Categories Health Care

What 24 Studies Say About When You Should Give Up On a Goal

Key Takeaways

  1. Challenging but achievable goals make life enjoyable, fulfilling, and productive, but dogmatically pursuing unattainable goals can significantly reduce your quality of life and mental and physical health.
  2. By strategically quitting unattainable or low-priority goals, you can free up time, energy, money, and other resources for higher-leverage, more important goals.
  3. Keep reading to learn how to identify which goals are truly important to you, the negative effects of continuing to pursue low-priority or unattainable goals, and more.

We love to glorify the go-getter—the single-minded scrapper who scrabbles his way over, around, and through every obstacle until reaching their goal.

And there’s much to like about this archetype.

Without dogged persistence, the Wright brothers would have spent their lives selling bicycles, not building airplanes; Abraham Lincoln would be a piddling midwestern politician; not one of the most famous U.S. presidents of all time, and J.K. Rowling would still be living on welfare, not the wealthiest living author.

This kind of unrelenting perseverance is particularly important for getting fit, as most people endure a string of failed diets, minor injuries, motivational dry spells, and other hurdles before things finally “click.”

But what about the other side of the coin? 

What if the goal you’re pursuing really isn’t attainable for you right now? 

What if it might be better to give up and focus on something else? 

As the ancient Greek myth of Sisyphus illustrates, repeatedly engaging in acts of futility may be the worst fate of all.

As punishment for Sisyphus’ corrupt management of his kingdom, Zeus condemned him to continuously roll a rock to the top of a mountain. When both he and bolder reached the peak, the rock would roll back down, and he was forced to repeat the process again. 


This tale illustrates a profound home truth: 

While we may think we’re like Thomas Edison, toiling away at a world-changing task, we may be more like Sisyphus, straining to accomplish the trivial.

Worst of all, we often can’t see this for ourselves when we’re at the coalface. Instead, we only realize our mistake when we hit rock bottom or a friend points out the error of our ways. 

In this article, you’re going to learn about the upside of quitting. 

You’ll learn when and how to reassess your goals, when it’s better to give up on your goals than to keep chasing them, and how to turn giving up into a positive, not a negative. 

Good Goals, Bad Goals

Whether we realize it or not, most of our actions are dictated by goals.

Having deliberate goals gives us a sense of control—they help us realize that, in order to bring about a desired result, we must focus on what we want to achieve, and take actions to make it happen. 

They provide the structure that defines our lives and gives us purpose in the short- and long-term. 

This doesn’t mean, however, that our goals are always intrinsic. That is, we’re not always driven to accomplish things that are truly meaningful to us.

Sometimes, our goals are extrinsically motivated—we’re chasing them because we want some kind of recognition, reward, or other brass ring.

Read: 5 Bad Reasons to Get Fit That Most People Think Are Good (And What to Do Instead) 

Maybe, for example, we tell ourselves we want to climb the career ladder to reach our full potential, but our real goal is to impress or one-up our friends with our fancy job title and material possessions.

Or maybe, we tell ourselves we want to get in shape because it’s important for our health and longevity, but in reality, our greatest motivator is that we’re vain and want people to be impressed by how good we look. 

You see, humans have an innate drive to evaluate ourselves based on how we compare to others. Unfortunately, competing with others won’t satisfy you intrinsically. In fact, it’s likely to make you unhappy.

The cure for this conundrum is to try to find the intrinsic value in all of your pursuits—however extrinsic they may at first seem.

When you’re honest about what you want to achieve, whether it be more money, success, or a body you can be proud of, you’re better estimate the effort needed to achieve them, and then screw up your courage to stay the course.

While there are always things you can control to reach your goal, there are also factors you can’t influence. 

Obstacles come in many shapes and sizes—they can be physical, social, situational, or mental—and they can appear in a variety of settings. Some we can deal with, some we can work around, but others, however, are insurmountable.

You probably experienced this (or still are) during the COVID-19 lockdowns—gyms closed around the world, and your normal fitness routine was turned upside down.

Read: The Best Home Workout Routines for When You Can’t Go to the Gym

Maybe this year was the year you were hoping to pull a new PR, get abs, or start doing cardio a few times per week, but the lockdowns may have scotched your plans. 

What should you do then? 

Summary: You’re much more likely to work hard to achieve intrinsic goals—ones that you want to pursue because they’re personally meaningful to you—than if the goal is motivated by some outside influence. 

Want to save 20{740fcf70e3ac1f1193a1b542e1c9e953922ad085105f0bf8299e70261e238f62} on your first order of Legion supplements?

What Happens When Something Gets in the Way of Your Goals?

