Is there an idiom or expression that describes a situation where one knows they need to stop doing something that's not working, but they don't want to because of all the effort they've already put into the project?

For example, what might I say to a person who needs to scrap the project they've been working on for years because it's just not working and there are outside options that work better?

It seems similar to "throwing good money after bad" or "reinventing the wheel" but I feel like there is a more specific phrase out there.

  • 3
    'Throwing good money after bad' certainly works; by metaphorical extension, 'money' can refer to any resources (time, effort ...). 'Flogging a dead horse' etc is another nearby expression, but doesn't require that the person knows deep down that their efforts are in vain. Jan 21, 2015 at 10:05
  • 1
    There are many near-duplicate threads with suggestions overlapping to various degrees, eg 'An idiom meaning someone's doing something useless and has no result at the end'. I like 'like trying to squeeze blood from a turnip', but 'trying to reinvent the wheel' emphasises the fact that the person really knows better. Jan 21, 2015 at 10:10
  • I wonder if there are "positive" idioms related to this theme, making stress on "since I've started it, I need to finish it, whatether the results". Jan 21, 2015 at 10:12
  • 1
    "My father was a gentleman of many virtues,—but he had a strong spice of that in his temper, which might, or might not, add to the number.—'Tis known by the name of perseverance in a good cause,—and of obstinacy in a bad one." —Tristram Shandy. Jan 21, 2015 at 11:57
  • Insanity: Doing the same thing and expecting different results.
    – Phil Sweet
    Jun 10, 2016 at 23:12

4 Answers 4


"Flogging a dead horse" is the expression that comes to mind for me. This might be BrE only...

  • In the US it's more commonly heard as "beating a dead horse."
    – arp
    Dec 23, 2019 at 0:43

This is what I'd call an instance of the 'sunk cost fallacy' (also sometimes called 'escalation of commitment').

Wikipedia sums it up like this:

The phenomenon where people justify increased investment in a decision, based on the cumulative prior investment, despite new evidence suggesting that the decision was probably wrong.

I can think of two related (or at least relevant) proverbs:

In for a penny, in for a pound


You might as well be hanged for a sheep as a lamb.

However, they can be applied in situations that are not necessarily lost causes, so they fail to satisfy your condition that the person "knows they need to stop doing something that's not working".

There are some expressions in common use that convey the notion of total and/or irrevocable commitment, and which also imply that the enterprise in question has at least the possibility of failing:

"We're going all-in"

"We've crossed the Rubicon"

"We've come too far to turn back now"

and its variants,

"There's no turning back now!"


"We can't afford to abandon it at this stage"

The extent to which any of these implies or involves a prior investment of resources will depend on the context in which it is being used.

  • 2
    That's exactly the situation! Now the question is: is there an idiom that describes it?
    – Wowbagger
    Jan 21, 2015 at 10:15
  • @Wowbagger The poster gave you two idioms in his answer about sunk costs: "In for a penny, in for a pound" and "....hanged for a sheep as a lamb".
    – ab2
    Jan 25, 2016 at 14:45

Discretion is the better part of valor,

and upon giving up -

We live to fight another day.

From the movie WarGames, the computer (playing endless variations of nuclear war) ultimately realizes:

An interesting game. The only winning move is not to play.

  • None of these expressions fit the OP's request, IMO. Jan 21, 2015 at 15:00
  • Ah, you are right. Looks like I read the question wrong. Jan 21, 2015 at 15:02
  • LOL! Been there/done that! :-) Jan 21, 2015 at 15:04

If you are looking for a more gallant term you could say "Going down swinging" which would imply even though you know your chances are slim you will endeavour to fight until the end.

Another phrase which infers hope could be "hail Mary" as in "Even though he knew the project was as good as dead, he planned to throw a hail Mary." It comes from American football where the Hail Mary play is a last ditch desperate attempt at victory.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.