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When is it appropriate to give up on a goal?

We all have limits, and it’s important to be honest about them in the pursuit of our goals.

When is it appropriate to give up on a goal?
[Photo: Mishal Ibrahim/Unsplash]

It’s a month into 2019, and you’re starting to reflect on the progress that you’ve made (or haven’t made) on your resolutions. Have you stuck to your budget? Are you still putting on your running shoes every morning and going for that three-mile jog? Are you still practicing screen-free mornings?

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As we’ve written many times in Fast Company, fulfilling your goals often require a strong why and the willingness to change your old habits. But even when you have both of these elements, sometimes you start to get a nagging feeling that whatever it is you’re pursuing just isn’t worth it anymore. When should you listen to that gut feeling?

The limits on grit and perseverance

The working and productivity world glorifies grit and perseverance. Research indicates that grit is the number one indicator of high performance and that it trumps factors like strategy, IQ, talent, or ability.

But as Eric Baker pointed out on his book, Barking Up the Wrong Tree: The Surprising Science Behind Why Everything You Know About Success Is (Mostly) Wrong, even grit and perseverance have their limits. For every goal you’re trying to accomplish, you’re trading off the opportunity cost to do another. He wrote, “While grit is often about stories, quitting is often an issue of limits–pushing them, optimizing them, and, most of all, knowing them.”

Baker recounted the story of Spencer Glendon–a PhD graduate from Harvard and a partner at one of the biggest management funds in Massachusetts. As a teenager, he suffered from chronic ulcerative colitis, which left him with a weak immune system. Certain days, this condition left him bedridden and unable to do anything beyond cooking dinner–the one activity he chose to complete every day when he was unable to do anything more.

Glendon didn’t have the luxury of attempting too many goals, because his body wouldn’t let him. But many people do, because as Baker pointed out, they’re optimistic about how much more time and money they can have in the future.

When you set your resolutions at the start of the year, you might have had every intention to train for that marathon before work and spend your evenings building your side hustle. But a month on, you might find that taking on both of these goals leaves you exhausted and on the edge of burnout. You might find that in order to follow through on one, you need to give up the other.

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The difference between being ambitious and delusional

Just as humans overestimate how much they can get done in a given amount of time, they also set goals that set themselves up to fail. The world often praises those who strive to do the impossible and find a way to make it happen.

But as Michael Hyatt, creator of the Full-Focus Planner, told Laura Vanderkam in a previous Fast Company article, there are some goals that are in the “delusional” zone.  He acknowledges that an effective goal should be in the “discomfort” zone, so that you experience “some fear, some uncertainty, and some doubt.” When you wonder if you have what it takes, Hyatt explained, that’s where growth takes place.

But delusional goals ignore limitations and factors that you often have little power over.  “That would be me deciding I want to play in the NBA,” he told Vanderkam. A less extreme example is deciding that you want to get a promotion in a specific time frame. Sure, you might be a stellar and proactive employee, but you have very little control about how the company decides the budget or their plans to restructure. Your focus is on an outcome that isn’t in your control, which means that you’ll probably be demoralized if it doesn’t come true. In this instance, it might be best to quit this goal, and reframe it so that your objective is something that doesn’t rely on external factors.

When your goal isn’t the best way to serve your purpose

Sometimes, your drive to accomplish a particular goal comes from your desire to solve a deep-rooted problem. Former lawyer Paula Davis-Laack was extremely unhappy in her legal career, and initially, she believed that the answer to that was to quit her job and become a pastry chef. “Thankfully, I had the sense to do an internship for a week, only to realize that I hated it–every minute of it,” she wrote in a previous article for Fast Company. She did eventually land a new career that fulfilled her, but it required a series of small experiments and “failures.”

You might have started off the year adamant that you’re going to do meal-prep on Sunday evenings, only to realize that it makes you more stressed and frazzled. Say that your purpose for this goal is to reduce the temptation of buying takeout–there’s no reason why you need to cook your meals all at once. You can spread it out over Saturday and Sunday, or make it more enjoyable by inviting a friend or treating it like a date with your partner. Don’t get stuck on a goal when it’s not working for you, because that’s just going to make you miserable.

The importance of embracing life as an experiment

Davis-Laack used a design thinking approach to her career journey–observing the problem, brainstorming ideas to solve it, then prototyping solutions to it while getting feedback and making tweaks in the process. Once she’s validated the “utility” of that solution, then she implements it. In her case, she applied to a positive psychology program at the University of Pennsylvania and became a speaker, writer, and coach who helps people cope with burnout and improve their resilience.

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This is an approach that Bill Burnett and Dave Evans advocate in their book, Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Lifebased on their popular class at Stanford. Rather than “accumulating accolades,” Burnett and Evans encourage people to think about life as a series of experiments to determine which goals are worth pursuing in the first place.

In the process, you might realize that some of the goals you wanted to pursue don’t actually align with your priorities, or that your priorities have changed. Don’t be afraid to quit–it will free up time and energy so that you can work on the goals that do matter.

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About the author

Anisa is the assistant editor for Fast Company's Work Life section. She covers everything from productivity to the future of work

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