It’s a fine line between knowing when to get stuck in and when to quit. Have you ever been in a job with no future prospects? Deep down you knew it was time to go but you convinced yourself that things would change. If you were honest, you’d admit that you stuck around because you couldn’t contemplate starting over after so many years.
Or maybe it was a relationship you stayed in long past its expiry date? It was toxic and you were both miserable, yet you held on. And it wasn’t because you believed it would get better but because of everything you’d already invested in it. You couldn’t just give up on it, right?
You’re not alone!
We’ve all been guilty of hanging on to what we know isn’t working. We’ve all stuck with relationships, jobs, situations that we knew were heading for a dead end or worse. Yet we continued to pour more of ourselves into them.
Why is it so hard to let go and move on?
The reason you’re hanging on for dear life
‘When the going gets tough, the tough get going.’
How often have you heard that saying?
For as long as you can remember you’ve been taught that success doesn’t come easy. That anything worth achieving will take hard work and will come with setbacks and obstacles. That the key to success is to be resilient and persistent, to persevere when things get difficult. To keep going and never give up.
And you know it’s true. After all you see and read about people who’ve achieved success. Whether that’s professionally or personally, they all say that staying the course was the key to them reaching their goals.
Perseverance is a good thing… at least that’s what you think.
The cruel trick your mind plays
But what if you’re persevering at the wrong things?
What if you’re sticking with it for all the wrong reasons?
What if your mind is tricking you into making decisions that hold you back and have you settling for less.
What if those decisions are keeping you stuck in situations that are no longer good for you?
The flaw in your thinking
Did you know that you feel the pain of losing something far more than gaining it?
In his book ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’, psychologist Daniel Kahneman’s explains how our brains evolved over time to be more strongly motivated by the prospect of a loss as opposed to a gain. As a result we feel the pain of relinquishing something much more deeply than any benefit of a potential gain.
Why is that important?
Because, in an attempt to avoid the pain of loss we will make some strange decisions and do the seemingly illogical.
It’s a bias in our thinking and can show up in different ways. The example that applies here is called the Sunk Cost Fallacy.
The Sunk Cost Fallacy
The Sunk Cost Fallacy is our belief that something we’ve invested in deserves even more from us, regardless of whether it is likely to deliver the desired outcome. We don’t make decisions based on the value or benefit we’re receiving and are likely to in the future, but on what we’ve spent in the past.
This investment, referred to as a sunk cost, can be any number of things: love, time, money. Like a ship that has sunk to the bottom of the ocean, it is an investment that you can’t get back.
Yet the sunk cost fallacy blinds you to that fact. Instead, you use the investment you’ve made as a key factor in your decision-making even when the logical response would be to walk away.
Where are you investing? Is it in a job? A relationship?
The sunk cost fallacy side-tracks you from making a balanced decision, the result is you end up investing even more but get the same undesired outcome.
So why does your mind trick you?
Fear is at its core.
- Fear of loss. You feel the pain of losses more deeply and will act irrationally to avoid it.
- Fear of wasting. You don’t want to believe that you’ve wasted your time or energy so you convince yourself that sticking with it makes the investment worthwhile.
- Fear of what others will think. You think that letting go means admitting you were wrong or that you made a mistake. Sticking with it shows that you’ve made the right decision.You don’t want to look like a quitter.
- Fear of the unknown. You can’t stand the uncertainty that comes with letting go so you focus on how bad it will be if you do.
- Fear of regret. You try to avoid the pain of regret you think will come if you give up.
So how do you eliminate sunk costs and make better decisions?
You have to change your focus.
Stop looking in the rear view mirror
Knowing that you have this flaw in your thinking is the first step to identifying and eliminating its effect. Its power comes from its ability to keep you focused on the past. To combat it you have to do the opposite, focus on future benefits instead.
Ask yourself the following:
- Am I in the situation solely because of the investment I’ve made and not because I anticipate future benefit?
Remember a bad decision doesn’t improve if you remain stuck in what you’ve already lost. If the only reason you’re sticking with something is because of what you’ve put in then it’s probably time to consider moving on.
- If I had to do this over would I make the same decision?
If the answer is no then why not? The answer here can help you determine whether it’s time to change course.
- Am I losing out on other great opportunities because I’m holding on to this?
Try to objectively consider what you’re closing the door to by remaining invested in the sunk cost. Is it the possibility of a satisfying relationship or a fulfilling job? What is the cost of you actually staying where you are?
- Am I trying to save face at the cost of being miserable?
There are people who have stayed in relationships even when they were miserable simply to prove to others that their decision to be together was right. The question is, is it more important for you to be right than to be happy?
- What advice would I give to a good friend in the same set of circumstances?
When you’re not trying to justify your own behaviour you may find that you are much better at giving sound advice. So be honest, if this was your best friend or a treasured family member would you advise that they give up or stick with it? The answer can be a good guide to how you should proceed.
The road ahead is clear
Now just to be clear, this isn’t a call to abandon your relationships, goals and dreams when the going gets tough. It’s definitely not telling you to jump ship at the first sign of bad weather. It’s simply a reminder that if you’re investing in something, anything, you need to be clear on what you’re doing and why.
Are your actions moving you towards your goals and dreams or are you stuck looking in the rear view mirror instead of the road ahead?
How much of your life are you losing to the pit of sunk costs?
You don’ t have a moment to waste
There’s a saying that goes: ‘Time and tide wait for no man’. It means that you can’t waste another minute on things that add no value to your life. The time to act is now.
Take an honest look at yourself. Are there any areas in your life where you continue to invest with no real expectation of a return? Is it because you’re afraid of losing what you’ve already spent. Remember, that investment’s gone forever and you don’t have to continue to throw good money after bad. Instead, switch your focus to what you need to do to move in the direction you want to go. Invest in those things instead.
Now go on, take a deep breath and release the dead-weight from your life. You’ll be amazed at the freedom, optimism and opportunity that flows in.