Biting Off More Than You Can Chew: Ambition or Insanity?

I was walking with my dog Edison the other day and we came upon a little bird. I don’t know what it was, one of those little guys with fluttery wings, like a hummingbird or something.  Anyway,  while Edison enjoyed some grass nearby I watched the bird as it picked up a stick in its beak.  The stick was easily three times longer than the bird was, it was huge in proportion to him.

The bird grabbed the stick,  started fluttering his wings like mad, rose about a foot off the ground, then sank back down.  He shifted the stick in his mouth,  fluttered his wings as fast as he could, rose about a foot off the ground, then dropped back down.  He tried it a third time with the same result.  Then he dropped the stick and took off, presumably to find a more suitable stick.

It reminded me of that old quote that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.

That little bird had a great approach.  He went after a big audacious goal: a stick that was much bigger than him.  He tried it to pick it up and failed.  He tried something different and that didn’t work either.  But after his third attempt failed, he regrouped.  He went after a different goal.  He presumably didn’t beat himself up about, he just moved on.

How many times do we stick with a goal, or a relationship, or plan even when it’s clearly not working?  How can we tell when we should persevere, and when we should cut loose?

Here are some things to think about when you feel like you’ve bitten off more than you can chew and your goals seem frustratingly out of reach:

Find the “why”:  Ask yourself why you have adopted this goal. Is it because it’s expected of you? Is it because it seems like the next logical step?  Is it because that’s what everyone else is doing?  I remember talking to someone from my old running group who was training for a marathon and she was talking about how much she hated marathon training.  “I don’t even want to do a marathon,” she wailed.  I was astonished.  “Why are you training for one then?” I asked.  “Because everyone else in the group has moved from a half marathon to a marathon, it’s what you do.”

Assess the attainability of your goal:  Sometimes a goal is just not in the realm of possibility.  Maybe you want to lose 30 pounds before your vacation next month.  That’s just not going to happen.   Maybe you want to be a singer on Broadway, but you can’t hold a tune.  If the goal is simply too far out of your grasp, think about what you can do that’s actually attainable.  You could potentially lose 5 pounds before your vacation, or take singing lessons to learn how to sing Broadway songs in your shower.  Ask yourself, if this goal is just too audacious, what can I do instead?

Consider whether short-term discomfort will pay off in the long term:  When you’re getting through a bachelor’s degree taking one class at a time, or working an extra job to pay off debt, it may seem impossible that you’ll ever be done.  But you will be.  There is a finish line there, even if it’s so far away right now it’s just a spec on the horizon.  Just keep focused and eventually you’ll get there.

Take a break:  If you’ve been working and focusing on your goals for too long, you may just need a break.  If it’s possible, try taking a few days or a week off.  Put it totally out of your mind.  Rest and restore.  Then assess how manageable the tasks are when you go back to them and make your decisions from there.

We all have those times when we feel overwhelmed and the difference between where we are now and where we want to be feels like a million miles.  Follow the example of the bird: try, rest, try again, and if it’s not going to work, re-adjust.

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