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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.

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    '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. – Edwin Ashworth Jan 21 '15 at 10:05
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    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. – Edwin Ashworth Jan 21 '15 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". – CowperKettle Jan 21 '15 at 10:12
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    "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. – Brian Donovan Jan 21 '15 at 11:57
  • Insanity: Doing the same thing and expecting different results. – Phil Sweet Jun 10 '16 at 23:12
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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

and

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!"

and

"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.

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    That's exactly the situation! Now the question is: is there an idiom that describes it? – Wowbagger Jan 21 '15 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 ReinstateMonicaNow Jan 25 '16 at 14:45
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"Flogging a dead horse" is the expression that comes to mind for me. This might be BrE only...

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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. – Kristina Lopez Jan 21 '15 at 15:00
  • Ah, you are right. Looks like I read the question wrong. – Paul Senzee Jan 21 '15 at 15:02
  • LOL! Been there/done that! :-) – Kristina Lopez Jan 21 '15 at 15:04
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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.

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