Okay. Clear your desk and pull out a pencil. This post starts with a pop quiz. For each of the following scenarios, answer 1 or 2.
You’re on vacation in Florida. You have reserved a spot on a snorkeling expedition. But when the big day arrives, you wake up and realize that you have a cold. This cold won’t make it impossible for you to make the trip, but it will definitely make for unpleasant snorkeling. You would prefer to stay at the hotel and read a book. But you’ve already paid $150 for this snorkeling trip, and the money is non-refundable. Do you:
- Spend a miserable day snorkeling so as not to waste the $150, or
- Spend a relatively pleasant day by the pool and forget about the fact that you spent $150 that you will never seen any benefit from?
You’re on vacation in Florida. You have paid to go on a snorkeling expedition. But a friend offers to fly you over to the Bahamas on her family’s plane to spend the day on a private beach. This sounds like more fun than snorkeling. But you’ve paid that $150, remember, and it’s non-refundable. Do you:
- Tell you friend thanks but no thanks, but you’ve already committed to the snorkeling trip (it would be a shame to waste that $150, after all), or
- Take a free trip to the Bahamas and forget about the $150 that you will never see any benefit from?
You’re on vacation in Florida. At the seafood restaurant you order the Fried Fisherman’s Platter. When it comes out, it’s quite a bit more food than you imagined. You eat until you’re full, but you’re only halfway done. If you keep eating, you know you’re going to be sorry. That’s a lot of grease, after all. But you paid $19.99 for the Fisherman’s Platter, which was a bit of a stretch after paying $150 for the snorkeling trip. Your hotel room doesn’t have a refrigerator, so you can’t take a to-go box. It’s now or never. Do you:
- Muscle through the rest of those fried oysters so as not to waste any of the food you’ve paid for, or
- Stop right there, tip your server generously, and enjoy a night free from gastrointestinal distress?
You have been dating somebody for six months. You knew early on that you weren’t quite compatible, but you hoped you’d get more compatible. Now you realize that while there’s nothing wrong with this person, he or she will never be YOUR person. And yet you’ve just spent six months trying to make this thing work. Do you:
- Let things ride so that you don’t have to face the possibility that you have wasted the last six months of your life, or
- Tell this person, “We need to talk”?
You made it through law school. Then you spent ten years working at a law firm, working your way up, and paying off the huge loans you took out to pay for law school. Then you realized that the practice of law is sucking the life out of you, and your true calling is to be a weaver. Do you:
- Keep lawyering because you have invested huge amounts of time, energy, and money in this thing that you now hate, or
- Realize that you those huge amounts of time, energy, and money are gone and you can never get them back, so those sunk costs should not figure into your decisions regarding how you spend the years that are left to you.
If you chose Answer 1 in any of the above scenarios, you have fallen prey to the sunk-costs fallacy.
The sunk-cost fallacy is the idea that people are more likely to continue with projects that they have invested time, effort, and money into, even if continuing that project doesn’t make a lot of sense. In business the sunk-costs fallacy is often called throwing good money after bad.
Logically speaking, the amount of time, effort, or money we have invested in the past should have no bearing on how we decide to invest our time, effort or money in the future. The question is, “Given where I am now, what should I do next?” In the five scenarios above, the money and time and effort are gone, never to return. There is no reason to honor their loss by continuing down the path you started on. There could be good reasons to choose Answer 1 in the above scenarios, but “I’ve already invested this much and I might as well see it through” is not one of them.
This would be a good place to insert a caveat: None of this is a reason to break commitments. In Scenario 4, it’s a whole different calculation if we’re talking about a marriage of six months rather than a dating relationship of six months. In Scenario 5, “I’ve decided I would rather be a weaver” isn’t a reason to default on your law-school loans. The question, as I said above, is “Given where I am now, what should I do next.” Commitments are a huge part of where I am now.
Sunk Costs and Editing
The sunk-costs fallacy came up in last week’s webinar on editing and revision. Writing is a huge investment of time and effort.
That is to say, writing is costly. So it can exceedingly painful to realize that you need to delete or rewrite a paragraph or a sentence (or a page, or a chapter) that you have labored over. Having put so much of yourself into the work, how do you let it go without feeling that you have somehow wasted the time and effort you put into it?
Principle 1: Past time and effort is gone, never to return. Future time and effort is yours to steward.
The amount of effort you have already put into a piece of writing really isn’t relevant. Time and effort are non-refundable. The question is always, “Given what I have right now, what do I need to do to make it better?” You are here to serve the work and to serve the reader, not to serve yourself…and certainly not your past self who put in the time and effort that you are sad to have lost.
Principle 2: There’s always more where that came from.
I wrote about this idea in a previous issue of The Habit. Creativity is a river, not a reservoir. It keeps on flowing. When you pull an idea out of your mind and put it on a page, you don’t have one idea fewer in your mind. In fact, it is likely that expressing the one idea leads to at least two or three new ideas. A carpenter who cuts a 2×4 too short has lost a 2×4 as well as some time and effort. But ideas aren’t 2x4s. It makes it easier to let go of ideas or sentences or paragraphs when you realize that you aren’t losing a finite resource. There are always more ideas and sentences and paragraphs where those came from.
Principle 3: Keep a slush doc.
Even when you have internalized Principles 1 and 2, it can still be pretty painful to throw out work you have agonized and perseverated over. When I know a section needs to be deleted but I can’t quite bring myself to delete it, I cut and paste it into a “slush doc” that I keep for the purpose. I tell myself that I’m not really deleting it, that I can go retrieve it if I need to, for the current work or for some future work. The truth is, I almost never use anything in the slush doc. But it can help me get over a mental hump when I’m having trouble cutting something I know needs cutting.
Finally, here’s a truth that rescues the writer from the sunk-costs fallacy: For the writer, nothing is wasted. Every sentence you write sharpens your skills as a writer, even if you have to throw the sentence away. Every idea leads to new ideas. The false starts aren’t as false as they seem, for the path to great writing always leads through less-than-great writing.