How do you know when it’s time to let go of a goal?

Everyone has a dream. But what happens when you’re working hard, playing the game, doing everything “right” but you’re still not getting anywhere?

Giving up has got a bad reputation. The rise in social media has led us to believe that if we just keep going we will get there. If we just grin a bear it, we will succeed. But can this be true?

If you think of the infinite number of people out there who have the same goal as you, how is it possible that everyone will succeed? Success has never just been about talent or hard work, it’s also about luck, connections, self-belief and access to resources. Perhaps the good will not always out?

So what do you do when you’ve been grinding away at something, only to find yourself working harder and harder just to stay in the same place you’re at? It can feel like sinking in quicksand, the more you do, the quicker you fall.

Why does giving up get such a bad reputation?

Because it’s ingrained in our culture to view giving up as a bad thing. Capitalism relies on the puritan work ethic — you must keep doing, keep being productive in order to be pure and worthy. Capitalism relies on everyone believing in the American dream, that if you just work harder than your neighbour, you can rise to the top, be the millionaire, change your life. But all it leads to is a large population of people just working harder and harder for less and less. Because there’s not enough room at the top for everyone, and that is the way capitalism likes it.

If we were all comfortable with accepting we worked hard and tried, but it didn’t work out and now it’s time to move on to something new and enjoy life again, imagine the risk! When people start valuing living overdoing and working, cracks start to appear in the narrative that keeps capitalism going.

We’re indoctrinated from an early age at school into this way of thinking. If you find a subject hard, you’re told to work harder, study more and get better, never to think about giving it up in favour of something else.

And that is the ideological problem with giving up.

Why ‘giving up’ is one of the most powerful things we can do

Giving up requires strength, courage and a deep understanding of yourself. And that is dangerous. When you give something up that has been consuming your time and energy for little reward, you’re saying to yourself that you value ‘being’ instead of ‘doing’. You value the small daily moments of beauty and joy that make life worth living and are so readily lost to endless to-do lists of ever evasive goals. You’re saying that you’re a person, not a machine. And you’re saying that you understand what makes you happy and what doesn’t and you’re prepared to stick by that.

Carrying on with a doomed project or a goal that doesn’t make you happy anymore makes no sense. There’s no value in it for anyone. What if you finally achieved that goal, but you’ve spent five years hating, moaning and begrudging the work you had to do to get there — do you think you’d be happy? Or do you think you will be scarred from the process and take this jaded view of the work in with you?

The power in giving up is remembering that things change — you change, circumstances change, industries change, economies change. All good projects require regular risk assessments, and your personal goals and projects should be no different. Are you spending too much money on this? Are you spending too much time on your goal and neglecting the aspects of life that make it worth living? Does the goal your working towards still reflect your values or have you changed along the way? Do you find joy in working towards the goal or has the joy been lost for you?

But perhaps the most important question to ask is, are you just doing this because you think you should?

The difference between should and want

Should is a bad word when it comes to anything in life. I should wash the dishes, I should spend less money, I should drink less alcohol… But if you just swap it out for want — I want to wash the dishes (OK, a stretch I admit), I want to spend less money, I want to drink less alcohol — you can immediately feel a change from flat and grey and depressing to a vibrant, intentional statement of action.

It’s important to think about how much of your goal you’re currently working towards because you ‘should’ do it, rather than you ‘want’ to do it. Should is other people’s expectations and societal constructs that aim to keep you tethered to traditional paths of success. But want hints at something deeper, a more intense desire.

You need to assess how much of what you are doing you’re doing because you or someone else or society thinks you ‘should’ be doing it, and compare that to the elements of the work you’re doing towards your goal that you want to be doing.

A recipe for happy giving up

  1. Get off the treadmill

Stop working towards that goal. Say to yourself that is the end of that path. Admitting that you want to give up is the first step.

2. Sit with all your feelings that come up

We’re conditioned to think that giving up makes us inadequate, but that’s wrong. It takes courage and strength to give up. Make peace with your decision.

3. Objectively review everything you did from the beginning of starting the goal to the point you gave up

What worked? Celebrate those successes. What did you learn along the way? Celebrate what you learned. What did you enjoy along the way? Celebrate what you enjoyed. What did you loathe and hate? Vow never to work like that again. What did you miss out on in life while you were working too hard? Vow never to miss out on life again.

4. Spend a decent amount of time literally ‘having given up’

Take a month or two to do absolutely nothing towards whatever goal you gave up on. Have fun in giving up. Fill your time with joy.

5. Listen to what your unclouded intuition now says

This is the most important part. After following those steps — especially a period of true giving up — your intuition will be telling you what to do next. You might feel 100% liberated from giving up, then celebrate it as the best thing you’ve ever done! Treat yourself to dinner and champagne to celebrate giving up and getting your life back! Or deep down in the depths of your heart, your mind finds that little spark that made you excited to start in the whole thing in the first place. Spend time with it and think. What excited you? Why did you start? What went wrong along the way? You might find that you needed to give up on a traditional way of doing things — that you need to give up on the process instead of the goal. And in that case, make yourself a plan to remind yourself never to do things the way you did before. Set some intentions about why you are doing it, and take yourself out for dinner and champagne to celebrate coming home to your values and finding joy again in something you want to do.

What was the best thing you’ve ever given up on? Or what stops you from giving up on something that no longer brings you joy? Let me know in the comments.

Here’s to happy giving up!

Writer, content creator and non-fiction nerd. Loves big ideas and dogs. Who doesn’t?

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store