Kay: Spending Your Time—The Sunk Cost Fallacy

The Wreckage of the Black Prince (fragment) by Ivan Constantinovich Aivazovsky, 1854.

Becoming an author requires a lot of work, from the writing to publishing and marketing. It’s easy to get caught up in writing-related activities that don’t yield much, if anything, in results. In the lingo of economists, this phenomenon is called the sunk cost fallacy—really a high-fallutin way of pointing out how you’re wasting your time.

I just read an article about the sunk cost fallacy, and it resonated with me since I’ve so recently fallen victim to it. So, what is it and how does it work?

In economics, a “sunk cost” is a cost that you’ve already paid, says Robert Wood on Standout Books. For writers, this payment can be financial, but usually the resources that you spend are time, energy, and emotional commitment.

For example, if you spend an evening writing or editing a story, that evening is gone. It’s a sunk cost. Sunk costs also include the times you turn down recreational plans for work, or you write a chapter even though you’re exhausted. You intend that these sunk costs get you to publication and sales. But what happens when it seems that you might not achieve your goal?

Common sense says you should give up on the project and move on to something that will reward your efforts. However, usually people keep plugging away at the same goal, even if it shows no results. They do so because of the sunk cost fallacy, which says that the more you invest in something, the harder it is to abandon it. People think sunk costs are something to be recouped rather than something that’s gone, regardless of the outcome.

How can you know when it’s best to give up on a book? The one you’ve worked so hard on? Your baby?

It’s easier to avoid the sunk cost fallacy if you decide before you start writing how far you’re willing to go. Set realistic, even generous, dates for completing first and second drafts. 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. (Wish I’d done that.)

But let’s say you’re two years into that project with no end in sight. You’ve blinked hard and decided to quit. What then?

Your time and energy can’t be recovered, but you might be able to repurpose some of the work—such as the characters, plot, themes, or setting—for your next book. Best of all, you can “repurpose” the time you would have spent trying to make the old project work. The sooner you quit, the more time you get to pursue a bestseller.

And if you still can’t give up your baby, put it away for five years. 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.

I spent more than two years working on my last project, and I fretted for the last year over quitting, although I never did. Do I regret all that time? I sure do. Now I’m 500 words into the new book (first day!), and you can be sure I’ll be working on a realistic time for completion. Life’s too short to spend it on one book.

Have you ever been trapped by the sunk cost fallacy?

4 thoughts on “Kay: Spending Your Time—The Sunk Cost Fallacy

  1. Oh boy. I’m a little afraid to look too hard at this whole issue, because I could wind up giving up writing. Right now, if the characters are still in my head playing around, I say I’m still working on it. Even though I’m not writing it . . . . But I think once the characters go away, and some new characters insistently start invading my head and setting up camp, it’s time to start something new.

    But it’s all very fuzzy. I’m living with the characters from three books in my head right now. Not all the time, and not in a conflict-y sort of way, but I often wonder what they’d do and what they are doing. The charcters from other books are well put away and wrapped up, even though they were only put away into first drafts. I *might* go back to them, and so they stay on my computer. But they aren’t active at all. Vampires sleeping in the coffin.

    I think it was a very, very good thing that Jenny put away the characters she had (from about five different books/stories?) and started working on her new thing when it caught her imagination so strongly. Even if she never finishes the book (but she will! she will!), she will still have gotten immense satisfaction out of creating this story — several pleasant evenings of discovery. Plus, tangible blog posts! LOL.

    Go for the new story and enjoy yourself!!

    • I think if your characters are just roaming around in your head, you’re not investing the kind of time the economists are talking about. That kind of thinking energy you can spend while you’re also doing the dishes or driving or a hundred other things. It’s putting two years—or maybe more, I’ve lost count—into writing a book, like I did, and then not being sure of the results. But I agree with you about Jenny. She caught fire on that one!

  2. I have this contemporary that I played around with for about a year, but I didn’t love it. It won a couple of contests, which made it even harder to toss.

    The other problem is that my beta readers, who also sank some time into it, keep asking when I plan to finish it. (“Never” seems like a rude answer.)

    For now, I just say that it’s not on the critical path for publishing 3 paranormals next year.

  3. It sounds like you did not get caught up in the sunk cost fallacy! Congratulations for stopping when you knew it wasn’t right for you. And publishing three paranormals next year—I’m in awe. You go!

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