Over these past two years (let's just call them pandemic years), there have been countless times where I've found myself doing something that becomes irrelevant in a matter of days.
I've thought more about sunk costs during the pandemic years than probably any other period in my life.
First, a definition.
A sunk cost is a resource that has been spent, and can no longer be recovered.
You can think about it tangibly, like with money, but my favourite way to think about it is intangibly. Time, decisions, that sort of thing.
I will likely return to sunk costs in many future posts, and for now I would like to focus on one aspect of them.
The psychological residue they leave.
A quick aside.
I came across the term attention residue in Cal Newport's brilliant book Deep Work. Imagine you're having a conversation with someone, then they go to the bathroom, and you quickly check your phone. Classic move. You see something on your phone, a message, an email, and then you start thinking about it. Your friend comes back, you put your phone away. Attention residue is the part of you that's still thinking about what was on your phone. Put another way, it's a part of you that's no longer present in the conversation.
The thing about sunk costs is that they are super deceptive. We never really choose to incur them. We only realize them after they've done their work.
When we're spending the resource, let's think of the resource as time in this particular case, a part of us is being put into that resource. You can call it identity or ego if you like.
For example, let's say I spend an entire day writing a guide that explains how to deal with new government restrictions (pandemic years). Since this kind of stuff happens in real-time, there's rarely anything existing to copy, so a lot of my time is spent creating something from scratch. It's exhausting, and finally, after a long day, it's ready for use.
Then a few days later, the restrictions change. Completely out of my control.
A natural response here is frustration, right? All that work, all that thinking, creating, for what? Imagine how much harder it is to start creating the next guide, when you know that this is the likely outcome. Irrelevance in a matter of days.
This is what makes the psychological residue of a sunk cost so, so dangerous.
A part of you is still tied to what was. Your previous effort. This means that there is less of you present to deal with what is.
IGNORE SUNK COSTS AS QUICKLY AS POSSIBLE.
Sorry for yelling. But, it's justified.
Ignore sunk costs as quickly as possible.
Sorry for repeating. But, it's justified.