Lessons from the Boston Marathon: Deciding When to Adjust a Goal

This past Monday, the running of the 116th Boston Marathon was held. Unlike the race most years, this year it was unseasonably hot. a sunny day with over 70 degrees at the start line and temperatures climbed to mid-80s during the race. While this may seem like fine weather for a day at the beach, it is far too hot to run a race safely. Warm weather starts to become a factor in running performance with temperatures as low as 50 to 60 degrees.

The threat of heat stroke and related ailments was so high on this day that the organizers of the marathon urged people to not run. They even offered registered runners a deferment to run the marathon the following year—something they don’t normally allow. But most athletes who run the Boston Marathon don’t wake up one morning and decide to do it—they have trained for months, perhaps years for the event. So putting it off until the next year, or deciding to jog it instead of race it, is a tough decision to make.

Faced with these conditions, the vast majority—but not all—of the runners decided to give up on shooting for a personal best and simply enjoy the experience with the goal of finishing healthy. As I was reading their race reports, I found myself focusing on their decision-making process in taking such a risk and started wondering… how do we (or how should we) decide when stick to our goal and when to adjust a goal?

  • What are the risks versus benefits? This might be the only question to consider. If it’s clear that one scenario has greater risks or benefits, the decision becomes quite easy.
  • Did you have multiple goals? If sacrificing one goal means attaining three others, it might be a better choice than attempting all four and failing at all four.
  • Will there be another opportunity in the future to pursue this goal? No reason to take unnecessary risks if you get another chance soon.
  • Where do you draw the line of failure? Some goals are all-or-nothing. Others we can chip away at for years without much success but attaining them in the end is all that matters.
  • Are the roadblocks to your goal out of your control? While this one is bound to become a slippery slope if taken far enough, sometimes circumstances are simply out of your control and there isn’t anything you can do about that. In that case it is more productive to adjust your goal to focus on what you can do within the constraints that exist.
  • Are you at the point where you have contemplated quitting or giving up completely? If so, you’re likely to find more success in adjusting your goal. Sticking with the original goal at this point might actually be outside of your capability at this moment in time and continuing on can cause burnout or failure (or otherwise a less favorable outcome than an adjusted goal).

Eva Rykrsmith

Eva Rykrsmith is an organizational psychology practitioner. Her passion lies in bringing a psychology perspective to the business world, with the mission of creating a high-performance environment. Follow her @EvaRykr.

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