Overcoming the Urge to Quit

Post written by Leo Babauta.

About two months ago, in late November, I did a thing called the Goruck Challenge … it’s a team challenge where you start at 1 in the morning … you wear a weighted backpack, weighing 55-lbs including six bricks and some water and food … you do pushups with the pack on, endless amounts of bear crawls, running and hiking for miles, sometimes carrying a huge log on your shoulders, sometimes carrying a teammate’s pack in addition to your own, sometimes even carrying your teammates. It’s grueling, and it lasted 13 ½ hours.

I have to be honest — there were times I wanted to quit. Especially when we were doing bearcrawls for hours on the beach, in the cold, with my knees raw and bloody from the sand … or when we weren’t allowed to use the straps on our backpacks and had to carry them above our heads … I wanted to quit. But I didn’t. I made it to the end, and making it was an amazing feeling of accomplishment.

I’d been tested, and came out knowing a lot about myself.

But I made it not because I had a goal and was good at goals … not because I have the magical power of “discipline” … but because I have a very simple but powerful habit … I call it “Overcoming the Urge to Quit”.

Running Marathons

Another story: in 2005, I couldn’t run for 10 straight minutes. I tried, but I would be wheezing, my legs would hurt … I was just really out of shape and running was painful. I would just quit after 5 or 7 minutes. But I kept doing 5 to 7 minutes, and practiced this little habit I mentioned, of Overcoming the Urge to Quit.

By the end of 2005, I ran a 5K. Just 3.1 miles, but it felt great. I felt like I could do anything. So I committed, in my local newspaper, to doing my first marathon by the end of 2006, and chronicling it in the paper every 2 weeks.

I now know that was a mistake, trying to do a marathon so close to doing my first 5K. I should have waited at least another year. I spent 2006 training, building up my endurance, but suffered a number of injuries and other setbacks. I ran my first marathon in December 2006, but the last 6 miles were agony. I was dead tired and out of gas, I was cramping up and had to stop to stretch out the cramping muscles, I was mentally dying to quit.

But I didn’t. I made it through those last six miles, and it was a major victory for me. The next month, I started Zen Habits to keep the victories going, but I never would have created Zen Habits if I had quit the marathon.

I overcame the urge to quit. Over and over and over, until I became good at it.

How I Learned the Habit

I learned the habit when I decided to quit smoking, exactly six years to the day before I ran the Goruck Challenge.

Actually, I had already quit smoking … seven times before November 2005. I quit, and failed, seven times, and I really thought I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t figure out why I couldn’t do it, though, so I did a lot of research into quitting smoking and changing habits.

What I learned in that research, and in my successful Quit in November 2005, changed my life … not only because I was able to successfully quit smoking, but because I used those principles of changing habits to start running, to quit eating junk food and start eating healthier, to finally get my finances in order and get out of debt, to reduce my clutter and simplify my life, to stop procrastinating and start being productive, to create Zen Habits and finally find my passion .. just to name a few things I’ve changed.

One of the main things I learned about was the urge to smoke. When I quit smoking, the urge to smoke was a really powerful thing. It would come throughout the day, and when it came, my mind would suddenly lose all self-control, and start to rationalize with me why I should just take one drag on a cigarette. It wouldn’t hurt, right? Why am I putting myself through this pain? And the mind can be an incredibly convincing and powerful rationalizer — more than most of us ever realize.

So how do you beat it? There are just a few things to learn:

1. Self-talk. I learned that the first thing you need to do is to start being aware of your self-talk. This rationalizing self-talk is so powerful mostly because we are not aware of it when it’s happening in our heads. We tell ourselves that it’s OK to quit, that there’s no harm, that we can try again later, that it would be so much easier to stop and rest. Learn to hear that voice, and to realize that it’s not you, that you don’t have to listen to it.

2. Start to also become aware of your urges. They often happen at the same time as your self-talk, but they’re more of a physical feeling rather than a voice. So when I really wanted to smoke, the urge would come as this wave that originated in my belly and built up in my chest, and was very strong. It the same for when you want to stop running, but where it is in your body or how it feels exactly will vary. Become aware of them, don’t just act on them.

3. Last, learn that the urges will pass. They are a wave that builds up, then crests, then dies down. Once you’re past the crest of the wave, you’re OK, but you just need to get through this one urge. When the next urge comes, you just need to get through that. Then you’re OK. You can use deep breathing, self massage, pushups, walking or other physical things to get past the urge.

Once you learn to become aware of the self-talk and urges, and learn to get past them, you can do anything.

The Urge to Quit in Business

This habit doesn’t just help in physical activities like running, eating or smoking. It helps for anything in life.

In 2007, after running my marathon, I started Zen Habits. It was to share some of the things I’d been learning about habits and simplicity and changing my life. By that point I’d lost 25 lbs, had made progress in getting out of debt, was much healthier and happier, much more productive, was an early riser.

I now know that Zen Habits would be a huge success, with millions of readers and eventually allowing me to quit my day job in 2008. But in early 2007, it wasn’t — in fact, no one read it but my mom and wife Eva. I didn’t know how to get people to read my blog, though I thought I had good content.

A few readers found me, and then a couple hundred, but it was hard going. I was working a full-time job, plus working feverishly as a freelance writer on the side to try to cut down our debt, plus I had a wife and six kids who wanted my time … when would I find time to blog?

I woke early and wrote. I wrote during my lunch break instead of going out like my coworkers did. I wrote at night. I wrote in breaks at work instead of playing computer games like coworkers did. It was a lot of hard work, and I probably wrote more than any other blogger in 2007 — 7-8 articles on Zen Habits per week, another 2-5 guest posts per week, plus I was doing freelance blogging for 5 other major blogs per week. Probably 15-20 posts per week.

There were times I wanted to quit, because it wasn’t easy and I wasn’t always seeing results. But I overcame that urge to quit, and kept going. Zen Habits took off, and by the end of 2007 I had 26,000 readers … I had a book deal from a major publisher … I’d sold my first ebook and gotten out of debt … and I was ready to quit my day job. It was quit a year, full of victories, that would never have happened if I’d given up.

I’m glad that I didn’t give up, each of the times I told you about and many more. I’m a stronger person because of it, and my life is loads better. I’ve learned more about myself than ever, and I now know I can do anything.

You can to, with this simple habit.