A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about how ‘the secret of success is giving up’. Research suggests that the most successful people are those who are able to act decisively when faced with ‘right vs right’ decisions: two or more courses of action which are attractive in their own way, but at least one of which has to be sacrificed in order to fully focus on the other. In the absence of this ability to choose something and consciously give up on something else we find ourselves locked in indecision and inaction.
There is a fundamental decision facing all of us when considering change: start something new, or stick with the way things are now. Naturally there will be potential pros and cons in either course of action, but what is astonishing is how long we will endure situations that clearly aren’t working for us – that sometimes feel intolerable – without taking any action to change.
When working with clients around major change, an incredibly common reason given for staying put in a bad situation – a job they hate, a relationship that isn’t fulfilling them – is this or something like it: “I can’t quit now, I’ve poured the last 20 years of my life into this!”
Not wishing to be too glib, it puts me in mind of the first lines of the film Annie Hall:
“…two elderly women are at a Catskill Mountain resort and one of ‘em says ‘Boy, the food at this place is really terrible.’ The other one says, ‘Yeah, I know; and such small portions.’”
Thankfully clever psychologists have given a name to this phenomenon: the Sunk Cost Fallacy – the tendency to make a decision about a current situation, based on the amount you have already invested in it. The classic illustration of the sunk cost fallacy involves imagining that you’ve pre-booked a ticket to go to the cinema. When the evening comes you get home tired after a day’s work, you’re feeling ill, and you just don’t want to go any more. The question is ‘would you go’?
The majority of people say ‘yes’ they would go, as they wouldn’t want to waste the price of the ticket. But the price of the ticket is a ‘sunk cost’, that money is gone now. If you take that out of the equation the choice you face is either do something you want to do (stay home) or do something you don’t want to do (go out). And yet, the majority of us would choose to do the thing that we don’t want to do!
So today there are countless people following career paths that mean nothing to them, sticking it out in relationships are damaging them and the people around them, because they have worked hard and invested heavily to get to that point. They realise they are unhappy but can’t bear to take action to change the situation.
There are countless inner voices that will tell us that change is difficult and scary, but few of them are as unhelpful as the voice that says, “You’ve invested too much in this, you can’t throw all that away now!” This is the voice that is urging us not to listen to our values, not to learn from our experience, to continue to make a bad situation worse by doing nothing.
Many of us find ourselves in situations – in our careers, in our lives – that aren’t working for us due to decisions that we made years ago, when we didn’t know what we know now. Our minds will try to tell us that these are ‘mistakes’. But perhaps they aren’t – perhaps they are micro-experiments that have now yielded results. As we go through life we gather and accumulate information about what we do and don’t want. The only mistake we can make is failing to assess the evidence that is in front of us in order to guard an investment that may be of little worth anymore.
In Acceptance and Commitment Coaching we advocate ‘committed action’ –action taken decisively in service of our values, free from the mind chatter that draws us into the sunk cost fallacy. The beauty of this kind of action is that it frees us from the baggage of the past – every moment is a new opportunity to take meaningful action.
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