There are two kinds of obstacles people typically encounter when pursuing goals: 

  1. External obstacles, like your gym closing, the markets crashing, a flight being cancelled, etc.
  2. Internal obstacles, like a loss of motivation, desire, or focus.

The first kind of obstacle tends to be the most obvious and immediately frustrating. Running into a roadblock is enervating, especially when you’ve been going great-guns for weeks or months. 

The second kind of obstacle is more subtle and insidious. Realizing that reaching some of your goals is far less glamorous, and requires much more grit, than you initially though, can be a bitter pill to swallow. Add to this the fact progress is rarely linear, and there’ll be times when wading through the drudgery of disappointing results has you feeling like there’s little reason to continue. 

In both cases, losing momentum toward your goals can have profound effects on your physical and mental health.

How Failing to Reach Your Goals Affects Your Mental Health

As I mentioned a moment ago, goals provide a purpose for living. 

They’re how you turn life into a game, with prizes to pursue, rules to follow, and penalties for short-circuiting the process. 

Thus, our progress toward goals (or lack thereof) has a significant effect on our quality of life. 

As a general rule, when we’re steaming toward our goals, we’re happy; when we get stuck in the mud, we aren’t. 

This lack of progress is not just bothersome—it can lead to significant emotional distress

This stress may manifest itself in numerous ways, ranging from frustration, anger, aggression, feelings of failure, excessive thinking about our unreached goal, low self-esteem, avoidance of future challenges, helplessness, and even depression.

In some ways, though, these are helpful signals. The same way pain tells us to take our hand off that hot stove before we do permanent damage, and hunger tells us to eat so that we remember to nourish our bodies, negative emotions can also tell us when it’s time to reassess our goals. 

When you run into this quagmire of unpleasant thoughts and feelings, it’s time to ask yourself some hard questions: 

Am I spreading myself too thin?

Is this goal really worth this much heartache? 

Could my energies be bent toward something more productive?

Sometimes, the solution is to change your approach. Maybe you need to break your goal into smaller milestones, or give yourself more time, or take a break before returning with even more fervor in the near future.

In other cases, though, the solution is simple and brutal:


Or, as scientists might say, disengage

A wealth of research shows that the ability to determine when quitting is appropriate and to then do so is associated with high levels of personal well-being. Giving up gives way to lowered stress, reduced depressive symptoms, fewer intrusive thoughts, diminished negative affect, and less emotional distress.

By simply withdrawing the effort and commitment you would ordinarily reserve for achieving your goals, you can avoid the negative feelings associated with failing. 

Summary: Challenging but achievable goals make life enjoyable, fulfilling, and productive, but dogmatically pursuing unattainable goals can significantly reduce your quality of life and mental health.

How Failing to Reach Your Goals Affects Your Physical Health

While it’s easy to see how pursuing an impossible goal could wreak havoc on your psyche, what’s less obvious is how it hinders your physical health.

For example, a study from the University of British Columbia found that, over the period of a year, people who found it hard to disengage from impossible goals experienced increased levels of C-reactive protein (CRP)—a biomarker of chronic inflammation—across the course of the study. The CRP levels of people who struggled to disengage from impossible goals rose twice as fast as people who could strategically quit. 

While an increase in CRP is unlikely to have immediate medical consequences, chronically high levels of CRP are associated with a variety of diseases including diabetes, osteoporosis, atherosclerosis, and heart disease.

Read: How to Lower Your Cholesterol (Quickly, Safely, and Naturally)

Other research shows that poor disengagement skills can cause unhealthy changes in your hormone levels. 

For example, a cross-sectional study of adults from Concordia University found that participants who had difficulty disengaging from unattainable goals secreted higher levels of cortisol during the day and evening hours compared to those who were better at giving up.

These physical and psychological changes can create a cycle of failure. 

You feel fatigued, frazzled, and frustrated, which makes it harder to pursue your goals with gusto, which makes you more unglued, and so on. 

This downward spiral can begin to interfere with other areas of your life if you don’t nip it in the bud. 

And the best way to do that, is to disengage. 

Research shows that disengaging from impossible goals is significantly associated with better subjective well-being. In experiments, participants routinely experienced better general health, and fewer instances of illnesses like eczema, headaches, and constipation. 

People who are able to disengage also report better sleep. Since sleep is an important regulator of your immune system, improving sleep helps you to avoid a host of health issues associated with disturbed sleeping patterns.

What’s more, since emotional well-being promotes physical well-being, “giving up” should ensure the endocrine and immune systems function optimally, thus lowering your risk of disease.

That’s all well and good you might be thinking, but how do you know when a goal is really impossible? 

