Knowing When to Give Up Can Help You Succeed

Research-backed reasons why “Never Give Up” might not be good advice — and how you can counter it.

Knowing When to Give Up Can Help You Succeed
Photo by Jonas Svidras on Unsplash

Research-backed reasons why “Never Give Up” might not be good advice — and how you can counter it.

A few days ago, I was having a conversation with a friend regarding a book I’d gifted him. He told me he couldn’t start it right away because he was halfway through another book. But this book was taking a long time to finish because he wasn’t enjoying it.

“If you’re not enjoying it, quit,” I told him. “Start the one I gave you. It’s awesome.”

My friend couldn’t comprehend what was so easy for me. He said he has this compulsive need to finish every book, movie series, project or commitment he started. That he just can’t function if he leaves things halfway done, even if that means torturing himself to complete them.

Whether it’s smaller commitments like books and movies or bigger ones like a job you no longer enjoy, the issue is deep-rooted in how you were encouraged to keep trying as a child. It doesn’t help that most popular websites always convey the idea that successful people never give up.

But is “not giving up” the only road to success?

As this study establishes, “the notion that persistence is essential for success and happiness is deeply embedded in popular and scientific writings.” Growing up, we are repeatedly told to “Never give up.” The researchers who spent over a year investigating the effects of persistence versus giving up argue that this isn’t good advice. Single-mindedly pursuing one goal can sometimes backfire. After extensive study, the researchers conclude, “When people are faced with situations in which they cannot realize a key life goal, the most adaptive response for mental and physical health may be to disengage from that goal.”

Why Giving Up is Beneficial

Scientists define the term goal disengagement as the ability to “withdraw not only effort but also the commitment from unattainable goals.” This is beneficial as it can free up space in your heart and mind to pursue new goals and look for meaning in other tasks you might have previously overlooked. Turns out, the old adage, “When one door closes, another opens” might not be wrong at all.

Several researchers have delved deep into the benefits of giving up on unattainable goals. A study by the Max Planck Institute for Human Development, Germany surveyed a large group of women nearing the age of 40 with the personal goal of wanting to bear children. The researchers found that once the women passed the age of 40 and it became clear that their goal cannot be achieved, most women gave up trying. While this might sound sad, the study established that the women who disengaged from this goal had superior psychological well-being than those who continued to actively pursue it.

Identifying When to Give Up

When the goal is unattainable or the process no longer fulfilling, it’s best to give up. But how do you ensure you don’t give up too quickly and end up sabotaging your prospects?

According to Professor Raj Raghunathan of The University of Texas, Austin, here’s how you can figure out which goals to keep at and which ones to abandon:

  • Ask the question: What am I trying to prove — and who am I trying to impress— by achieving the goal?
  • The only goals worth stressing about are those that help you grow as a person, either by helping you enhance your expertise in a domain or by helping those around you.
  • Goals that are pursued for the sake of making even more money than needed or ones that are pursued for the sake of signalling superiority are simply not worth losing sleep over.

What’s the Right Way to Give Up

Here are the science-backed measures you can take to protect yourself after you give up and move on to a new goal:

Create options

In this brilliant book, Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder, the author Nassim Taleb discusses the importance of creating options. Even if you don’t plan to quit right away, it is best to not focus all your energy on one source of income. Try to create multiple channels of revenue so that even if one fails or you lose interest, you are not rendered destitute.

You might think that your job is secure, and starting a business will be a drain on time you’re already short on. But you can’t predict when you’ll start losing interest in working. This false sense of security might have lulled you into believing the comfortable status quo will last forever. It might not.

As Taleb argues,

“Success brings an asymmetry: you now have a lot more to lose than to gain. You are hence fragile.”

A post by Psychology Today also makes a similar claim: “Instead of letting an unattainable goal deplete you of your mental, physical, emotional, and material resources, reallocate your time and energy to other important aspects of your life, on things that you already know you are good at, that give you joy, and that allow you to make a contribution.”

Identify an alternative

After you disengage from an unattainable goal, it’s important to re-engage with an alternative aim. A study found that among older adults, disengagement was beneficial only if individuals are able to reengage in new goals. Other studies have shown that after abandoning an unattainable goal, the people who are able to re-engage in alternative goals have better mental and physical health and enjoy a better quality of life.

When you give up on an existing goal, it’s important to define a new one, so you can replace it with your current goal and work towards it. This will give you a sense of purpose and help you devote your time and energy productively.

Don’t mourn the loss

Because of your social conditioning, the first instinct you feel after abandoning a goal might be one of regret. But, as Psychology Today states, “bury the goal, mourn it, and move on.”

Giving up on something that you’ve worked on for a long time is hard. Give it a proper burial, mourn for it, and then stop lamenting its loss. If you continue wondering what could have worked or how you could have done it better, you would only be torturing yourself further. Such thoughts will make you wallow in self-pity, and the best way to move on is to focus your energy and enthusiasm on a new idea, and new goals.

Final Words

The world might have made you believe that the only way to achieve success is to keep pushing on, no matter how hard the goal is or how much the process is making you suffer. But the severe dissatisfaction from pursuing unattainable goals has been linked to poor mental health, even self-harm and suicide.

You’re here on this planet for a limited time. Make the most of it. When a project is no longer working for you, learn to let go. Build an alternative and direct your time and energy towards seeing it grow.

Your self-worth is not defined by how hard you can work. At the end of the day, happiness and fulfilment should be your goals and not the measure of how much you can torture yourself to meet some invisible social standards. Don’t fall into that trap. Give up when things no longer work for you.

The alternatives will be worth it, trust the science behind it.

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