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How do you know when to stick at a goal and when to walk away?iStockPhoto / Getty Images

Should I continue trying to become a published novelist, or should I quit? It’s a question that has nagged at me for some time, exacerbated by every editor’s rejection I get. Sometimes, I want to throw in the towel. Other times, I feel compelled to keep going.

And I’m not alone. Throughout history, humans have been setting goals – for enjoyment, and for survival. Want to make it through the winter? Better make sure you collect enough food. Goals are “the building blocks of our lives. They motivate us to do something,” says Carsten Wrosch, a professor of psychology at Concordia University. We need them “in order to make progress in life.”

Sometimes, however, a goal eludes you, no matter how hard you try. Wrosch, for example, has authored some scientific papers that he tried again and again to publish. He eventually realized this was futile and stopped.

Did he consider himself a failure? Not at all. “If you can’t make progress toward a goal – if it’s unattainable – and you don’t stop trying, then you create a situation that has the potential to jeopardize your well-being and health substantially.”

But how do you know when to stick at a goal and when to walk away?

Is there’s a chance your goal is frozen? That’s not your fault

Candice Hubley, a PhD candidate in psychology at the University of Waterloo, led a study that looked at goal pursuit during the pandemic. Almost one-third – 28 per cent – of participants’ goals had to be put on hold. These included travelling to Mexico, getting a PhD, making new friends or going to a gym. Although the participants remained committed to these goals, pandemic circumstances meant they couldn’t actively tackle them. “The goal was frozen in time,” Hubley says.

Other situations can freeze goals, too, from having a baby to family illness. One goal may even usurp another “because you can’t pursue all the goals that you have always at the same time,” Wrosch says.

Clinging on to a frozen goal too strongly can harm mental well-being. Hubley’s study found that this could create feelings of failure and was linked to stress, depression and anxiety. In addition, physical health can be compromised. “We have linked the inability to give up on unattainable goals with higher levels of cortisol, higher levels of systemic inflammation, mild chronic inflammation,” Wrosch says.

Is reaching your goal even possible? If not, don’t feel bad about letting it go

“There are two types of mistakes you can make,” Wrosch says. “You can give up too early; just putting in a little bit more time and effort would have given you that degree of whatever you want. You can also give up too late; you keep trying to attain something that is really unattainable.”

Sometimes, the path is obvious. Hubley mentions being 5 foot 2 and wanting to be an NBA player. “It’s very clear it’s unattainable. But there are a lot of cases where it’s more subjective. You can always convince yourself, ‘Oh, miracles happen.’” In fact, a phenomenon called “positive illusions” may keep us from seeing the truth. “People typically have more positive expectations about what is possible for them,” Wrosch says, than what they can truly achieve in real life.

It may be helpful to listen to others, as family and close friends may already have an idea if your goal simply isn’t realistic. And if you’re a parent yourself, don’t drill in to your kids that quitting equals failure. If your child is unhappy in dance class or on the soccer team, Hubley says, provide the message that “you can give up on it and maybe re-engage in something else that’s going to be better and more fulfilling for you.”

Is a goal worth all the time, money and energy you’re putting into it?

We use many resources to chase a goal, and all of them are limited. Hubley suggests asking: How valuable is this goal to you? “There are a lot of social pressures to pursue things and not give up, even if you don’t personally care about it.” Make sure that what you’re doing is personally important (and attainable).

Spending excess time thinking about a goal that’s not progressing is particularly draining. In the COVID-frozen goals study, participants who ruminated about their frozen goals experienced higher psychological distress, likely owing to aggravated worries and frustrations. On the other hand, people who kept rumination low reported lower levels of this type of distress.

“If you disengage from an unattainable goal,” Hubley says, “that’s going to be good because you’re no longer wasting those resources.”

Does a goal make you feel good, sad or potentially regretful?

Read your internal signals. “One emotion that seems to facilitate goal disengagement is sadness or depressive mood,” Wrosch says. Some evolutionary psychologists say that depression can sometimes serve the positive function of helping us “decommit from goals, and to stop doing what we’re doing.” If this means abandoning an impossible goal, our emotional well-being may then rise back up.

Also consider if you might regret giving up your goal. A young student, for example, who drops psychology to study forestry – and then later regrets this move – might still be able to obtain that original degree. Little harm done.

If it’s likely you won’t be able to change your mind later, however, then regret “becomes a risk factor for your well-being and health,” Wrosch says. Perhaps you’re struggling with training for a marathon, but this will be your last chance to run this race with your daughter before she moves abroad. Or you get a bargain deal to safari in Africa, a dream trip you may never be able to afford again – but nerves are holding you back. Before ditching your goal, think twice, as you may regret the lost chance in the long run.

Is it time to switch to a new goal or defrost a frozen one?

“You’re going to be way better off if you’re pursuing goals that are actually going to be rewarding,” Hubley says. Wrosch agrees. “New goals, they function as a replacement. Then people don’t think so much about the goal that they put on hold or that they gave up.”

And if your goal was frozen during the pandemic, see if it’s time to defrost it, and then figure out how. Wrosch relates the situation to a meal. “You put your dinner in the freezer and the idea is that you take it out at some point and de-freeze it.” Now that pandemic restrictions are loosening, for example, he is able to restart research projects that had stalled.

As for my novelist pastime, the pandemic didn’t freeze it, it is possible (I hope), I waver between dismal days and upbeat ones, and I do care about it personally. All signs point toward keeping at it – so fingers crossed.