It's Okay to Quit, Sometimes

When I started learning Swift, I hated it. I’d been programming in Objective-C for six years, and Swift felt unfamiliar and unforgiving. I can’t remember how many times I must have cursed out loud working with optionals or custom initializers the first few times. But I stuck with it and, eventually, things started to get better. Now I write everything in Swift and love it. If I’d given up at the first sign of trouble, I wouldn’t have picked up a valuable new skill.

When a side project makes you uncomfortable or frustrated, it’s often worth it to push through the discomfort. If you aren’t willing to deal with those early frustrations, you’ll never grow as a developer. Only quitters quit, right?

Except, there are times when leaving a side project behind is the right move. You have to know when it’s time to hang up your saddle and move on. I tend to step away from a side project when I start to feel like I’m overextending myself; taking on too many commitments at once. If you’re always working at 100% capacity, you won’t have any room left for new opportunities that may pop up. Not to mention, you’ll eventually burn out completely. So, I try to leave myself some margin — mentally, physically, and emotionally — to take on something new.

As a society, we equate quitting with failure. If we quit something, we worry people will see us as weak; that we couldn’t “hack it.” But the truth is, most people don’t care. You don’t earn extra credit for slogging through a side project you hate. If it leaves you feeling frustrated, depressed, or angry, you need to ask yourself why. Are you just have a bad week, or is there something deeper going on?

Quitting a project, particularly after spending a lot of time and energy on it, is hard. It’s so intensely personal. You’re the one doing all the work and making all the decisions. It feels like you’re letting yourself down. But you can’t let yourself fall prey to sunk cost bias.

Let's say you and your partner decide to head to the movies for date night. You pay for the tickets & popcorn and settle into your seats, ready to be entertained. But you quickly realize the film sucks. Your first instinct might be to stick it out. You’ve already paid for the tickets and snacks, after all. If you leave you’ll have wasted all that time and money, right? Except, deep down, you know that isn’t true. The money is long gone, whether you like it or not. You might as well salvage what’s left of your evening and play mini-putt or something. There’s nothing to be gained from sitting through a terrible movie. 

The same idea applies to our side projects.

A good side project should bring you joy. It should be something you can’t wait to work on, full of interesting problems to solve. It should teach you a new skill, or expose you to new people. But if you’ve been working on it for a while and aren’t getting anything out of it — except frustration — it might be time to quit. In many ways, it comes down to prioritization. Is finishing your side project more important than other activities you could be doing instead? If not, it’s time to throw in the towel.

Here are a few questions to ask yourself:

  1. Have you been making measurable progress on your side project?
  2. Is your side project teaching you something new?
  3. Is the process of working on your side project still enjoyable?
  4. Does the idea of working on your side project leave you feeling depressed?
  5. If you finish your side project, will you feel good about how much it cost — in terms of time, money, or energy?

There are times we need to grit our teeth and fight through a bad situation. But if your side project, a commitment you’ve willingly chosen for yourself, is the thing bringing you grief, it’s time to quit. Free up your time for a project that will improve your skills, help you grow, and — most important of all — make you happy.