The Sunk-Cost Fallacy

May 4, 2016 by Evan Braun

Most writers devote a lot of time to their passion projects, ideas for books that are so powerful that they’re what inspired them to start writing in the first place. As a writer myself, I have several of these. Some of them, in fact, are almost two decades old. Hundreds of hours have been spent, and hundreds of hours are likely to be spent in the future.

But it’s also critical to realize when it’s time to walk away from a project that has taken up a lot of time and effort—and yes, those proverbial blood, sweat, and tears. Even once our passion has moved on, though, it can be difficult to walk away from a project that we’ve invested hundreds of hours in.

Have you ever heard of the sunk-cost fallacy? It’s an idea that actually comes from the world of economic theory, but I’ve found that it can be applied to creativity just as easily.

Here’s how it works. Let’s say you paid $100 for a concert ticket, no refunds, but on the day of the concert you are very ill. Your head is pounding and you can’t keep any food down. You can hardly stand up straight, never mind sit in a loud concert hall with pounding bass and screaming fans. But you force yourself to go anyway, because you don’t want that $100 to go to waste.

If you decide to go to the concert even though you’re likely going to have a bad time, then you’ve fallen victim to the sunk-cost fallacy. You see, you had already spent that money and there was no getting it back. The cost was already “sunk.” Going to the concert, even though you’re probably going to have a bad time, only makes it worse.

Let’s say you go to a restaurant and order a hamburger and fries, but you only make it two-thirds of the way through your meal before you’re full to bursting. You decide to finish your burger, even though it only makes you more uncomfortable (and maybe even a little sick), because you don’t want your money to go to waste. Same situation. Nobody else is going to eat your leftovers; it’s just going to be thrown in the garbage—so it doesn’t do you any good to finish eating it once you are too full to enjoy it. Finishing the meal, once again, only makes things worse.

So how can we apply this idea to creativity? There comes a point in a project where we’ve already spent hundreds of hours on a manuscript and we feel like we have to finish it, or we have to edit it some more, or we have to send it to more critique partners, even though we’ve moved on or lost interest. Maybe it’s already good enough, or maybe it’s time to start the next big thing.

But the truth is that spending more time and effort on something just because you’ve already invested a large amount of time and effort isn’t going to make it better. It’s only going to result in more lost time and effort, which you could instead apply to something more in line with your passions and interests.

And who knows? Maybe if you give it some time, that passion will come back and you’ll be able to return to the project with fresh eyes and new ideas. After all, the project’s not going anywhere.

The next time you look with dread at your creative to-do list, remember the trap of the sunk-cost fallacy and make sure you’re allowing yourself to apply your efforts where they’re going to do the most good.

We only have so much time to spend on this earth. Let’s make the most of it!

About this Contributor

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Evan Braun is a full-time author and editor. He has authored three novels, the first of which, The Book of Creation, was shortlisted in two categories at the 2012 Word Awards. He has released two sequels, The City of Darkness (2013) and The Law of Radiance (2015), completing the series. As a professional editor, Braun has seven years of experience working with Word Alive Press authors. He is also a regular contributor at The Fictorians, a popular writing blog.