The Smartest Goal You’ll Ever Make

Motivational science has been a strong movement since the 19th century, as scientists focused on what makes us persist in difficult times and achieve what we want. Through that, we’ve learned a lot about motivation, various systems, and what good goals we should be setting in our lives.

But lately, there has been a shift. More research is delving into why we should simply give up or forget about certain things. They’re calling it “goal disengagement,” and this type of research is being regarded as a black sheep.

This makes sense on several levels when we consider that self-help gurus have pushed the idea that we need to have goals. Many of us have framed goals in particular ways, such that abandoning them would be a failure.

But it’s worth digging deeper because a single look at what this movement is about can reveal that many self-help gurus are hiding the truth.

What Goal Disengagement Means

To start, this movement is focusing on some of the long-term goals that are central to our identities. Things like: getting a degree, getting a well-paying job, finding a spouse, starting a family, becoming a homeowner A lot of these things are instilled in us and have some sort of implied timeline. Many millennials were told to have these kinds of goals growing up.

In other cases, they will focus on shorter-term goals, but usually the reasoning is based on your level of commitment, effort, or sacrifice required.

It’s natural for us to not agree with the idea of giving up. Between research and our everyday experiences, this is enough to get us into the mindset to succeed, to persist, and to overcome. These things are essential to our way of life. To not have goals is to abandon ourselves.

The fact that there is counter-research is utter nonsense in our minds.

But there is reasoning behind it. Trying and trying again is never the whole story when it comes to the pursuit of a goal. What this research and movement show is that abandoning ambitions can be reasonable in certain circumstances.

Notably, when pursuing the goal would cost you more than it is worth or when doing so is no longer feasible.

Of course, figuring out if something is no longer feasible or too costly is difficult. Especially when you have people yelling at you and pumping you up to chase your dreams and achieve the success you deserve. But this is what it truly means to disengage from a goal—to take a step back, consider your well-being, and do what is fitting.

Some Of Us Will Have An Easier Time

All of this reminds me of this Winston Churchill quote:

“Success is going from failure to failure without losing enthusiasm.”

The beauty of this quote is that failures can be forced upon you or something you create for yourself. Knowing when to pull the plug on something is difficult, but there are people who inherently get a head start on developing this skill.

Those who are more optimistic realize there are more possibilities, so pulling the plug on one project doesn’t feel so bad when there are others. Any other personalities that can help people shift from failure to creating new ambitions and a sense of purpose will have an easier time too, of course.

Either way, being able to disengage is something we can all learn and should learn. To start, disengaging from goals lowers cortisol levels since unattainable goals create a lot of stress for ourselves.

Beyond that, when our goals are too good in that they are close to our identity, failure can be more devastating in those situations. For example, I pursued accounting for a good portion of my life only to give up at the end due to poor grades, a lack of money to return to school, and no job opportunities because my grades were too low. Even if I somehow landed an accounting job, I knew that my performance would be questionable too, given how my first accounting job was a dud.

I feel like the smartest decision I made in life was to not try to pursue accounting and instead dive into something else: this. There is nothing wrong with doing that, since during that brief period of time when I was thinking about what to do with my life, I was calm and calculated.

Even before that, I had a sense of calm, knowing that this was not something I wanted to pursue and that I should instead pursue something else.

Unaccomplished Goals Lead More To Rumination

Another aspect that many self-help gurus overlook with goals is what happens when a goal is unaccomplished. Every person’s situation is different, but there are some goals that we linger on for more than a few months or a year.

In some circumstances, we’re more prone to ruminate and struggle to move past certain goals. The COVID pandemic was emblematic of that, as many people lost their jobs. Not only were they forced to stay inside, but with dwindling income and no way to sustain it, it was common for many goals to be stagnant.

Dwelling on those events resulted in people having greater levels of stress, depression and anxiety. So adopting this ideology of giving up and disengaging on a cognitive and emotional level wouldn’t be so bad when you think about it.

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