My friend’s tears weren’t too unusual on this topic.
“It’s awful,” she said, as I listened to her heart sink to the floor. “My manager is always hounding me about deadlines I’m missing because I have too much work to do. My coworker is a jerk, but I have no one to tell when we don’t have HR, besides my manager says it’s my fault. It’s so frustrating, I hate it there.”
After a bit, I said, “Wow, that’s all so hard. Are you going to look for a new job?”
She blinked at me. “Oh, no I couldn’t. I’ve invested so much in this place, and there’s that promotion in 6 months, I might get it this time. And the benefits here are really good, I’m not sure what I would do without them.”
My friend (we’ll call her Blue) was being hit by a double-whammy of psychological effects.
1/ The “sunk cost fallacy”
It’s when you continue forward with something because you’ve invested in it, whether that investment was time, money, or effort. Or, to put it another way, we’re afraid that we wasted our resources if we walk away now.
You can logic your way through it, as we often do. “If I leave now, what was it all for?” Or, “If I get that promotion then maybe it’ll be worth it.”
You tell yourself this even when you’ve been passed over for the promotion before. Or even when you’ve seen your awful coworkers treat other higher-ups the same way.
I mean, you’ve seen it, or done it – you eat the second half of the bag of chips when you’re already full. You bought them, after all, and you “wouldn’t want them to go to waste.” (You may even hear that in your mom’s voice as you eat the last few chips.) But what good is it doing you when you’re already full?
Sunk-cost fears crop up all over our decisions. Think about clothes, pen sets, sports supplies … jobs, houses, relationships. It’s everywhere.
The secret to undoing the sunk cost fallacy is to understand it. To recognize it when it happens, and then consider whether you are genuinely invested in continuing forward, or whether it’s time to drop that job and find somewhere that you’re respected.
But, when you’re evaluating, don’t get trapped in Blue’s second psychological effect …
2/ The “endowment effect”
Remember that time your friend went to throw away that thing you love, and you snatched it out of her hands and said, “no wait! That’s that thing I love!” and she looked at you like maybe you’d left a marble in the jar?
This is the “endowment effect.” It’s when you ascribe additional value to something because you own it.
Sometimes, of course, there’s a genuine attachment that even Marie Kondo wouldn’t argue with. But sometimes … can you really explain your attachment to that doodad in the corner that’s there because it’s been there for a year? Yeah, it was cool how you got it, but do you really care anymore? And would you buy it again?
Blue got caught in the endowment effect when she over-valued her current position over the possibility of another job. In a country like ours, benefits are super important and typically attached to your job. But she hadn’t even looked. She had no idea what sort of benefits she would get at another company.
When you can’t let go, ask yourself if you’re caught up in worry over lost time, money, or effort, and (without blame or shame) ask yourself if it’s worth more time, money, or effort to stay. Is it worth what you’ve put into it.
And if the answer is no, it’s time to go.
If you’re exhausted from burnout but aren’t sure what to do to fix it, I have a workbook that will help you. Check it out here at: https://www.decodingjoy.com/burnout-direct