Image: Matthew Loffhagen
If there’s one vital thing to understand about becoming an author, it’s this – it won’t happen on its own. Getting a book published, finding readers, and winning accolades all result from concerted, informed, sustained effort. Because of this, one of the deadliest things for authors is when something comes along that feeds on this kind of effort and offers nothing in return. The sunk cost fallacy is one such vampire, and one that has stalked most authors at some point.
In this article, I’ll talk about what the sunk cost fallacy is, how to spot it in your work, how to avoid it, and how to recover quickly and effectively.
What is the sunk cost fallacy?
In economics, a ‘sunk cost’ is a cost that’s already been paid with resources that can’t be recovered. Basically, anything you already paid for. For authors, this ‘payment’ can be financial, but it’s more common that the resources in questions are time, energy, and emotional commitment.
Once you spend an evening writing or editing a story, that evening is gone – a sunk cost. The same is true when you turn down other plans to work, bash out a chapter even though you’re exhausted, or stress over the details of a story when you’d rather rest and recuperate. Sunk cost after sunk cost, spent with the intention of moving you towards the goal of a finished book. But what happens when it starts to look like that goal isn’t going to arrive?
Common sense says it’s time to give up on your project – to move onto something that will reward continued effort, rather than demanding more resources with no payout. Almost unquestionably, this is the correct path to take, and yet so, so often, people choose to keep plugging away at a goal that will never reward their efforts.
This is because of the sunk cost fallacy: the more you invest in something, the harder it becomes to abandon it, even when that means incurring further cost without adequate reward. To put it another way, the sunk cost fallacy lends sunk costs too much importance, considering them something to be recouped rather than something that’s gone, regardless of the outcome.
The most popular example is the gambler sitting at a slot machine, unable to walk away because they’ve spent so much already that the only outcome they can accept is a big win. Of course, the big win rarely comes, and eventually they just run out of resources.The sunk cost fallacy will consume as much of your career as you allow.Click To Tweet
Things are different for authors. Though they, too, can run out of money, their chief resources are renewable. That might sound much better – they don’t face ruination, after all – but it means that a potentially best-selling author can instead spend their entire ‘career’ slumped in front of that same slot machine, plugging away at a jackpot that can’t repay their costs, even if they win it. This is the fate of many budding authors – caught up in one endless project that’s constantly changing and will never actually see publication.
How do I escape the sunk cost fallacy?
As usual, part of escaping this psychological trap is knowing it exists. The human mind is prone to giving weight to costs that, practically speaking, shouldn’t be part of the equation. If you find yourself doing this, realize that you’re in the grip of the sunk cost fallacy, and consciously work against it. What you’ve already spent has emotional weight, but it’s not coming back – make your decisions based on future costs vs. size, nature, and likelihood of reward.
Of course, it’s never as easy as just ‘snapping out of it’, and there are other ways to prevent getting trapped by the sunk cost fallacy. Many of these are most effective in advance, but they can also be employed at a later date.
One incredibly effective thing you can do is to sit down prior to a project and decide on the resources you’re happy to spend on its completion. The more exacting, the better, but as a bare bones approach, it’s sensible to set definite dates for things like the first draft, second draft, and eventual completion. Try to be realistic, if not generous – the more reasonable your goals, the less likely you’ll be to shirk them when they arrive. You could even include buffer time, if you know you’re likely to overrun.Planning ahead can defuse the sunk cost fallacy.Click To Tweet
This, and similar devices, are explained more fully in 8 Steps That Will Help You Start (And Finish) Your Book, and their intent is to give you an objective reference when you can’t trust your subjective experience. When you’ve put nearly a year into a book, and you’re looking at another year before it’s anything close to ready, having a piece of paper that says you should have been done three months ago will help you walk away.
This can be done at any point in the writing process, but the further on you are, the more you’re likely to be swayed by the sunk cost fallacy. It’s much easier to say a project should take nine months when it hasn’t already taken longer.
Another way to achieve this is to invite other people into the mix. They’ll have to be people who have some understanding of your writing process, or writing in general, but having someone dispassionately tell you that it’s better to move on could be all it takes to free you. You can check out Want To Improve Your Writing? Here Are The Six People You Need To Find and How To Get Your Partner To Support Your Writing, for more on this.
Above all, try to remember that, in terms of your personal economy, sunk costs aren’t ‘real’ anymore. They’re persuasive but, since you can’t get them back, they should be kept away from your decision making as much as possible. Of course, not all costs are sunk, and considering what you can save might be what it takes to free you from a go-nowhere project.
How do I recover from the sunk cost fallacy?
While your time and energy can’t be recovered from a stalled project, there’s a lot that can be. Any book you write, for instance, edges out a multitude of similar books that would then appear derivative or stale. The plots, character names, set pieces, themes, and even phrases that are bound up in a project are costs, but they’re not ‘sunk’ until publication. If you abandon a project because it’s costing you too much, or doesn’t look set to pay off, you get these costs back.
Similarly, you get to repurpose the time you would have spent trying to make it work. In fact, the sooner you quit, the more time you get in future to pursue a bestseller.Admitting a project has failed can free up a lot of resources.Click To Tweet
If none of this is quite enough to spur you into a clean break, then consider putting your project away and vowing to come back to it later. The sunk cost fallacy will be far less powerful with some distance, and you’ll be able to look more objectively at whether it’s worth investing more time and energy. If so, great – you cleared your head, and you were free to pursue new projects in the meantime.
Should I always ignore my sunk costs?
For writers, it’s almost always a good idea to ignore sunk costs. You really can spend your whole life trying to perfect something that either isn’t going to work, or won’t reward your efforts when it finally does. There are, however, rare situations where it makes sense to at least consider your sunk costs.
Contrary to conventional wisdom, we argue that, in a broad range of situations, it is rational for people to condition behavior on sunk costs, because of informational content, reputational concerns, or financial and time constraints. Once all the elements of the decision-making environment are taken into account, reacting to sunk costs can often be understood as rational behavior.
– ‘Do Sunk Costs Matter?’, R. Preston McAfee et al.
For example, if you’re an author writing a series, it might be that there’s fan pressure to produce the next installment. In this case, the time you’ve already sunk into a project may represent a significant chunk of the time until your fans become irritated. While the sunk cost isn’t really the main consideration here, it might be worth continuing with a flawed project if it protects your brand and reputation.Prior success can make it harder to ignore sunk costs.Click To Tweet
George RR Martin fans love to vehemently complain that the writer’s A Song of Ice and Fire series may never actually be finished, though in this case, it’s worth remembering that his readers are so loyal that he feels free to release new installments at his leisure, and it will often be a better call to release something great late than something broken on time.
The costs are sunk, but you’re not
The sunk cost fallacy is a vicious trap that ties you to a single project when tens or hundreds of others would be better for your career and your well-being. No author wants to abandon their work, but moving on to something new, buoyed by the lessons you’ve learned, can be far, far better in the long run.
Do you struggle with the sunk cost fallacy, or do you think authors should be more committed to seeing a project through? Either way, let me know in the comments.
For more on making genuine progress with your writing career, check out The Three Lies Writers Tell Themselves Every Day (And How To Stop), Nobody Beats The Triangle, But You Can Be Prepared For It, and There Are Wolves In You! Now, How Can They Help You Write?