How long should you stick with something, be it a project, task, or job? A look at the research shows that, while there are many benefits to perseverance, there are also downsides. For example, not giving up can mean people persist even when they have nothing to gain, wasting time and energy. Remaining fixated on long cherished goals can also mean ignoring better alternatives. Being unwilling to let go can lead you to be perpetually dissatisfied — even when you end up getting what they thought they wanted. And, finally, a resistance to giving up on goals can even negatively affect your health. So when you ask yourself whether to stick with a task or goal, or to let it go, weigh the potential to continue learning and developing incrementally against the costs, dangers, and myopia which can come with stubborn perseverance.
When Vontae Davis walked off the field at halftime, the Buffalo Bills were down 28-6 to the Los Angeles Chargers. But instead of huddling with teammates, the Bills cornerback quit football entirely, right then and there. Later that evening, Davis announced his retirement on social media, saying “today on the field, reality hit me hard and fast: I shouldn’t be out there anymore.” Many were outraged, including Bills linebacker Lorzenzo Alexander: “It’s just completely disrespectful to his teammates.” But some disagreed, saying Davis was “a goddamn working class hero.”
While unorthodox, Davis’s abrupt mid-game retirement sparked strong emotions for a variety of reasons, including a question many of us ask: How long should I stick with something? Fortunately, we don’t have to rely on NFL commentators to find answers to this question.
Perseverance has received lots of support in recent years from a variety of schools of research. One is from psychologists studying grit. They have found the capacity to stick to a task — particular when faced with difficulties – is a crucial factor in explaining the success of everyone from kids in the national spelling bee to recruits at West Point to Ivy league undergraduates.
Then there’s the idea that persevering in the face of adversity can prompt learning and improvements of skills. Carol Dweck’s work on growth mindsets has found that those who treat challenges and limitations as an opportunity to develop and learn tend to perform better in the long term. They persist when they face challenges, and the reward is a deeper and wider skill set.
For each question give yourself a score from 1 (almost never true) to 5 (almost always true).
If I had to stop pursuing an important goal in my life…
1. It’s easy for me to reduce my effort toward the goal. 2. I find it easy to stop trying to achieve the goal. 3. I am not committed to the goal for a long time; I can let it go. 4. It’s easy for me to stop thinking about the goal and let it go. 5. I think about other new goals to pursue. 6. I seek other meaningful goals. 7. I convince myself that I have other meaningful goals to pursue. 8. I tell myself that I have a number of other new goals to draw on. 9. I start working on other new goals.
10. I put effort toward other meaningful goals.
Once you’ve completed the test, add up your score of questions 1-4. This will give you a sense of how good you are at disengaging from an existing goal. The average score is about 10. If you scored 13 or more, then you are very good at disengaging from old goals. If you scored 7 or less, then you are very bad at disengaging from old goals.
Now add up your scores for questions 5-10. That will give you a sense of how good you are at setting new goals. The average is 21-22. If you scored 26 or more, the you are very good at setting new goals. If you scored 17 or less, then you are very bad at setting new goals.
A final benefit of perseverance is that we don’t know when our luck will turn. A recent study of the careers of nearly 29,000 artists, filmmakers, and scientists found that most of them had a hot streak in their career when their work received wide acclaim. These hot streaks happened at a random time in their career, however. They weren’t related to age, experience, or even being more productive. They just happened. This suggests that if you’re thinking about quitting, you should remember a hot streak could be just around the corner.
Other research challenges these findings, however. One recent meta-analysis of studies of over 66,000 people found that there was actually a weak link between grit and performance. And a recent study of over 5,600 students taking scholastic aptitude tests found that there was no link between growth mindsets and scores on the test. People with a growth mindset were not more likely to improve if they took the test again, nor were they more likely to even try to take the test again. And the research on the artists’ hot streaks? It turns out most people had only one; second acts were comparatively rare, particularly for filmmakers. So if you’ve already enjoyed a streak of success, the odds are against you enjoying another one.
In fact, there’s a large body of work showing that perseverance may have a harmful downside. Not giving up can mean people persist even when they have nothing to gain. In one study, people working on an online platform were given a very boring task. The researchers found those who said they were very persistent continued to do the task despite the fact it was boring and there was little to be gained in terms of monetary reward. So while it might be valuable to persist with worthwhile and rewarding tasks, people who don’t quit often continue with worthless tasks that are both uninteresting and unrewarding, ultimately wasting their time and talents.
Remaining fixated on long cherished goals can also mean people ignore better alternatives. A great example of this are baseball players on minor league teams. These players often receive low pay and have little job security, but live in hope of being spotted and making it into the major league. Only about 11% of players will make that transition. The other 90% are left languishing for years. If they stopped playing baseball, they would be more likely to find alternative employment which was more secure, paid more, and had a more defined career path. In sort, by remaining under the spell of their dream, they are unable to explore other options which might be more lucrative.
Being unwilling to let go can lead to people being perpetually dissatisfied — even when they end up getting what they thought they wanted. This was nicely illustrated in a study of graduating college students searching for a job. The researchers found students who had a tendency to “maximize” their options and were fixated on achieving the best possible job possible did end up getting 20% more in terms of salary. However, they were generally more dissatisfied with the job they got and they found the process of getting the job more painful.
An unwillingness to quit can be more than just unrewarding. In some situations, it can become downright dangerous. This happens when people’s persistence leads then to continue with, or even double-down on, losing courses of action. One study found that people who were particularly gritty were less likely to give up when they were failing. These same people were more likely to be willing to suffer monetary losses just so they could continue doing a task. Another study of would-be inventors found that over half would continue with their invention even after receiving reliable advice that it was fatally flawed, sinking more money into the project in the process. The lesson: people who tend to be tenacious are also those who get trapped into losing courses of action.
Being unable to let go of cherished but achievable goals can also be bad for your mental and physical health. People who struggle to disengage with impossible goals tend to feel more stress, show more symptoms of depression, be plagued by intrusive thoughts, and find it difficult to sleep. They have higher rates of eczema, headaches, and digestion issues. Being fixated on unachievable goals is also related to high levels of cortisol (which over time is linked with things like weight gain, high blood pressure, negative mood and sleeping problems) and higher levels of C-reactive protean (which is linked with inflammation in the body).
So when you ask yourself whether to stick with a task or goal, or to let it go, weigh the potential to continue learning and developing incrementally against the costs, dangers, and myopia which can come with stubborn perseverance.
André Spicer is a professor of Organizational Behavior at Cass Business School in London and the author of Business Bullshit.