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Is “Micro-Quitting” Keeping You From Reaching Your Full Potential?

When "good enough" starts to slow you down.

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It’s Tuesday morning and your trusty alarm goes off at 5:30. You roll over and, like most other Tuesdays, start negotiating with yourself. You know you can go run at the track, but do you really want to? You pull yourself out of bed, get dressed, and grab a bar with just enough time to sprint out the door. At the track, you are still sleepy-eyed, half present, and doubtful that you can hold the paces your coach asked for. You haphazardly try, making it through the first two sets before telling yourself it’s too hard and jogging easy the rest of the session.

Maybe some version of this is a regular occurrence in your training schedule, and your race results are not where you want them to be.

You may not even realize it, but micro-quitting may be keeping you from achieving your best in training and racing.

RELATED: How to Resist the Urge to Quit

What is micro-quitting and why do we do it?

female athlete hanging her head sitting on steps exhausted during a track workout
(Photo: Getty Images)

While quitting is giving up entirely, micro-quits are all of the tiny, subtle, almost invisible ways we quit on our goals. Quitting is skipping a hard training session all together; micro-quitting is changing the work/rest interval because you don’t believe you are strong enough to hit it as written. Quitting is choosing not to get out of bed to meet your early morning run group; micro-quitting is hitting snooze, running by yourself, and making the session easier because no one will know.

Micro-quitting is a subtle opting out and giving up. It’s subtle because it’s easy to convince yourself it’s not as bad as fully quitting. Here are some examples of micro-quitting:

  1. Adjusting the number of intervals
  2. Adjusting the target pace/effort
  3. Adding more rest
  4. Not telling your coach
  5. Skipping strength/mobility
  6. Forgetting post session fuel
  7. Arriving late
  8. Avoiding talking about your goals
  9. Stopping a session early
  10. Confusing boredom with fatigue

We are athletes with goals, so why do we micro-quit on those goals? Your brain is designed to keep you safe. Centuries ago, our species needed this wiring to ensure we survived immediate environmental threats. While we have evolved as a species, the brain is still wired for safety. These days our brains try to protect us from any potential negative emotional experience—including failing to hit a goal.

If you go all in, fully commit to your training plan, and still don’t hit your goal, that’s an emotional risk your brain is not designed for by default. Enter: micro-quitting.

RELATED: The Psychology of Setting Motivating and Satisfying Goals

How micro-quitting affects your performance goals

Micro-quitting is the act of avoiding failure and discomfort. Remember, your brain is designed to do this! When you know a training session will be hard or you will be racing in challenging conditions, your brain wants to opt out of the risk of failing by micro-quitting.

Micro-quitting slowly chips away at your progress because you convince yourself you’re doing “enough,” when actually you are selling yourself short and rationalizing taking the easy way out. In the process, you are not being honest with yourself and/ or your coach. Two main things suffer: your growth and your performance potential.

The result has you getting to the end of another season, tired, ready for a break, and wondering, “Why am I still at the same level?” This can only lead to season upon season of you feeling like you’re “putting in the work” towards your goal, but also feeling defeated and questioning your abilities.

Where do you start if you want to make a change?

See the growth that comes with doing what is hard and understand that discomfort is the currency to your dreams. Choose to see failure differently to challenge your brain to be more open to it.

Your performance goals are achieved when you stop avoiding emotional discomfort, when you practice self-integrity by showing up, giving your best effort, and believing it’s good enough—no matter how loud the desire to micro-quit is.

RELATED: Test Your Mind: Mental Performance Assessment for Endurance Sports

4 steps to turn micro-quits into micro-commitments

athlete woman recovering after training, smiling after turning micro-quits into micro-commitments
(Photo: Getty Images)

If you find yourself micro-quitting, here are the ways to transform that tendency.

Make a list

Think about your training in the last month. What are all of the ways you micro-quit? Think about it objectively, without judgment. Let yourself be honest. This is an awareness exercise. Make a list of the choices, behaviors, actions, or inactions that were micro quits.

Get clear

Look back at your list and eliminate the instances when you were honoring your body. There is a difference between having the body awareness to know when to listen to your body and rest vs. having the self awareness to know when you are just avoiding discomfort. Micro-quits are the latter.

Redefine failure

The fear of failure is the no. 1 reason athletes micro-quit. If you are no longer afraid to fail and instead embrace it as part of your process, there is no reason to micro-quit. Choose to see trying and forward progress as an opportunity to learn and grow as an athlete. This is an example of being open to emotional discomfort.

Micro-commit

Look at your list of micro-quits and pick one to focus on at a time. Decide what the opposite, a “micro commitment,” would look like. Then ask yourself this question: what would I need to believe to make that happen? Repeat. The sum total of your micro commitments will determine your goal achievement.

When you quit micro-quitting

When you make the decision to stop micro-quitting, you show up for yourself in an entirely different way. You will notice your confidence build as a by-product of increased self-integrity and self-trust.

There’s a sense of genuine pride that comes with not just ticking a box, but intentionally giving your best. The more you practice this in training, the more you will execute your races in the same way.


Vanessa Foerster is a certified life coach and competitive athlete who teaches mental endurance to athletes. Her podcast, Train Your Mind, offers weekly episodes on tapping into your brain power to unleash your physical power.