Hard work is an essential ingredient to achieving greatness and advancing your career. Moreover, attributes like persistence and grit can bring you closer to your professional—and personal—goals. But there comes a point when determination becomes damaging and clinging to your goals actually backfires.
Take my coaching client, Xavier, for example. As a client experience director at a media company, Xavier held himself to high expectations. Not only was he spearheading several major initiatives within his team, but he also had several ambitions outside of work, including earning a professional certification and getting his pilot’s license.
When the pandemic hit, Xavier, like many workers, faced a harsh wake-up call. Suddenly, he was overwhelmed, overworked, and responsible for additional demands at home. He simply didn’t have the same bandwidth as before. He felt guilty and inadequate as a result of not being able to reach his many goals.
Xavier is not alone in his struggles. In fact, he is part of the nearly one-half of Americans who say their stress has worsened during the pandemic. The increase is due in part to family demands like childcare and schooling, but also to distractions and a lack of boundaries that stem from working from home.
Stress affects some professionals particularly hard –a group I like to call “sensitive strivers,” who are high-achievers who think and feel everything deeply. Sensitive strivers like Xavier tend to be perfectionists and equate “not doing it all” to “failure.” Instead of respecting their limits, these more emotionally-attuned individuals pile more onto their maxed-out plates and end up swimming against a tsunami of responsibilities.
If you can relate, then it’s time to rethink your approach so you can keep a tight rein on your energy and avoid burning out. The key to creating better balance is to do less, but to this group of tasks, better.
This involves considering where you need to give up goals to create more peace in your professional life, deliberately releasing what no longer serves you, so you can create more space for what will. Here are a few criteria to consider when deciding if you should give up a goal.
When a goal was not yours originally
Telltale signs that a goal wasn’t yours include saying to yourself you “should,” “have to,” or “need to,” achieve versus “wanting to.” For example, if you want a promotion because you’re excited to advance, you’re on the track. But if you’re working your way up the ladder because you’re driven by a sense of obligation, you should step back and take a review of your motivations for action. The former situation is influenced by an authentic inner drive, while the latter is influenced by people-pleasing or fear of missing out.
It can be tricky to differentiate between a goal that’s yours versus one thrust upon you by family, society, or other external forces. One quick way to discern the difference is to recognize that fear-based goals are predicated in avoiding a threat, punishment, judgement, or rejection. Whereas an authentic goal is predicated in moving you toward what is in your best interest and trusting your gut. In fact, studies show that people who make feeling-based choices tend to be more confident and certain in their chosen path.
When the goal brings you mainly distress
It’s normal for your goals to feel a little bit scary and for you to be nervous about whether you can accomplish them or not. Most goals come with some degree of risk, so it’s essential to learn how to tolerate ambiguity and discomfort. But many of my coaching clients come to me after taking on goals that make them even more stressed and frazzled.
If you strive to be a leading thinker and speaker in your industry, this may require you to conquer your nerves about public speaking in large-group settings, as well as get comfortable with criticism from those who disagree with your ideas.
The idea of putting yourself out there should be a little scary, but ultimately should feel invigorating and purposeful. If, on the other hand, your negative feelings go beyond a healthy sense of trepidation and bring profound dread, sleepless nights, or other health consequences, it may be time to let go. Achieving a goal should never come at the cost of your well-being.
When you’re more fixated on the outcome than the process
The arrival fallacy tricks you into thinking you’ll be satisfied and fulfilled once you get a certain title, hit a certain salary, or otherwise reach an external measure of success. But you may have failed to consider whether or not you actually want to acquire the skills you need to reach a goal in the first place. For example, you may set your sights on growing your business to one million a year, but secretly, you don’t really want what comes with a company that size (like building a team, managing budgets, etc).
When you’ve abandoned your own enthusiasm
You’ll likely outgrow certain dreams, but an unchecked commitment to follow through at all costs can keep you stuck to outdated priorities despite the fact that your enthusiasm has disappeared. The effort required to reach your goal could also require you to neglect certain core values you hold dear, such as time with family, autonomy, or transparency. And acting counter to your values to a sure path to disappointment.
When you’re rationalizing it
Sunk cost bias refers to the tendency to irrationally follow through on an action that isn’t paying dividends, simply because you’ve already invested resources. Xavier, the client I mentioned earlier, fell victim to this bias. Soon after he started his professional certification, his job circumstances changed, making the certification irrelevant. Xavier struggled at first to give up this goal because he had already invested in the program. Realizing that he stood to lose even more valuable time, money, and energy if he continued the program helped him move on.
Remember, quitting doesn’t make you a failure. Sometimes giving up a goal is the most courageous—and productive—thing you can do.
Melody Wilding is an executive coach and author of Trust Yourself: Stop Overthinking and Channel Your Emotions for Success at Work.