When It’s Okay to Give Up (The Sunk Cost Fallacy)

Aderinto EbunOluwa
4 min readMar 6, 2024

Ever thought to yourself, “If I stop now, then what’s the point of everything I’ve done?” The thought was probably triggered by the realisation that what you’re currently doing isn’t working out the way you’d like it to and you should probably stop. However, you tell yourself that you’re in too deep to give up, so you keep going.

It’s happened before, yeah? Of course, it has.

When it comes to making decisions, one of the most challenging psychological hurdles to overcome is the sunk cost fallacy, and it’s an unconscious problem that many people aren’t even aware of. It’s a cognitive bias that occurs when you continue to invest time, money, or effort into an endeavour simply because you have already committed significant resources to it, despite its diminishing returns or unfavourable outcomes.

So rather than choose to cut your losses and move on from the unprofitable venture, you invest even more energy and more resources, hoping that it would pay off eventually. You might think you ‘re simply “persevering”, Rome wasn’t built in a day, after all, but sometimes it’s just more beneficial to let go.

Consider this practical example; John wants to renovate his lake house, so he creates a plan with a set budget in mind and a timeframe for completion. However, as the project progresses, unforeseen complications arise and John encounters setbacks, leading him to surpass his initial budget and spend more time on the work. His rationale for investing more money into the renovation is that he has already spent so much and abandoning the project would render his previous investments worthless.

Take this other example, Steve constantly loses money at poker. He knows he should quit before it gets out of hand but he’s desperate to keep going until he wins. His thought process is that he has already lost a lot and he has to win to make up for it. So as Steve tries to “recover” his losses, he continues to lose even more money.

John and Steve fell into the sunk cost fallacy because they chose to focus on past expenditures rather than on present costs and their future implications.

Other areas this unconscious phenomenon could occur include personal relationships, where individuals may prolong toxic or unfulfilling connections because of the time and emotional investment already made. Or in education, when after realizing a degree wasn’t the right fit, a student may persist in the study due to fear of “wasting” resources. This could lead to missing out on professional and career opportunities that could have been a better fit for him/her.

Don’t get me wrong though, I perfectly understand the place of dedication and consistency in every venture that one sets out to pursue. Success in general requires hard work and showing up every day, and many success stories today wouldn’t exist if the person involved had quit at the first sign of opposition or setback.

So, when then is it okay to give up? The answer simply lies in your ability to differentiate between sunk costs and future opportunities. Acknowledging past investments is important, especially for accountability purposes, however, they should never fully dictate your future decisions. Instead, at every given time, you should focus on the present situation and evaluate the potential benefits and drawbacks objectively.

Overcoming the sunk cost fallacy is pretty easy. After coming to the conscious knowledge that you’re engaging the bias, the next thing for you to do is:

Reframe the Decision: Shift your focus from past investments to future outcomes, and consider whether continuing the current course of action aligns with your goals and priorities.

Seek External Input: Consult with your trusted friends or advisors who can provide impartial perspectives on the situation. Doing this could give you access to insights that you hadn’t considered and help you see beyond sunk costs.

Consider Opportunity Costs: Evaluate the potential gains and losses associated with continuing the endeavour versus abandoning it. More often than not, you’ll see that the opportunity cost of persisting greatly outweighs the benefits of cutting your losses.

Set Clear Criteria: Before you embark on any project, establish specific criteria or benchmarks for success. This is helpful as you can always come back to reassess the situation based on these parameters, and if the project consistently falls short of these criteria, it may be time to consider alternatives.

Practice Self-Compassion: The important thing in my opinion is that you be kind to yourself and focus on learning from the experience rather than dwelling on past mistakes. Once you accept the fact that letting go of sunk costs is not a sign of failure but a demonstration of adaptability and resilience, you’ll be more comfortable with major more objective decisions concerning your endeavours.

The sunk cost fallacy has prevented many people from making rational and strategic decisions that prioritised their long-term well-being and success without them even realising it. It’s important to know when to give up on a failing project, relationship, or career path, to open doors for new opportunities and pave the way for growth.

So, the next time you find yourself grappling with the decision to continue or cut your losses, remember that sometimes, it’s perfectly okay to quit.

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