What to do when you want to quit

When you feel like giving up, what you really need is to reframe the way you’re approaching your goals. Here’s how to do just that.
Published 10 June 2019

How to acquire motivation for weight loss


No matter how big or small your goals are – or even how much you want to achieve them – there may be times when you hit a wall and all you want to do is quit. We’ve all been there. According to psychologist Dr Jeremy Adams, the reason we’d rather give up is simple – goals worth working for aren’t always the easiest to achieve.

“You’re going to experience discomfort as you reach for your goals and the easiest solution to remove discomfort is to quit,” he says.

Take going to the gym, for example. Even committing to one exercise class a week can elevate levels of discomfort. “It’s not just the physical discomfort of doing it,” Dr Adams continues. “It’s getting to the gym, making the time to go, the cost – when those things become your focus, you may feel inclined to quit.”

If this rings true with you, don’t worry and definitely don’t beat yourself up about it. Even the best athletes struggle to do their workout some mornings. Instead, take this opportunity to reset your weight loss motivation, reassess what it is you’re trying to achieve and retrain your brain to push you forward when you feel like you’re stuck. Because, sometimes, it only takes the tiniest change to reap the biggest, most rewarding results.


Give yourself a pep talk

Perhaps you’re on the verge of giving up, or maybe you’ve already quit. However, all is not lost. As psychologist Dr Grant Brecht explains, this is the time to align your attitude and the way you talk to yourself with some strong, goal-focused behaviour.

“You need to regularly practise positive self-talk, making sure you’re being flexible, rational and solution-focused with what you say to yourself,” he says.

“Switch and reframe your thinking and self-talk from any ‘I must do this’ thoughts to ‘I want to do this because...’ Then, turn any ‘This will be really hard’ into ‘This is a great challenge I can get into.’”

Dr Brecht continues: “Aligning positive attitudes and self-talk towards your goals will help you maintain effort and momentum towards them.”


Find your growth-mindset

Everyday self-talk is one thing, but rewiring your brain to operate in a growth-mindset instead of a fixed-mindset will help you to stay on track in the long run. But don’t feel overwhelmed, it’s actually much easier to achieve than it sounds.

A fixed-mindset, as Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck describes, is when you live by the belief that your intelligence, personality and character are set in stone, and that your potential to achieve greatness is determined from birth.

Someone with a fixed-mindset tends to avoid challenges. Or they lean towards giving up, which can mean they plateau early and achieve less than what they’re capable of.

Then there’s the growth-mindset, where someone believes they can develop and grow and their full potential is unknown. Unlike someone with a fixed-mindset, when a person with the growth-mindset is faced with a challenge or a setback they will persist and keep moving forward. They stretch themselves, take risks and often reach high levels of achievement. Consciously changing the way that you approach your goals by willing yourself to grow and achieve works wonders.


Shift the goalposts

Attaining the things we want most in life may take time and effort. “As adults, we understand that things in life aren’t always going to be 100 per cent comfortable, but we’re willing to accept that discomfort because it’s for something that’s important to us,” says Dr Adams.

“We do this all the time: we go to work, pay our mortgages, get through challenges in our relationships. There’s no reason we can’t do that for things such as eating well and moving more.”

Setting micro goals in pursuit of your big-picture dream can keep you from giving up. This becomes even easier when you have a deeply personal reason for doing what you’re doing.

“Instead of doing something because you told yourself you would, think about why you are doing it,” says Dr Adams. “It’s key to ask yourself, ‘Why is this important to me?’ as it will give you an internal motive. For example, if you’re struggling with motivation to move more, your answer could be: ‘I’m doing this to reduce my risk of diabetes so I can live longer for my kids’.”


Turn setbacks into a comebacks

Just because you’ve quit something doesn’t mean you can’t pick up where you left off.

Mastering your motivation and willpower is about thinking of setbacks as opportunities to give it all – not give in.

“Rather than see setbacks as a ‘problem’, view them as a ‘challenge’ – something to learn from and something that helps build our resilience,” says Dr Brecht. “All aspects of trying to achieve and accomplish goals in life will throw challenges at us. It’s how we deal with them that is important.

“Pick yourself up, dust yourself off, work out why you stumbled and plan a new way forward. Give yourself a pat on the back for ‘stumbling’ and not allowing yourself to ‘give up’ or ‘give in’.”


Train your willpower like it’s a muscle

Willpower is so much more than working with your inner voice. Your willpower, like a muscle, can be as strong as you train it to be. In turn, it can also become as fatigued as you allow it to get.

While trying to understand the different ways people perceive the power of their stamina when faced with a challenge, researchers from the US’ University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign highlighted that willpower is quite similar to a muscle in that, with heavy use, it may get tired.

A way to take it easy on your willpower is to not overload it by making multiple big changes in your life at once. It takes time to develop a new healthy habit and before a good habit has formed it will use your motivation muscle. This means making too many changes at the one time can end up having an adverse effect.

For example, the evidence from willpower-depletion studies suggests making a list of resolutions on New Year’s Eve may not be the best approach. When you ultimately fall behind with one of them it can leave you feeling defeated. And being depleted in one area can reduce willpower in other parts of your life, so it makes more sense to focus on one goal at a time.

In other words, don’t try to quit smoking, adopt a healthy diet and start a whole new exercise plan at the same time. Tackling your goals one by one is a better approach. Once one good habit is in place, you’ll no longer need to draw on your willpower to maintain the behaviour. Eventually healthy habits will become routine and won’t require making decisions at all.

It’s also heartening to keep in mind that even at the times when we feel like giving up or think we have no willpower left, research suggests it will still come through for us, as we actually hold some in reserve for times of dire need. It’s about motivating yourself to tap into it.

To practise flexing your motivation muscle, while not denying yourself in the process, try an ‘if-then’ approach. Someone who is cutting back on their alcohol intake may say to themself before a party: “If someone offers me a drink tonight, then I’ll ask for a soda with lime instead.”

Building strong willpower does take time and perseverance, but the long-term result will have you making better decisions for a healthier, happier you. Start by making a small goal you can commit to and build your way up from there.


When to reach out for help

Even though it’s okay to quit, sometimes a quitting mindset can be a gentle reminder that it’s time to check in with your mental health. “As our journeys to accomplish and maintain our goals and health and wellbeing pursuits continues, we will all have periods of low motivation or at times, the blues,” Dr Brecht tells us. “However, if you find that you’ve been working on keeping your attitudes and self-talk positive, and persevering towards your goals, but are still feeling depressed, anxious, or lethargic for longer than two weeks, you may need to check in with a doctor or psychologist and see what is actually happening.” Dr Brecht also suggests keeping track of what you’re eating and how you’re sleeping. Along with a lack of motivation, unhealthy food choices and sleeping too little or too much can also be a red flag for depression and anxiety. “It’s important that we maintain as much control over our health and wellbeing journey as possible – with the help of others, if needed – and that we don’t give the control over to other things along the way, but deal with them when they occur,” he says.