How sunk costs sink writers

Reading time: Less than 3 minutes

If you think sunk costs are a topic suitable only for economists, read on to learn how this issue affects writers as well.

Do you ever do any of the following:

  • Work for a client who belittles you or who pays you poorly? 
  • Accept writing or editing contracts for jobs or in subject areas that bore you?
  • Stay in a particular writing niche when you’re no longer enjoying it?
  • Continue to read a book you don’t like?
  • Stay stuck in a dead-end job when, really, you’d rather be writing? 

If you answered yes to any of these questions, you are likely the victim of what economists call sunk costs.

You’ve probably already heard the term because it’s used in news stories, books and blog posts all the time, but basically it refers to the idea of spending time, money or emotional energy on something that isn’t giving you enough back. (Think of the person who stays with a bad boyfriend/girlfriend for 10 years, only because they’ve already spent so much time with that person.)

In his book Thinking Fast and Slow, noted psychologist Daniel Kahneman describes how sunk costs exert a terrible control on us. Basically, human beings are designed to find the threat of losses to be a much more significant motivator than the promise of gains, even big ones. For example, research has shown that when people are offered a chance to accept or reject a gamble, most of them refuse to make a bet unless the possible payoff is about double the potential loss.

The big downside of this human tendency to protect what we have, is that we try to avoid change at most costs. That job you have — the one you hate — seems to be so much more secure than the iffy prospect of becoming a freelancer. The hundreds of hours you’ve spent becoming a travel writer seem too important to give up, even in the face of a global pandemic that’s put travel on hold.

If sunk costs are holding you back with your writing (or with anything else in your life), here are four steps you can take:

1-Document what you learned from the project/situation/relationship:  So, you’ve spent 10 hours (or 10 months or even 10 years) doing something that’s no longer working for you. But it’s totally unlikely that you gained nothing from the experience. Pick up a pen and document what you’ve learned. Life lessons? New skills? Better understanding? New connections? Even if the cost is sunk, you can continue to reap the benefits of that investment, which should help you move on.

2-Analyze your choices: Now is the time to really figure out why you invested in a sunk cost in the first place. Try asking questions like:

  • How is holding on still serving me, or affecting me?
  • What might happen when I let go of this situation?
  • Which risk is greater — moving forward or hanging on?

3-Focus on the best-case scenario: Fear of the unknown is powerful, so when you feel ready to let go of sunk costs, focus on the good things that are likely to happen. How you think will influence what you experience, so stay positive — while, of course, planning diligently for your future success.

4-Take a deep breath and let it go: Yes, you will be losing something but without the loss, you will miss the opportunity for future gain. To bridge the transition between these two worlds, use your writing skills to document the ways in which you’re grateful for that past situation (the “expense”), and describe why you’re grateful to be letting it go. What new doors will open for you? What emotional burdens will be lifted? 

Our society tends to measure everything in dollars so we are extra resistant about any action that appears to cost us money. As well, most of us don’t like to regard ourselves as either stupid or wasteful. 

Here’s a simple example of sunk costs I encounter all the time: I find some academic writers resist the notion of using software to organize their citations. They tend to view their current “system” (which, in truth, usually isn’t much of a system) to be less troublesome than the idea of learning new software. Inevitably, however, when I persuade them to make the change, they report back how many hours of time they’ve saved and how grateful they are to be using the new software.

This example is a good reminder that sticking with a plan, even when it no longer serves us, costs us in other ways. We spend time doing things we don’t like. We often do them badly. We waste emotional energy. And, most troublingly, we miss new opportunities.

Don’t let the fear of sunk costs hold back your writing — or anything else.


Need some help developing a sustainable writing routine? Learn more about my Get It Done program. The group is now full but there is turn-over each month, and priority will go to those who have applied first. You can go directly to the application form and you’ll hear back from me within 24 hours. 


My video podcast last week addressed whether it’s possible to make money as a fiction writer. Or, see the transcript, and consider subscribing to my YouTube channel. If you have a question about writing you’d like me to address, be sure to send it to me by email, Twitter or Skype and I’ll try to answer it in the podcast.


Have you ever battled with the notion of sunk costs? We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section, below. And congratulations to Hilary Lynch, the winner of this month’s book prize, for a Feb. 9/21 comment on my blog. (Please send me your email address, Hilary!) Anyone who comments on today’s post (or any others) by March 31/21 will be put in a draw for a digital copy of my first book, 8 1/2 Steps to Writing Faster, Better. To leave your own comment, please, scroll down to the section, directly underneath the “related posts” links, below. Note that you don’t have to join the commenting software to post. See here to learn how to post as a guest. It’s easy!

Scroll to Top