Sunk costs and discontinuing things you’re doing

Don’t cling to a mistake just because you have spent a lot of time making it. — Banksy

I’ve written before that it’s perfectly okay to give up on a book. But there are plenty of other cases where you might want to give up on something — a TV series, a craft project, a hobby, a class, etc. — even if you’ve already put a lot of time (and perhaps money) into that thing. The time and money are already gone. The question is whether you now want to spend any more. As Margie Warrell wrote in Forbes, “Continuing down a path that isn’t taking you where you want to go for no other reason than you’ve already walked a long way … is crazy.”

Arianna Huffington spoke of the benefits she found from discontinuing some projects:

“Did you know that you can complete a project by dropping it?” Huffington told a women’s business audience. … She said that in her case, dropping projects — learning to ski and to speak German, for example — led to feelings of relief, not a sense of failure. And by dropping them, she was free to pursue the things she truly cared about.

How do you know when it’s time to give up on an activity, a project, etc.? In Harvard Business Review, Tony Schwartz suggested a number of questions related to pursuing business opportunities. But one question has broad applicability: “Is there a more enjoyable and productive way I could be investing my time and energy right now?”

Todd VanDerWerff, writing for the Vox website, had some suggestions on when to give up on a TV show. If you’re uncertain about a show, he provided a number of suggestions about how many episodes to watch before you decide to give up. But his number one rule was this:

You can — and should — ditch a show at any time, for any reason. … Sometimes you’ll realize a show is just rubbing you the wrong way, or you don’t like the lead actor, or whatever. And if that’s the case, turn it off. Find something else.

Sometimes you may just need to change tactics rather than give up on a project. For example, if you’re truly interested in learning another language but find yourself getting frustrated by your lack of progress, you may want to change your learning method and see if that helps. Some people do better with classes and some are fine with self-study, and there are many variations in both methods.

But sometimes you’ll find that the activity that sounded good just doesn’t work for you, even after giving it your best effort for a reasonable time. For example, I’ve discovered I have no aptitude for languages — no matter how much I’d like to become a fluent Spanish speaker it isn’t going to happen. So my time is better spent on other pursuits that are more fruitful and rewarding.

One Comment for “Sunk costs and discontinuing things you’re doing”

  1. posted by Carla on

    This is a great reminder. I sometimes stop doing things but then feel guilty because of the time and effort I already put in. I need to let go of the guilt.

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