Two Questions to Let Go of Bad Decisions

Sunk costs will sink you if you don’t let them go.

by Colter Reed
2:07 read (647 words)
by Colter Reed
2:07 read (647 words)

Would you scrap a project halfway through and start over? All the late nights, research, and tough decisions, undone. Go back to square one, now with half the time to do it in.

That’s exactly what I did with my senior design project in college. I wasn’t enjoying the project I had picked. My heart wasn’t in it. I dreaded working on it.

Over the holidays, I took the time to step back and reflect. Despite the time and effort I had already put in, I felt like I needed to do a different project—one that would play to my strengths and, honestly, one that I would care about. I got the necessary permission from my advisor, the department head, and the dean, and restarted a nine-month project with four months to go.

I had a blast working on the new project. I was engaged. I was excited. I was more than a little anxious about finishing in time (this was a graduation requirement) but I did complete the project on time and received very high marks for it. Restarting was the best thing I could have done, yet we’re often reluctant to go back and change a decision.

Why We Get Stuck

There are many reasons why we don’t want to change course on a decision.

  • Sunk costs. We don’t want to waste the time and money we’ve already put in, so we pour in more time and money.
  • We’re good for our word. We said we’re going to do something, so we follow through, no matter the cost.
  • Fear of being wrong. We don’t want to admit that we made a mistake, so we convince ourselves we were right all along.
  • Fear of missing out. There could be adventure, praise, or status that comes with it. We need these things, and we don’t want to lose what we’ll feel as a part of it.
  • We don’t want to disappoint. We say yes to be helpful. We act to live up to expectations. There are people and causes we care about and we want to see them succeed.

Whatever the reason, the effect is the same: we stay the course, even when we know it’s not good for us.

Two Questions to Ask

Because we hold on to bad decisions longer than we should, we start to build around us a life that we don’t want.

From time to time, ask yourself two questions. During your weekly review is probably too often. When you’re setting goals for the year is a good time, as is a quarterly personal off-site.

First question:

“Is there anything in my life that, if I knew then what I know now, I never would have gotten involved with?”

It doesn’t matter what it is. It could be an outfit in your closet, a hobby, an investment, a job, a relationship, anything. Maybe it used to be important to you, but it isn’t now. Things change. You change. Maybe it was only important to someone else, but you wanted to be a people-pleaser. Whatever it is, it’s causing you pain, and it’s taking your attention away from where you want it to be.

Take yourself back to when you made the decision in the first place. Everything is exactly the way it was then, except you know everything you know now.

  • Would you make the same decision?
  • What has changed and makes the difference?
  • What have you learned that influences your behavior?
  • If someone asked you for your advice, what would you tell them?

When you have identified something in your life that doesn’t belong there, ask another question:

“How quickly can I get it out of my life?”

This is a powerful question. You’ve already decided you want this out of your life, so the only question that remains is how to go about it. By asking how quickly, it focuses your attention on exploring alternatives and selecting the one that will get the best results.

Breaking Free

Once you have decided you want it out of your life, let it go.

  • Cut your losses. Whatever time or money you have invested in it, it’s a sunk cost. You’ve paid it. You can’t get it back. Stop making decisions around it.
  • Don’t be a martyr. Just because you said you would do something doesn’t make it a good idea. People will usually understand if you change your mind about an impetuous commitment, or if circumstances have changed.
  • Make another choice. There’s nothing bad about being wrong. You made the best choice you could have at the time. Things are different now. You know more. You can make another decision now—a better choice. Holding on to an old decision despite new information doesn’t make you principled—it makes you stubborn.
  • Focus on opened opportunities. It’s easier to see the oppotunities we’re walking away from than the undiscovered opportunities that are now open to us. By saying no to something we don’t want in our life, we now have the flexibility and the margin to say yes to something wonderful when it comes along.
  • Win-win or no deal. Sometimes, we aren’t helping as much as we think we are. If we resent our involvement, we’re not going to do as good of a job as if our heart were in it. If we are stretched too thinly, our contribution will suffer. Renegotiate the commitment (you can do that) and help them to find the help they truly need.

Don’t let yourself get stuck with a bad decision. You can usually undo it, and it’s easier than you think. You’ve learned something new that’s changed your mind; give yourself permission to act on it.

Question: What’s keeping you from going back and making another decision? How will you get past it? Share your thoughts in the comments, on Twitter, LinkedIn, or Facebook.