When we're not making progress on a goal we've set for ourselves, is letting go ever the right choice?
Choosing between pushing through and letting go
Recent listener emails and conversations in The Productive Woman community Facebook group have raised questions about evaluating when we should consider letting go of a goal that we haven't been making progress on.
What is a Goal?
- The object of a person’s ambition or effort
- An aim or desired result
A goal may be personal, professional, family oriented, or any number of things. We’ve talked many times on this podcast about the importance of setting goals, about having a target to aim toward in planning our day-to-day lives. We’ve talked about choosing goals that reflect our values and our priorities, in the early episodes, and more recently, in the Dream to Done miniseries, in episode 126 (Turning a Dream to a Goal) and episode 129 (Applying the Goal-Setting Process),.
Productivity pros talk about goals a lot. Anywhere you look, whether it’s a productivity podcast, a blog, a book, an article, there’s lots of information out there about goals: how important it is to have them, how to define them, and how to set them. Goal setting is an important part of productivity in the sense of making a life that matters and getting those things done that we care about.
What if we set our goals, but we don’t achieve them?
Sometimes, though, we've set a goal but taken little or no action toward accomplishing it. We might have a vision board on the wall, or maybe we have our goals outlined in our bullet journal or on our computer, but we’re not actually making any progress. What does that mean? Should we give up? What should we do about it?
When we’re not making any progress:
Beating up on yourself is not helpful, but it is important to start with having an honest conversation with yourself about that goal, and why you're not making progress.
First, think about where this goal came from.
- Is it really important to you, or is it someone else’s goal for you?
- Is it there because we think we ought to want to accomplish it?
- Is it there because we think it looks good on a goals list?
- Is it coming from the heart?
If it really is something you care about, then is there some other reason you’re not making progress?
- Is it scary?
- Is it overwhelming?
- Does it seem too big and unachievable?
- Are you putting it off because you're afraid of failing?
- Is the roadblock a lack of confidence?
Example: I realized a while ago that a lack of confidence was a big part of what kept me from writing a novel, which is something I’ve wanted to do since I was a little girl. Though I came up with lots of “legitimate” reasons I didn't have time to write, the real reason I wasn’t doing it was that as long as I didn’t try, then I couldn’t fail. If I tried, and then found that I don’t have the ability to do it, then that dream is gone forever. That lack of confidence in my own abilities kept me from making progress until I saw it, and I faced it, and I overcame it by sitting down and writing. I simply made the decision to do it. Maybe that’s applicable to you.
Maybe it’s that you don’t know where to start.
Maybe you’ve taken a couple of steps and then you got stuck, and you let it sit there for a long time. We talked about this in the Dream to Done series (episodes 125 through 127 and 129), and clear back in episode 26, we did an episode on how to get yourself to do the things you want to do.
Identifying the barriers is the first step. Become conscious and aware of them, and be purposeful about them. For a lot of us, it’s the resistance that Steven Pressfield talks about in The War of Art.
One source of that resistance is our survival instinct. The oldest part of our brain, the amygdala (what some refer to as the “lizard brain“) has the prime directive of survival. It sees anything new or novel as a threat to existence. When we decide we’re going to take on some new project, with a big goal, that part of our brain looks at that new thing that we’ve not done before, and we’re not sure how to do, and says, “If we do that, we’re going to die.” It’s not a conscious thought. It manifests itself in our finding reasons and ways not to do that new thing we say we want to do.
We have to be conscious of what we’re doing, and have a little conversation with ourselves, saying to that “lizard brain,” “I appreciate the care you’ve taken to keep us alive, but it’s not necessary now. I’ve got this. I can do this.” Let the reasoning part of your brain talk to the primitive part of your brain and get yourself started.
How do you know when it's time to let go?
It’s such a personal thing. It comes down to whether it really is your goal, and whether it’s right for you, right now. Just because something’s on your list doesn’t mean you have to do it. That’s the important thing to remember. The fact that you’ve set a goal doesn’t mean you’re bound to that goal forever. It was your choice, and you get to choose again every day. You are in control of the way you spend your time, energy, and attention, and the goals that you pursue.
Maybe there’s something else that has moved to the top of your list, and if you’re having an honest look at the goal you’re not working toward, you may realize something else has become more important.
Shannon Kaiser wrote in a Huffington Post article, “Sometimes, a fulfilling life grows from knowing when to let go of one goal, and trade that vision for a new one. Savoring what you’ve learned along the way is the key to happiness.”
I love the idea that just because you’ve let go of a goal doesn’t mean you’ve failed or you’ve wasted all the time that you spent pursuing it. Savor what you’ve learned along the way. Even though you’ve decided not to pursue that goal to its completion, you’ve learned and changed and grown as a result of what you did while working toward it or even just thinking about it.
In the article, Kaiser says you know it’s time to let go of a dream when:
- You no longer feel it in your heart.
- It feels like a chore.
- You start to daydream about the future.
One caveat: I’m not sure I agree with the last two. While the main point of the article is well taken, nothing is fun all the time, no matter how much you love it. Some parts of even the most amazing goal, you have to slog through, exercise some discipline, and do the work to get to the fun part. Don’t give up just because it’s not fun today. You might be on the verge of a breakthrough to the piece that’s going to light up your life.
Someday, but not now
Maybe the decision you need to make is to set aside the goal for now. Setting something aside right now doesn’t mean you’ll never do it. It may be something that’s meaningful to you, but it’s not the right time to pursue it, because of your current life stage or other commitments you’ve made or because of where your interests and passions are today. You can decide not to work on it right now.
