"But we've already spent the money."
This single phrase is responsible for more bad decisions than almost any other.
Once we've spent some money, we're reluctant to back out. Whether it's millions on an IT project or $100 for concert tickets, once we part with cash, we become invested in sticking with our decision.
Several years ago, I was determined to put more fun in my life, so I ordered a series of concert tickets, a package of tickets for several different artists. We weren't fans of all the artists, but, in my book, any concert beats staying home. I wanted more fun. Concerts were going to be where I found it. I ordered the tickets months in advance.
The morning of the very first concert some friends called to invite us to an impromptu party that night. The scheduled concert performer wasn't one of the more popular artists, so selling the tickets was not an option. But this was an actual party with friends we hadn't seen in a long time. Given our flimsy social life we hated to turn it down.
We had already paid for the tickets, so we decided the best option was to swing by the party on the way. "No problem," said our friends, "Just come for as long as you can, it's super casual." So we went and just as we were starting to have fun, it was time to go. The concert was starting in 30 minutes.
"We would really love to stay," I said, "But we already have these concert tickets, so we have to go."
Just as we were about to walk out, one of our friends said, "You know, you really don't have to go. You've already spent the money, now it's just a question of how you want to spend your time."
He was right, we didn't want to go to that concert; we wanted to be with our friends. It wasn't a matter of money to miss the concert and stay. It would have been a waste of an opportunity to leave the party.
We took off our coats and had one of the best evenings we'd had in a long time.
The same lesson applies to bigger issues.
One of my mentors Marshall Goldsmith once counseled me, "People make bad decisions because of sunk costs."
He's right. It doesn't matter how much time or money you've spent. Given where you are right now, do you want to continue on this path, or take a different one?
There are some pretty obvious crossroads in life, where one part of your life is over and another to start, like having a child, finishing an education or deciding what job to take.
But there are a whole host of other decisions we make every day without even realizing it like keeping your job, staying in a relationship, living where you do or sticking with your original plan for Saturday night.
Those decisions might not seem like watershed events, but the sum of these choices is what constitutes your life.
Don't allow an investment you made in the past to have a chilling effect on your decision today. It's not about what you've spent; it's about what you want to do from this point going forward.
You can't go back and unspend the money; all you can do is decide what's the best investment today.
Lisa Earle McLeod is the author of "The Triangle of Truth," named by the Washington Post named as a "Top Five Book for Leaders."