Motivate...or move on?

Sometimes, winners do quit.

If you're toying with giving up on a goal—anything from training for a 300-mile bicycle race or completing yoga instructor training—it's easy to assume a lack of willpower and discipline is to blame. But it can actually be as simple as the goal not being a good fit, something you can't learn unless you set out to achieve it. Since there's such a premium placed on not giving up, we don't talk much about distinguishing between when you should power through versus when to move on.

It comes down to three things:

  • It makes you unhappy. Let’s say you decided you want to run a marathon, but you start training for it and realize you absolutely hate running long distances and have no time to do anything else in your life that brings you joy. “This is a prime example of clinging to a goal when you don’t have to,” says Dorie Clark, author of Reinventing You and adjunct professor at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business in Durham, N.C. “Who really cares if you run a marathon or not? There are other ways to be healthy and challenge your fitness levels that won’t make you unhappy, so change tactics.”
  • You aren’t making progress. “When you set a big goal, you likely set some smaller goals to hit along the way,” says Clark. “If you aren’t checking off any of those smaller stepping stones, that might be a red flag that the goal isn’t right for you. You could persist if you’re enjoying it, but if it all feels like a huge slog, evaluate things.”
  • Your life has changed. Sometimes the thing that seemed like a good goal at one point in your life isn’t right for you anymore. “A goal isn’t a one-time declaration—you need to regularly evaluate things and see if the plan is still working with your life,” says Michelle Segar, Ph.D., author of No Sweat: How the Simple Science of Motivation Can Bring You a Lifetime of Fitness. “Timing is key—ask yourself if now is the right time to try to achieve that goal. If the answer is no, it might not be the right thing to attempt right now.”

That sounds easy enough, but it can get confusing when you aren’t sure if it’s the goal that’s at fault or just a simple lack of willpower. “Goals should feel hard, so ask yourself if it feels impossible because you’re doing all you can and it’s not working or if it feels impossible because you are letting yourself use excuses,” says Joey Thurman, a Chicago-based trainer and author of 365 Health and Fitness Hacks That Can Save Your Life. “Write down every step you’ve taken towards your goal. If you look at the list and see you’ve done everything in your power and still aren’t getting where you want to get, that’s when it’s time to focus on the goal itself.”

However, it can feel socially unacceptable to put the kibosh on a goal. “Our culture prizes the value of persistence,” says Clark. “And a lot of what we do, even as adults, is about winning approval and admiration from other people. There’s a powerful glowing feeling that happens when friends are amazed that you’re going to climb every Fourteener in Colorado—it’s intoxicating. To give that up and explain to people you aren’t actually going to do it is embarrassing and makes you feel like you’re letting people down.”

Powering through for the sake of your reputation is just further proof that your goals have gone astray and it's time to recalibrate. The good news is that any time you give up on one goal, you’re learning something about yourself, which will inform how you set your next goal. “In the military there’s a concept called after-action review, which is a pow-wow after a mission to look at what went right and wrong,” says Clark. “If you treat an unreached goal as a learning opportunity, there’s a lot of valuable data in there that can shape your actions in the future.”