Knowing When to Quit

There’s a mistake I make over and over again—I just 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 and be a hero. So wrong.

It doesn’t work that way. Right at the moment when the glorious completion 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.  The cats ran out of the studio as if pursued. They were. By a large chunk of sewing machine.

Mechanically separated. . . .something. Probably mammal.

Mechanically separated. . . .something. Probably mammal.

The card. Oh, the poor card. The one I’d been working on for two hours. The one you are not seeing a picture of because it looks pre-digested. Mechanically separated.

I could give you a hundred other examples. When I am close to completing a workbook for a training class, I start to make formatting mistakes. Suddenly the Table of Contents is on page 56. I have no idea how it got there. Page numbers sprout letters behind them. I have done this more than once, more than a dozen times. I’d recognize the situation and think, “it will be different this time.” It never is.

Cut it into tiny pieces to set it free. Then throw it out.

Cut it into tiny pieces to set it free. Then throw it out.

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, 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.


17 thoughts on “Knowing When to Quit

  1. This is my biggest problem. I am a mixed-media artist and I ruin many of my art pieces because I don’t know when to quit. I resolve to pack up after 3 hours and then I say… just one more dab of red paint in the top right corner… and two hours later I have a totally different painting that is a big mess!

    • Yep, that’s a common problem among my coaching clients–how to know when to stop painting or writing. How to know when a work is complete, as opposed to finished. You might want to have two pieces in creation at the same time–that allows you to balance work with judgment.

  2. Actually it’s when I hit hell or high water that I know it is time to stop. I never see it coming, and I take the first mistake as my notice to walk away. I’m okay with that. I haven’t blown anything up. Yet.

  3. This is so very insightful. Although, I think I need to develop a stamina for long-term projects. I find that I tire out too soon, even on the good worthy dreamy projects. I do like the discipline of stopping before you make a mistake. That is one of the best things I know to do when painting. If my next idea feels like it might “ruin” the piece, then I know it’s about as close to good as I can get it!

    • One of my collage teachers (Elizabeth Nelson) said something brilliant in class: “The worst thing a collage artist can say is, “Hmm, I liked that much better an hour ago.” that’s such a big truth!

  4. I have been there lots of times too:
    Finishing a project with the sewing machine late in the evening NEVER works for me; either I completely ruin it or a milder alternative is that my last needle breaks and there is not enough thread in the bobbin.
    Last week I assembled a calligraphy origami book. I worked extremely cautiously not to ruin a part of my book. I had already put a lot of time and work in it and suddenly one part was missing: I turned the supplies on my table over and over, searched under the table, in every room… until I realized that I had it in front of me and used it to try my inks on it…..

    • ARRRGHHHHHH. I’m SO sorry. Incidentally, that is exactly what I would do, too. And the whole secret working of the bobbin is a big mystery to me, too. Although the machine I have now is MUCH easier to thread than the last one. I”m so sorry for the calligraphy book. That stinks.

    • I sometimes think, “if only I listened to what I said to my clients and did it myself, this would be easier.” Alas, it’ much harder than it sounds. I have great empathy for my clients.

  5. Time to make a wildly attractive sign with “STOP NOW” on it, to put within eyesight of your work area! And sorry for your creative loss. That really stinks. Thankful that you were not hurt in the incident.

  6. I am printing this one and putting right in front of me as I work on this project. Oh do I need reminded!!!!!! Thanks for making it real!

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