Creatures of Habit

Effective advice for lasting habit change

When Should I Stop Trying? Some Tips

Sometimes we have to stop trying. But when?

Popular culture has at least one strong message for everyone engaged in self-change:

Don't Stop! Don't Give Up!

When you meet with adversity, there is only one solution (apparently): Just keep on going.

There is a lot to be said for sending such a message. In fact, I've sent similar sorts of messages myself. After all, self-change is hard. Everybody is going to encounter  obstacles, reach plateaus, and experience frustration. If there is no good reason to think otherwise, the best advice says keep on going.

But there's something else going on here, and it needs to be addressed. I suggest that it is a virtual-religious tenet on the part of many that quitting should never be contemplated.

"Give up?" They ask. "To even think about giving up on something would be to admit that . . . "

Admit what?

That you can't do everything?

That you're not perfect?

That some goals are out of reach?

But, surely, this has to be true. Every once in a while, we're going to set a goal for ourselves that can't be achieved.

Sometimes, it will only involve a double-take, or seeking the good advice of a friend, for us to realize that we're not going to be able to achieve what we thought we could.

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Sometimes, though, feedback from the goal-pursuit itself is the only way for us to learn that the goal is out of reach. Well, probably out of reach. We'll never know for certain unless we spend the rest of our days pursuing the goal. Frustrating, isn't it?

We must also consider distribution of effort. Maybe a goal is achievable but only if a number of other goals, hobbies, relationships etc. are abandoned. So, another question to ask yourself is: How much do I want this? What am I willing to give up?

Maybe you can be an iron-man triathlete if you give up competitive pie-eating, a lot of family time, and some other hobbies besides. In other words, just as your Mom told you, there are only so many hours in a day. You need to decide how you're going to spend them. You need to decide what's important.

But how do you determine if a goal is not achievable? Some hints:

1. You've been at a plateau for a relatively long time now (compared to others working on the same goal).

2. You find yourself realizing that you're going to need to give up other important aspects of your life in order to properly work toward your goal. You find this disagreeable.

3. Other people are telling you to give up, probably because they're concerned for you (which is good).

Remember, even if you give up on the goal that you set for yourself, chances are that you've made a lot of progress. Even if you aren't going to be a best-selling author, or an award-winning gourmet cook, your writing has improved, as has your cooking!

It's not the goal, it's the self-improvement that happens along the way. That's the point. Enjoy working on your goals. And enjoy getting better. The fact that you can't achieve everything shouldn't be surprising. And it's not the point.

For more writing by yours truly, visit me at My Bad Habits. I am also on Twitter.

Ian Newby-Clark is a psychologist at the University of Guelph who gives research-based advice for lasting habit change.

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