How do you know when it’s best to disengage or endure?

Summary: Failing to strategically quit unattainable goals can increase inflammation, lead to hormonal disturbances, and potentially raise the risk for a number of diseases.

The Real Reason You Should Quit (Some) Goals

consequences of giving up


At this point you may be thinking, how are you ever supposed to get ahead in life with this attitude? 

What about “quitters never win, and winners never quit?”

How will you ever succeed at anything if you throw in your hand when things get tough? 

All good questions, and I’m certainly not advocating a nihilistic, hollow posture like the one outlined by Peter La Fleur in the movie Dodgeball: “I found that if you have a goal, you might not reach it. But if you don’t have one, then you are never disappointed. And I’ve gotta tell you, it feels phenomenal.”

Here’s the difference: Unlike Peter from Dodgeball, you aren’t avoiding all goals so you never have to taste disappointment. Instead, you’re selectively quitting some goals so you can more fully commit to other achievable, higher-leverage pursuits, and thus increase your chances of long-term success.

You’re pruning your goals so some can fully bloom. 

How to Know When It’s Time to Give Up on a Goal

How do we know when it’s time to knuckle down and press on, or when it’s time to throw in the towel?

On the one hand, some goals are worth pursuing to the bitter end. If something is extremely important to you and has far-reaching implications for the rest of your life, such as quitting smoking, finishing school, or losing weight, you shouldn’t give up. 

And in other cases, quitting can have tremendous negative ramifications for the people you care about. You can’t just “quit” being a father or mother, for instance, without destroying your family. 

If you’re also close to accomplishing a difficult goal, it’s often better to gut it out and get it done rather than give up. Almost everyone feels a sense of boredom as they get closer to the finish line—what author Seth Godin calls “the dip”—and you have to be able to make it through these doldrums to achieve anything worthwhile. 

On the other hand, some goals are worth quitting. 

Exactly how to identify what goals are worth quitting and what goals are worth pursuing is a tough row to hoe, but here are a few questions that may help you get closer to an answer? 

Why am I pursuing this goal? If you don’t have a clear, immediate answer to this question, you may want to reevaluate your goal.

Am I looking forward to accomplishing this goal, or am I mostly apathetic toward the outcome? If it’s the latter, it’s probably not worth pursuing. 

What am I willing to give up to achieve this goal? If the answer isn’t a good deal of time, effort, and/or money, it may not be that important to you after all. 

What would I rather achieve? This may be the most important question, and it leads to what scientists call goal re-engagement—the identification of, commitment to, and pursuit of alternative goals.

Unlike goal disengagement, which helps you avoid the negative emotions associated with failing, goal reengagement helps you to maintain a sense of purpose, coherence, and feeling of control

Research shows that people who are better able to identify and pursue new goals report greater self-mastery, less perceived stress, better emotional well-being and fewer negative health symptoms. 

Reengaging might also help buffer the emotional problems associated with failing to give up on unattainable goals, so long as the new goals don’t deplete your personal resources—like time and energy—too much.

For example, if your goal was to squat from 315 pounds, but the COVID-19 lockdown made lifting impossible for a good chunk of the year, it might be better to set a new goal of getting to 10{740fcf70e3ac1f1193a1b542e1c9e953922ad085105f0bf8299e70261e238f62} body fat instead. 

Read: How to Calculate Your Body Fat Percentage Easily & Accurately (With a Calculator)

Summary: Ask yourself the four questions listed above to determine whether or not you should quit a goal, and then choose a new goal that you’d rather pursue.

The Bottom Line On When to Give Up on Your Fitness Goals

The best goals are ones that you’re intrinsically motivated to pursue, that are challenging and rewarding, and that are achievable. 

Although society often lionizes the underdog and champions to pursuit of “impossible” goals, it’s also important to be able to take a step back, objectively assess a goal, and quit, if it makes sense in the circumstances.

Challenging but achievable goals make life enjoyable, fulfilling, and productive, but dogmatically pursuing unattainable goals can significantly reduce your quality of life and mental health.

To decide whether or not a goal is worth pursuing, ask yourself these four questions: 

  1. Why am I pursuing this goal? 
  2. Am I looking forward to accomplishing this goal, or am I mostly apathetic toward the outcome?
  3. What am I willing to give up to achieve this goal?
  4. What would I rather achieve?

And if you decide a goal isn’t worth pursuing, quit it and immediately start working toward something else. 

If you liked this article, please share it on Facebook, Twitter, or wherever you like to hang out online! 🙂

What’s your take on quitting goals? Have anything else to share? Let me know in the comments section below!

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