Have you ever quit pursuing a goal that you really cared about?
Maybe it was a dream you had as a child. Personally, I can remember when I was a sophomore in high school and gave up on my aspiration to play college basketball.
Or, how about an aspiration you had for your career? In 2012, I quit being the CEO of the first startup I founded. That was tough...
Why do we give up?
There are many personal reasons we can cite for why we quit pursuing a dream or a goal. Some common reasons I often hear from people who are considering quitting are:
lack of progress;
they’re no longer enjoying the process;
or doubt, insecurity, and fear are making them believe their goal is just impossible.
Each of these may be compelling reasons to quit, but they are just symptoms of something deeper going on inside of our minds.
If we can understand why we really quit, we can find the deeper motivation to continue pursuing the goals that are most dear to us, even when the chips are down.
So why do we really quit?
Ultimately, our motivation, or desire to quit, is a byproduct of mental reward and suppression mechanisms that have been spurring human advancement for millenia.
If you can understand how these neurological mechanisms work, you can uninstall your quit reflex for good and pursue your dreams without interruption.
If you want to hack your quit reflex, you first have to understand how two neurotransmitters, dopamine and norepinephrine, work together to keep you motivated...or compel you to give up.
Dopaminergic Reward System (reward) - You’ve probably heard about dopamine before. It’s the feel good chemical your body releases when you reach the finish line and accomplish a goal. It’s also a neurotransmitter that gets released as you’re pursuing a goal in order to keep you motivated. This is important to understand as it relates to quitting.
Norepinephrine (effort) - Norepinephrine (it’s not easy to pronounce... naw·reh·puh·neh·fruhn) is a lesser known neurotransmitter, but it’s very similar to adrenaline. Once dopamine has helped us get motivated, norepinephrine gets released and helps us turn that motivation into action, and hustle towards our goals. Norepinephrine makes periods of great effort possible.
The Norepinephrine Quit System - Without further ado, here is why we really give up. There is a circuit in our minds that links dopamine’s “rewards” with norepinephrine’s “effort injections.” And when we strive toward a goal for too long without receiving any dopamine rewards, the brain stops supplying us with norepinephrine for effort. So we quit…
Neuroscientists hypothesize that this system evolved to make sure that our species didn’t recklessly pursue a goal until it became too risky, and potentially harmful.
For example, if our former tribal selves were pursuing an animal for food during the day and didn’t get it by nightfall, the Norepinephrine Quit System would likely trigger and cause us to go in for the night. Otherwise, if we pursued the animal at night, we may risk becoming the prey ourselves.
Three ways to hack your "I give up" reflex (Norepinephrine Quit System)
Now that we know why we really quit, we can learn how to pursue our most important goals through thick and thin. Here are two effective strategies that hack the Norepinephrine Quit System, and one strategy that will effectively uninstall it.
1. Micro Goals (hack): Since norepinephrine is released every time we get a hit of dopamine, it makes sense that we may want to break our larger goals up into much smaller ones. This way we’re hitting goals more frequently and getting more dopamine and norepinephrine injections along the way to our larger goal.
Here's a great example of this from fellow mindset coach Tom Short, based on the work of Eric Potterat, Ph.D.
If you are going on a 2 mile run, it's better not to think about the 2 miles. Instead, find something in front of you, say a stop sign, and run to that. Feel that small sense of accomplishment. Then find the next thing - a stop light. And the next. The 2 miles will be up before you know it.
2. Visualization (hack): The subconscious mind cannot tell the difference between what is real and what is imagined. This is one of the many reasons why I love visualization.
Whenever you’re feeling a little unmotivated, you can close your eyes and imagine yourself achieving your goal and get some dopamine and norepinephrine. If you’re going to do this, keep in mind that visualization works much better when relaxed, such as after meditation, and with a little inspirational music playing in the background.
3. Meaning & Purpose (uninstall): Neuroscientists study Navy Seals when they want to better understand quitting. These soldiers seem to have superhuman motivation in order to endure the insanity of becoming a Seal.
What they’ve learned is that Seals who make it all the way through Hell Week (the most intensive week of Seal training) have an internal meaning or purpose that supplies a continuous stream of dopamine and norepinephrine.
It could be genuine patriotism, or maybe they’re fighting for someone close to them who died in combat. Whatever their “why” is, the Norepinephrine Quit System is not much of a factor for them.
This is also why we dedicate walkathons to charitable causes, like the American Cancer Society. It’s a lot easier to keep putting in effort when new doses of dopamine and norepinephrine are being supplied with every mile you walk for a cause.
And leaders, keep in mind that all three of these strategies can be applied to teams just as well as individuals.
So “why” are you pursuing your primary goal?
If you’re not sure, do this simple exercise. Take thirty very deep breaths, then relax and reflect on why you’re really going after your goal. If you can find your deeper “why”, you can continuously come back to it during times of challenge and get a continuous supply of reward and effort.
P.S. This post was intended to help people learn how to complete their goals without so much struggle. But it's important to state that it's okay to quit when it feels right. Sometimes we outgrow our goals. And sometimes the experience and learnings from seeking a goal are more rewarding than the goal itself. Sometimes our missions and purposes change.