Let’s talk about goals. Specifically, let’s talk about when it’s time to give up on a goal.
While having goals can certainly be helpful, the fact is not all goals are worthwhile. Sometimes we don’t realise this until we give a particular goal a try. Sometimes, the reality of working towards a goal turns out to be very different from what we imagined it would be. Whatever the case, we can find ourselves in the sticky middle where we’re just not sure what to do next.
Most goals come with their challenges, obstacles, ups and downs. This is part of the course and can be a growth opportunity. Other times this is a sign that a goal is no longer a good fit or relevant to our current situation. The key is knowing how to discern between the right time to persevere and when it’s in our best interests to stop.
Earlier this year, I enjoyed reading Succeed by Heidi Grant Halvorsen. If you’re currently asking “Should I stay or should I go?” Heidi suggests a few helpful questions for deciding whether it’s time to give up on a goal:
Do I want to give up on a goal because I don’t believe I’m capable?
According to Heidi, this is the one reason we should never give up on a goal. Despite what our inner critic (or other parts of our internal dialogue) might tell us, it’s not true. If we stop pursuing a goal based on this notion, we’re just re-enforcing this belief. It will only be stronger—and therefore a bigger hurdle to overcome—the next time we set ourselves a challenge.
If you’re dealing with this belief, take a look at your mindset. Do you have a fixed mindset or a growth mindset? Do you believe capabilities and intelligence are fixed traits? Or do you think they are things that can grow and develop with time and experience? As you might guess, the latter is the most helpful (and the most rational) approach. Heidi explains it’s important to unhook our sense of self-worth from what we achieve and focus on “getting better” rather than “being good”. If you’re interested in going deeper with this mindset shift, two great books that tackle this subject are The Pursuit of Perfect by Tal Ben-Shahar and Mindset by Carol Dweck.
Is this goal conflicting with other goals I have?
If yes, then it might be time to adjust it (or the goal it’s conflicting with). For obvious reasons, conflicting goals don’t work well together. That doesn’t mean you can never pursue the goal you stop now, but consider shelving it for review at a later date.
This also applies if you’re pursuing several goals at once and not making progress with any of them. We only have a finite amount of time and energy in each day. Taking on too much at once is more of a hindrance than a help and is a common form of self-sabotage.
What’s my intention for pursuing this goal? What is my biggest motivation?
Motivation generally falls into one of two categories: intrinsic and extrinsic. Intrinsic motivation is internally generated. In the book, Heidi talks about intrinsic motivation growing from three core needs:
- Competence: being able to influence your environment and get the things you want from it
- Relatedness: loving and being loved
- Autonomy: the freedom to choose and organise your experience
If we’re pursuing a goal for extrinsic reasons, we’re usually doing so for validation or to boost our sense of self-worth. Extrinsically motivated goals are unlikely to satisfy us or make us happy. If you suspect your goal is more about getting approval and validation from external sources, either shift the goal so it’s more aligned with the needs above or ditch it in favour of something that comes from your internal desires and wants.
Is this goal costing me too much in terms of stress, relationships or other resources?
Sometimes we can have the right motivation and it can just be the wrong goal. If a goal’s negative effects on your life are outweighing its positive, that’s a sign it’s time for a rethink. This might be about the way you’re approaching it or about whether the goal itself is workable at this time.
When it’s hard to give up on a goal
Sometimes, it’s hard to stop pursuing a goal even when we know deep down it’s the right thing to do. This can happen when the goal is part of our identity or self-image. It can also happen when we don’t want to stop because we’ve sunk a lot of time and energy into the goal already (called the “sunk cost fallacy”) or we don’t want to feel like a failure.
Even when this is the case, we usually know deep down when stopping is the right thing to do. More often than not, the thought of giving up comes with a visceral sense of relief. We might notice our shoulders drop an inch—or several. We might notice ourselves take a deep, long breath. We might notice our mood shift to one that is lighter and more hopeful.
If you know the best thing you could do is to stop pursuing one of your goals but doing so feels hard, try replacing it with another, more suitable goal. Think about what you’ve learned from this experience and use those lessons to create a replacement goal that is better aligned with your needs, values, priorities and commitments.
How do you know when it’s time to stop pursuing a goal? Leave a comment and share your thoughts.
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Image: Michelle Spencer