Letting “Sunk Costs” Go

library room

I sometimes keep things or stay in situations that I know are a mistake, just because I spent a lot of time, energy, and money making that mistake. It’s hard to let go of my “investment”, but as soon as I do I wonder why I didn’t move on much sooner – the freedom and space are luminous compared to the darkness of living with a constant reminder (or denial) of a mistake. I am learning to let go sooner and sooner, and I’m basking in the lightness it creates in my life.

A story

A friend of mine has a new car that plays music from their phone automatically. They apologize in frustration each time they start the car up and it blasts a surprisingly annoying song. They haven’t figured out yet how to get the car to recognize playlists, so it always plays the first song alphabetically on the phone. I ask, “Why don’t you just delete that song?” and their testy reply is, “I spent a lot of money on that album.”

That’s not the only song they don’t like on their phone – there are literally hundreds of them, usually bought unwanted as part of an album, and sometimes just from changing musical tastes over time. There’s no getting the money spent on them back of course, it’s not like they can be sold secondhand. The money is gone: Sunk costs.

Imagine that every time you turn on your car, a song you love starts playing. Imagine opening your music app and being happy with everything you see – with no reminders of your cringe-worthy boy band phase or regret at the tedious guitar solos you tried to like to impress a lover. Let. Them. Go.

A second story

We have a tedious government reporting system at my workplace. It is full of details (no joke, every clinician has to record what they do in 5 minute intervals for their entire workday every single day) but the details aren’t organized in any meaningful way. It was developed for a different purpose in a different type of organization, but the government  drooled at the “accountability” of having all that data and imposed it on us.

When the system was first required of us, we had lots of meetings with the government about how to implement it, and about what the information from it was – and was not – telling them. Over time, they started to see reason. We eventually felt close to a decision that we could stop all this wasteful work when someone in authority said, “Huh. Maybe we should rethink this.” Such relief! There was even clapping from one group.

It was, however, a premature celebration: My counterpart from another organization got up and made a heated speech saying, “I have spent three years of my life putting this system into place. I won’t hear of dismantling it!” They spoke about all the staff training time, the investments in software, and the reorganization of their own internal information systems to match the government one. “Changing things now would be too big a burden.” Our comments on the burden of wasting more time on the current system went unheeded.

That was almost 20 years ago and we’re still stuck with the meaningless system. Imagine what we could have achieved in those decades if we’d let go of the initial lost time and put our energy into something better. 

A story with a happy ending

I ❤️ NY. I find any excuse I can to be in New York City, wandering the streets, ogling the art and architecture, and finding quirky nooks in parks or buildings where I can sit and write. On one trip, I signed up for a walking tour of a couple of neighbourhoods I was interested in, thinking I would get the insider’s scoop on the best nooks. I was wrong. I got a bitterly out-of-work actor, fairly new to NYC himself, telling a large group of us scripted stories and taking us to places filled with other walking tours.

padded chair
comfiest nook chair ever

The walking tour wasn’t cheap, and it was two hours long. I knew 15 minutes into it that it wasn’t what I wanted. I gave it another 15 minutes “just in case” (never works) then realized I had two choices: Stay with the group for another 90 minutes, possibly seeing an interesting thing or two but mostly feeling unsatisfied, or politely leave, and spend those 90 minutes exploring on my own. Money wasn’t part of the decision because the money was gone, it was simply a matter of deciding how I wanted to spend my time. The answer was clear, and I greatly enjoyed the adventures I had on my own walking tour, complete with a unique nook find 🙂

What’s your story?

What mistakes have you made that you’re holding onto for no reason other than what they cost you? Can you picture how lovely your life would be without them? You can’t get the time or money back, but you can decide to put it all behind you and stop spending any of your present and future energy on the mistake. The freedom will feel wonderful, I promise.

ps The picture at the top is the Rose Room at the NY Public Library – a favourite indoor place to write but not at all a secret nook… I don’t usually take pictures of those sacred spaces 😉

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