Have you ever kept a piece of clothing that no longer fit you, because it was really expensive? How about maintaining a relationship that wasn’t working, because you moved in together and it would be difficult to move out? Or maybe staying in a job that you hate, waiting for it to get better because you’d already stuck it out for so long?
Whether it's time, money, energy or love, what makes us reluctant to end an investment that isn’t paying off?
If you’ve found yourself in one of these situations, you have experienced the sunk cost fallacy. You might have heard this term applied to monetary business investments, but it can be applied to so much more - including the organization of your own home.
Defining the Problem
The definition of sunk cost theory is: “the phenomenon whereby a person is reluctant to abandon a strategy or course of action because they have invested heavily in it, even when it is clear that abandonment would be more beneficial.” (Google, Oxford Languages)
The trouble with this way of thinking is that it uses circumstances of the past to make decisions about the present. An article from thedecisionlab.com puts it like this:
“If we acted rationally, only future costs and benefits would be taken into account, because regardless of what we have already invested, we will not get it back. The sunk cost fallacy means that we are making irrational decisions because we are factoring in influences other than the current alternatives.”
— The Decision Lab
So, don’t worry about the past and you’ll always come out on top! Sounds simple enough, right? Like most things, it’s easier said than done. There are several psychological reasons for why sunk cost fallacy can permeate our lives.
We’re only Human!
First of all, no one likes to feel wasteful. Most of us are programmed to not let resources, physical or otherwise, go to waste. And if you do “waste” something, you feel guilty about it. This, in turn, pushes us to keep doing something even if it’s not beneficial, to avoid those feelings and convince ourselves that whatever we invested in was not a waste after all.
And as humans, we’ll often go a long way to protect our feelings:
“Sticking with the plan, even when it no longer serves you, could be an attempt to correct cognitive dissonance: the mental disconnect between paying for something and not getting the expected return on investment. It could also be a knee-jerk reaction to regret.”
— Jamie Ducharme
The Time article goes on to say that people may also continue with a counter-productive investment to convince themselves that they have somehow regained what they, in their minds, lost.
But what does all of this have to do with decluttering your home?
Let’s say that in college you got really into knitting. So you accumulate a couple bins of yarn, knitting needles, pattern books and any other tools you need. Your friends and family know that you enjoy knitting, so they often gift you with yarn and the like to support your craft and add to your collection.
One day you graduate college, you move home or get a new job in a new city, and your tastes begin to change. Your time spent knitting becomes less and less. Pretty soon, another hobby takes its place; and yet those bins of knitting supplies have followed you from apartment to apartment, city to city, because you don’t want the materials to go to waste! Plus you used to love it! The bins aren’t really that heavy anyway. And what if you decide to pick up those knitting needles again?Sound familiar? Suddenly, without realizing, you’ve fallen victim to sunk cost fallacy - and it’s directly affecting the clutter in your life.
The thing to remember is this: just because something is no longer serving you, doesn't mean it wasn't worth the investment at the time. And the things you once loved can still serve someone else!
Lynne Poulton, creator of the first ever organizing game Declutter Go!®, has worked as a professional organizer for ten years; she’s used to working with clients who get wrapped up in the past when trying to make decisions about their present:
“We are going to buy things that seem like a good idea at the time, and then we never use them. Or we stop using them and get new stuff. You can skip beating yourself up about it! Do the next best thing: sell it, give it to someone who will appreciate it or donate it to a cause you feel good about.”
Sunk cost fallacy can get the best of us, but Declutter Go!® can help you let go of past investments. If you’re looking to conquer your clutter, try rolling the Declutter Go!® dice and take the pressure off of yourself to handle it alone.