilty as well! Although mine presents itself more in the area of inter-personal relationships, I do have several crochet projects that are just shy of the finishing touches to be complete: a beautiful cotton christening gown that needs ribbon threaded through its rows and tacked in place at either end; a purple and white striped shawl that only needs the two pieces stitched together and the ends woven in; baby blankets started with yarns that I can’t find any more of in the stores… ( I know I could probably contact the manufacturer, but they’ve been set aside for years now! ) Fortunately, none of these unfinished projects had a specific deadline, but I can definitely relate to the “just let me get this done already” mentality. I was making the christening gown for my first grandchild – she’s now 7 – it won’t fit her now. The rest of them have been boys.
    But I digress…
    I bet you had some unkind words for the sewing machine repair person — luckily you weren’t injured! The worst thing I’ve had happen with crocheting is the yarn getting knotted in the skein! I think I’ll continue to steer clear of sewing machines myself…

    • I’ve been re-thinking my relationship with sewing machines. But what you said is a bit different from what I am experiencing. You seem not to finish projects just as they are almost done–the opposite of what I was doing. I’m thinking you are a perfectionist. Not finishing a desired object is a sign of the control a perfectionist feels when critiquing her own work. “I could have done better. . .”

  8. Boy you nailed that! I did just that last night, sewing, sewing, sewing, I had to finish and as I was sewing that last little bit I kept wondering if something would happen to make me regret forging on until it was done. Luckily last night I didn’t make a mistake, boy was I happy, I was able to finish it with no hitches. Yeahhhhhhhhhhhh …….. but I have had plenty of the other days.

    • It’s a combination of ambition, completion need and a lack of believing in you own fallibility. If the machine hadn’t fallen apart last night, I would have pressed on until I sewed through my finger. It was going to be something. Luckily, it ended well for you last night.

  9. Oh yeah. I do know what you mean. My story: A long time ago I learned the secret you are sharing here. I used the secret when teaching my child. (We home schooled and I read everything I could get my hands on about the art and science of teaching.) Stop the great book even (especially) if they are begging for more. Put away the craft project for completion on a different day or even a different week. And, like you said, stop while it is still fun. This is a great way to help your child want to come back for more.
    The rest of my story: While I was pretty faithful at using the secret at school I’m not so good at remembering to use it in my own projects. Thanks for the reminder! I needed it.

  10. Hear, hear! Today is the deadline I myself set for the first version of one of the chapters for my dissertation. It is practically done, just a page or two would be fine before sending it to my professor for editing, but it’s hard to stop. New ideas pop into my head, not so much because they are relevant or anything, oh no. They show up just because a voice in the back of my head keeps saying: “You ought to include this too here. You really must. You’ll seem inadequate if you leave it out. It might be relevant, even if YOU don’t think so. You haven’t read enough about this. Stop writing. You have to read that book too.” But the truth of the matter is that at some point you just have to stop and let it go. If you get sucked too deep into it, you won’t see the mistakes you are making at all. You won’t see where you loose the argument.

    So I’m writing those two pages and that’s it. I have a very good and skilled professor as my mentor. She will tell me exactly what my paper needs and doesn’t need. After today I will be done – for now. I will take the rest of the week off and then return to writing after my brain has cooled down.

    Thank you, Q. (Hey, that makes you sound like Q in the Bond-movies!) I really needed a reminder.

  11. Ooooh, Ouch Quinn, you’ve nailed this one. Whether creatively or inter-personally or in so many other scenarios, we “finishers” of the world aim true towards our goals. “Damn the torpedos, fu….oh, just a sec, I think I’m hit.”
    On the bright side, it IS a worthy practice to pay enough attention in order to learn how to stop before the tipping point. And doable, too. I think we students of creative process and self-knowledge have the right radar equipment, we need to not only notice but act upon what its signaling.

    I’m sorry about your card and your machine. Blast that. But if it got you to write this post AND to change your future experiences into NOT passing beyond the pale, sweet dreams tonight and every night!

    • It’s encouraging to know I’m not alone. I laughed out loud at the “Damn the torpedos. . . ” line. That is exactly how I feel! As much as I hated admitting I do this again and again, it was worth knowing that I have to stop before it’s too late.

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