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How To Let Go Of A Goal (And Still Feel Good About Yourself)

Not all goals are worth keeping. Here's how to release yourself from a New Year's resolution that shows up on your list again and again.

[Photo: Flickr user Carbon Visuals]

If you’re in the habit of making New Year’s resolutions, you may notice that, over time, the list becomes oddly familiar. You’re still trying to lose the same 10 lb. or finish your degree, or start that business. Truly, this could be the year it happens, but what if you decide it isn’t? How can you let go of a long-term goal with your self-esteem intact?

"It’s good that we hesitate about letting go of goals," says Bob Nease, former chief scientist at Express Scripts and author of the forthcoming book The Power of Fifty Bits: The New Science of Turning Good Intentions into Positive Results. "If we let go too quickly, we let go of the opportunity to surprise ourselves and do things we didn’t think we could do."

That said, guilt is an emotion best reserved for instances when you’ve actually hurt someone. "I’m all for keeping your word, but if the goal really doesn’t fit your life anymore, and it’s become something that you use to feel bad about yourself, keeping the goal isn’t serving anyone, least of all you," says Kate Hanley, author of the forthcoming book A Year of Daily Calm.

Here are five ways to let go of a goal while still feeling good about yourself:

Decide the goal isn’t yours

Consider why you set your goal. If you want to get a degree because you enjoy the subject and think it will help your career, that’s great. If it’s because everyone else you know has a similar degree and you think they’re judging you, "I’d argue that your goal isn’t self-driven. It’s designed to keep others happy, and you really don’t have control over others’ happiness," says Hanley. Life is too short to judge yourself according to others’ expectations. Focus on the goals you’ve set because they matter to you.

Put it on the someday list

I love productivity guru David Allen’s idea of a "someday/maybe" list. It’s a good place to park goals that sound appealing, but may not be appropriate for your current season of life. I’ve run one marathon, and perhaps someday I’ll run another, but for now, half-marathons are a lot easier to fit into a schedule that involves working full time and caring for four small children.

Consider what you’d tell a friend

"People in general are a lot harder on themselves than on other people," says Nease. So frame the issue like this: "If it were my best friend who was having this same issue, what would I tell him?" If he was giving up on the goal of getting a better job because he believed no one would hire someone like him, you’d work to boost his confidence and tell him to keep trying. But if he was making himself miserable because he weighed 10 lb. more than in high school, you’d probably tell him not to make such a big deal about it. You could tell yourself the same thing.

Think small

Small wins are very motivational. So while the idea of "big hairy audacious goals" (to quote Jim Collins) still has its proponents, you might consider leaning toward the philosophy that you are consciously letting go of big goals in favor of smaller, very reachable goals. You’re not aiming to meet your soul mate this year, you’re aiming to go on more dates and meet new people. "Better to back off a little bit and shoot low, and then ratchet up as you succeed, rather than shoot high and ratchet down," says Nease. "That’s pretty painful."

Focus on processes

In the end, goals are probably overrated. "We may spend too much time thinking about goals," says Nease. "What matters is behaviors. That’s what gets us to goals." Rather than setting a goal to lose 10 lb., you set a goal to eat 5 servings of vegetables a day and exercise for 30 minutes 4 times per week. Maybe you’ll lose weight and maybe you won’t, but you’ll definitely be healthier, which ideally was your motivation for losing weight in the first place.

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