Going back to my example of writing a novel, once I made the decision to actively pursue that goal, I started, I made a lot of progress, and got a lot of words written, but then I reached a stage where I was not making a lot of progress. I was close to finished, but I wasn’t getting much writing done. I looked at it and I realized that the two most important things for me during that period, after my family, were my very demanding law practice and the things I was doing with The Productive Woman. I made a conscious choice to set the novel aside for a few months while I gave my time, energy, and attention to the podcast and to my law practice. Now, several months later, I’ve picked the writing back up, as things have changed with my law practice, and I’ve carved out the time. I’ve resurrected that goal, and am now spending more concentrated time on it. Just because you’ve set something aside for now doesn’t mean it’s gone forever. You can decide that it's a goal for someday, but not now.
Finding the balance
Find the balance between pushing through because it’s on the list and jumping from one shiny object to another. Be honest with yourself. Be aware of why you’re doing what you’re doing.
“If we let go too quickly, we let go of the opportunity to surprise ourselves and do things we didn’t think we could do.” ~ Bob Nease, former chief scientist at Express Scripts and author of The Power of Fifty Bits: The New Science of Turning Good Intentions into Positive Results
Don’t give up easily, but don’t unthinkingly stick with things that aren’t right for you now. Find that balance for yourself. It requires self-awareness and honesty with yourself about why you started, why you’re not moving forward, and why you letting go might be the right choice right now.
A guilt-free decision
If we decide to let something go, and we do it consciously and purposefully, we need to be able to do it without guilt.
Sometimes we hesitate to let something go because we feel like we’re giving up, or we’re being a quitter, and we don’t see ourselves as a quitter.
We may think others will think something bad of us if we quit. (I don’t think many of us actually judge other people for the goals they do or don’t pursue. We can give others credit for not judging ours, either.)
The goals you pursue, the things you’re doing, the ways you’re contributing in the world — those are all important. What you do matters, but you are not what you do. Your value isn’t in the goals you accomplish, or the awards you win, or the things you do and contribute in the world. Your value lies in your existence on the planet. I hope that you can internalize that and remember it.
Very seldom are other people hurt by our decision to not pursue a goal that no longer has meaning for us. In the article quoted above, Kate Hanley says, “I’m all for keeping your word, but if the goal really doesn’t fit your life anymore, and it’s become something you use to feel bad about yourself, then keeping the goal isn’t serving anyone, least of all, you.”
Don’t hang on for the investment
Don’t hang on just because you’ve invested a lot of time or money up to this point. Your investment doesn’t mean you should keep going at it if it doesn’t serve you, or fit with who you are today. We change over time. We grow. Our priorities may shift. Our life circumstances may change. If you’re feeling bad about a goal that you've set but aren't doing anything about, then make a decision right now that, instead of beating yourself up about it, you’re either going to take a step toward that goal today or tomorrow or you’re going to set it aside indefinitely. (We touched on this in episode 56, “Knowing When to Quit.”
If you decide you want to keep going and make progress on it:
- Break it down into small pieces. What’s the next small action you can take?
- Put it on your calendar to work on that next action.
- Get some support. Someone who will help you, or an accountability partner.
Whatever goals you pursue, be aware of your reasons
If a goal is on your list because you think you’ll be happier if or when you achieve it, pause and think again. That is a recipe for disappointment. We all need to learn a really important lesson that if we're not happy now, there is no goal that we’ll achieve that will change our happiness level. Our happiness never comes from the outside; it comes from the way we think. We actually have, right now, everything we need, right now, to be happy, right now. We can choose to be happy, whether we actually achieve those goals or not. If we don’t choose to be happy now, achieving those goals won’t make us happy, either.
It’s the journey
It’s the journey that matters most, not the destination. This is a lesson I’m having to learn over and over again. I’ve always been future-focused, goal-oriented, and thinking about the next thing. What I’m trying to learn now, and what I encourage you to learn now, is to enjoy the now instead of waiting for “someday” to be happy.
“The joy that comes from attaining goals is temporary, ephemeral, fleeting. Happiness is not in the goals but in the process of attaining goals.” ~ Tal Ben-Shahar, Ph.D.
It’s that journey, the process of working toward it. That’s where the fun comes. That’s where the joy comes. If you’ve ever worked toward something and seen how quickly the sense of elation passed after achieving it, you realize the truth in this. That joy is very temporary. Happiness is not in the goals, but in the process of attaining the goals.
“I believe it’s time we let go of outcome-based goal setting, and instead, focus on the process of living the lives we want right now.” — Carl Richards
Setting and pursuing goals is important, but it shouldn't take the place of enjoying the life we have n0w and living in this moment, now.
What do you think?
Are you questioning a goal that’s been on your list for a long time? How do you decide when to push forward and when to let go and move on to something else? I would love to have your feedback on this. You can share your ideas or your questions in the comments section below or in The Productive Woman Community Facebook Group, or email me.
Resources and Links:
- Dream to Done: Turning a Dream to a Goal – TPW126
- Dream to Done: Applying the Goal-Setting Process – TPW129
- How to Get Yourself to Do the Things You Want to Do – TPW026
- The War of Art: Winning the Inner Creative Battle, by Steven Pressfield
- Overcoming Resistance (video by Steven Pressfield)
- “How to Let Go of a Dream,” by Shannon Kaiser, Huffington Post
- A Year of Daily Calm: A Guided Journal for Creating Tranquility Every Day, by Kate Hanley
- “How to Let Go of a Goal (And Still Feel Good About Yourself),” by Laura Vanderkam, on Fast Company
- Knowing When to Quit – TPW056
- Making Time for Exercise (Ideas from the TPW Community) – TPW136
- “When to Let Go of a Dream,” by Brett Paesel, in Self
- “One Key to Happiness: Let Go of Some Long-Term Goals,” by Carl Richards, in the New York Times
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