Let’s say you’re living your best life, sailing on the yacht of your dreams. The time and money you’ve spent to obtain this treasure is significant. Along the way, you run into a storm and the boat is damaged beyond repair and begins to sink.
What do you do? Stick with it because of the money spent and the effort expended to gain this gift?
Or do you cut your losses and head to safety on the life raft? In this life-or-death scenario, the answer is quite obvious. Hightail it out of there, right? Right!
So why is this approach so difficult to apply to our creative projects and practices? Introducing…. the sunk cost fallacy.
What are sunk costs and why should we ignore them?
Sunk costs are defined as the time, money, or effort spent on an endeavor that cannot be recovered. The sunk cost fallacy describes our tendency to follow through on an endeavor if we have already invested time, effort, or money into it, whether or not the current costs outweigh the benefits. It’s like continuing to stay stuck in a bad investment just because we invested in the first place – or going down with the ship just because we bought it.
We tell ourselves the story that we need to do this thing because we’ve invested so much time and energy into it. We can’t possibly stop now, right?
There is so much power in ignoring the sunk costs of our decisions.
Everything that you’ve done in your past leading up to this point is a gift – a gift from your past self to the you of now. It’s up to you if you want to take the gift. Or you can graciously decline. The decision is yours, and it’s more than ok to say “thanks, but no thanks”.
It’s okay to change your mind. Making new decisions based on new information is more than okay – it’s a critical skill for useful decision-making.
In his blog post Sunk costs, creativity, and practice, marketing mastermind Seth Godin notes that “new decisions based on new information are at the heart of leadership. But you can’t make those decisions if you’re also busy calculating how much the old decisions cost you.”
There are teachers, lawyers, and other professionals who remain in their line of work, not because they love the craft, but simply because they spent time and money getting a degree in those fields. Too often, as creatives, we remain tied to ideas and projects that are no longer serving us, simply because we’ve already spent so much time doing them.
For many creatives, quitting feels like a curse word. We wrestle with the idea of putting down the pen, going back to the drawing board, and starting over. But why is it so hard?
We cannot stand being wasteful – to spend so much time, effort and sometimes money on something that seemingly amounts to nothing. There’s also the urge to want to be right, and well, we can see giving up as quietly admitting to ourselves that we were wrong about our idea or even our overall capabilities.
So what can we do?
In his article “Letting Go of Sunk Costs: How to escape the past“, Robert L Leahy, PhD points to mindful meditation as a solution to overcoming sunk cost fallacy beliefs. A recent study shows that “practicing 15 minutes of mindfulness meditation was helpful in making a decision to give up on a sunk cost.”
Deep breaths, focusing on the rising and falling of your chest, and intentionally stepping back from your thoughts are a great way to start. Give yourself permission to let go of judgmental attitudes towards yourself. Once you’ve slowed your thoughts down, try to consider:
Are there any positive outcomes by continuing in this endeavor, or have you reached a dead end?
Did you have all the information you needed when you first made the decision?
Are you overestimating the benefits of committing to these sunk costs? Is it possible that the relief of letting go will open your mind up to new and better courses of action?
If you were advising someone in the same predicament, would you encourage them to stick with their original decision or urge them to move onward and forward?
The month of May is Creative Beginnings Month and an opportunity for us to examine our creative practices and see if there are any sunk costs we’ve been clinging to. It’s time for a bit of mental spring cleaning so we can make room for more innovation, more creativity, and better decision-making. Clear out the old narratives that have been driving your behaviors and start telling yourself a better story. The you of now will thank you!