On Monday, I did something incredibly stupid. I accidentally spent nine hours of my life waiting in line to purchase three signs from a discount goods store that will be shutting down in 2016. Admittedly, this store – Honest Ed’s – has a lot of nostalgia for me, and I did want a souvineer sign, but not enough to have spent nine hours acquiring one.

How that happened is something called the sunk cost fallacy.

Sunk costs are the time, money or other elements you have already invested in a project, investments that can no longer be recouped. Once you’ve bought a movie ticket, that money is gone. If you realize the movie is terrible in the first 20 minutes, you have two choices:

  1. Spend another 60-90 minutes watching the terrible film, or
  2. Leave.

The second option is the better choice. You can’t get back the sunk cost – the movie ticket price – but you can save your time and frustration by not continuing in an unpleasant experience. Yet most people, most of the time, will include the cost of the movie ticket when rationalizing why they ought to stay and watch the rest of a bad film. Or finish a meal when they’re already full. Or stay in a long-term relationship that doesn’t make them happy.

Or, in my case, continue to wait in line for a purchase well past the point of reason.

How it happened: I arrived around 11:30 am to find a line wrapping around three and a half blocks. However, people seemed to be moving rapidly, and based on my first 15 minutes of waiting, I estimated the whole process would take about two hours. Although longer than I’d hoped, this felt like a reasonable investment given the one-time-only nature of the sale and my desire for a sign.

Around 1 pm, I realized the line was moving much slower than before. My estimate was now three hours of waiting. This is the point at which I should have given up. I had no guarantee the wait would really be another 1.5 hours, and evidence that my ability to estimate the time required was faulty. However, I thought of the time I’d already spent in line, and told myself that time would be wasted – when in fact, what I was really wasting were the many, many hours to come.

3 pm. I have rounded the final corner. It’s clear the wait will be at least another two hours, yet having already invested 3.5 hours – and with my destination visible on the horizon – I felt that I would be wasting my day to quit now. Same faulty logic, same faulty results.

At 4:30 pm, my friend Andrew joined me, which provided the emotional bolster to keep me going. At 5:30-ish, we entered the store, only to discover the inside line was much, much longer than we’d heard. Again, we repeatedly considered bailing. Every time, thoughts of the hours we’d already spent on the process kept us trudging forwards.

It wasn’t until 8:30 pm that we finally left the store, signs clutched in our now-grubby hands, a sheen of confusion and mania in our eyes. What had just happened? How had two normally-rational people wasted so much effort in pursuit of so foolish an end goal? What the hell was wrong with me?!?

Sunk cost fallacy.

As I explained the whole ludicrous experience to my highly amused husband, I struggled to extract something of value from the incident, aside from three kitschy store signs of questionable value. Lying awake in bed that night, unable to sleep because of my thobbing feet, the answer finally broke through.

If I couldn’t avoid falling prey to sunk cost fallacy, I could use it to motivate me towards projects I wanted to complete. Specifically, writing.

By the time I sit down to write a first draft, I’ve already spent hours thinking about the story, crafting characters and plot, building structure and theme. If I don’t finish the first draft, I’ll have wasted all that time.

If I don’t edit that draft into a tight, coherent manuscript, I’ll have wasted the time spent writing the first draft.

And if I don’t push through the submissions process, I’ll have wasted even more time: the thinking effort, the writing effort and the editing effort.

If you think about writing not in terms of the time you still have left to go, but in terms of the time you’ve already invested in each book, then the natural human desire to gain value from sunk costs should kick in and help propel you forward. You’ve already spent this much time on the darned thing, it’d be a real shame not to get the rest of it done, right? And what’s a few hours of writing today compared to all the hours you’ve already put into your book – hours that will have been wasted if you don’t keep at it!

And should I forget this bit of advice, I have my lovely new signs to remind of the motivating power of human stupidity:


More on sunk cost fallacy:
You Are Not So Smart