You start a project with the best of intentions. Then, three months in, you realize it’s not going to work. A rational person would abandon the attempt and start something else.
But humans aren’t always rational. We succumb to the “sunk cost fallacy,” in which we refuse to recognize that the time and money spent on a project are gone and can’t be recouped. By holding on, we hope to recoup our investment by, as the saying goes, throwing good money after bad.
This is an inefficient mindset. It’s not unique to work, either. People rent storage units to house clothes they’ll never wear again because they paid a lot for those outfits. People stay in relationships that aren’t going anywhere because extricating oneself means admitting that things didn’t work out. This is true even though the time, money, and energy in all these situations could clearly be put to better use.
Fortunately, though, a few mindset shifts can help conquer the sunk cost fallacy.
In Greg McKeown’s 2014 book, Essentialism, he recommends evaluating commitments cluttering your life with this criteria: not whether you’re already doing them, but whether you’d add them now. If this meeting wasn’t already on your calendar, would you bother contacting everyone involved, asking for time, and getting them together? If not, it’s probably not the best use of your time.
Another approach comes from Marie Kondo’s new book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. Kondo, a “cleaning consultant,” helps her clients purge unnecessary objects by teaching this philosophy: All items serve a purpose.
Even if you’re donating or throwing away something you never used, you can still appreciate it and give thanks for that purpose. “The true purpose of a present is to be received,” she writes. “Presents are not ‘things’ but a means for conveying someone’s feelings. When viewed from this perspective, you don’t need to feel guilty for parting with a gift. Just thank it for the joy it gave you when you first received it.” Likewise, things you bought but never used can be chucked when you recognize that “the exhilaration you felt when you bought them is what counts. Express your appreciation for their contribution to your life by telling them, ‘Thank you for the boost you gave me when I bought you.’” That sense of appreciation for your former excitement is valuable in and of itself.
This philosophy can be applied to the work project that is never going to work as well. It, too, can be released with the right mindset. What purpose came out of this failed project? Maybe you worked with someone you’d love to work with again. Maybe you learned something valuable about how you like to work. You came up with a brilliant new technique for reaching audiences that will be helpful with your next, not-so-flawed product.
Yes, admitting something isn’t going to work is never easy. But if you make a list of every lesson and moment of happiness gained from the project, then it isn’t a failure. You can be thankful for those, and then ready to move on to whatever comes next.