Excuses. Love ’em or hate ’em, we’ve all got ’em. We spend a large portion of our brain power every day coming up with all kinds of excuses. However, most of the time we don’t even realize we’re doing it. It’s like a script that is constantly running in the back of our minds.

Even though we may not be consciously aware of these excuses, they still have a profound impact on our lives and the choices we make.

I’ve gone over how and why we make excuses briefly in another post, but as such a powerful force in our cognition, I think that it deserves a post of its own.

Why We Make Excuses Full BrainThis process can surreptitiously keep us from many of our goals and desires. It’s surreptitious because these excuses SEEM like good reasons not to do something. We often wholeheartedly believe them to be the only safe and viable option. Most of the time though if we take a second look, we see that they are completely ridiculous and don’t really make sense.

By understanding the how and why we can begin to change the result. It isn’t easy, but there are many ways one can work towards identifying and controlling these excuses. They can even become powerful forces for positive change if framed correctly.

So let’s begin by learning about the how and why, and then transition into how we can reframe excuses to be used as tools for growth!

Evolution Giveth, Evolution Taketh

Instinct has ruled the earth for hundreds of millions of years. Before Homo sapiens evolved, life made its decisions based on that one driving force. A predator sees a prey item and instinct takes over. They see exactly what they need to do to have a successful attack, and execute to the best of their ability.

A lurking leopard doesn’t think to himself “Hmm that boar looks pretty burly, if only I were a little faster, a little stronger, then maybe I could get that boar. Ah well, guess I’ll take a nap instead”. No, to the leopard failure is not an option. This isn’t to say that animals don’t make decisions and weigh the odds, but this ability in them is always trumped by the overwhelming power of their instincts.

This differs in humans in the way that our cognition has a much louder voice (or that it has a voice period). So although the leopard may choose to skip a prey item that is surrounded by thorny bushes (because he learned his lesson last time), he doesn’t reason with himself about it. Instead, he vividly experiences the different possibilities.

So where a human would have an internal conversation with themselves, the leopard instead remembers the experience of falling into the thorns and the experience of a fresh kill.

Both of these are still instinctual responses. The leopard’s instincts tell him that he lowers his chances of survival by falling into the thorns, but also that getting the kill RAISES his chance of survival. At this moment whichever of these two forces seem stronger wins. (Most likely dependent on how hungry the leopard is)

As you can imagine, this system results in a lot of thorny leopards.

Why We Make Excuses Hungry LeopardThis fine-tuned cognitive ability that Mother Nature gifted us has directly resulted in humanity’s rise to power. Without this mental chatter our ancestors, with their unimpressive physical traits, would most definitely have perished (or at least remained fairly uncivilized).

This reasoning is what helped early humans figure out that they could make up for their physical shortcomings by working together. The broken record player of excuses kept them from making many a stupid decision that would result in their death or even the death of their family/pack.

So although this got us to where we are, these days those excuses mostly get in the way. Our basic needs for survival are now very stable and almost assured. This doesn’t stop our brains from constantly making excuses though, and these excuses still present themselves in the terms of “preserving survival”.

Yet many of the modern risks we can take won’t result in our immediate death, even when they don’t go as planned. So this constant apprehension keeps us from taking risks in our lives, but it’s also what put us in the position to be able to take large risks with minimal detriment to our health.

If only we could flip a switch to turn off that “reasoning” voice. Alas, evolution has yet to give us this gift. Maybe next epoch.

We can’t choose what we’re born with so instead of giving in to these excuses and resolving to live a sheltered, mediocre life, let’s use the power of our cognition to combat itself and overcome this endless dialog of fear and doubt.

The REAL Reason

Understanding why and when we make excuses is the first step to becoming aware of them. We don’t have to look too hard because as I said, we are almost constantly formulating new excuses.

Their two most common functions are to explain things we have already done or not done (past) and to explain why we simply cannot do something (future).

Here are some examples of both cases:

  • Past:
    • I could have worked out yesterday, but I really didn’t get a lot of sleep after staying up late for that work project and didn’t want my performance to suffer.
    • I should have spent a couple hours studying for that certification test, but there’s no deadline on it, and a new episode of Game of Thrones was on.
    • I know you wanted that important project finished yesterday, but I ran out of time after helping coworkers with various issues.
  • Future:
    • I would love to start playing an instrument again, but it’s been so long I’d probably just be no good at it anymore.
    • Someday I’ll start my own business, but I’m just not ready yet. It’s not the right time.
    • I would really love to start writing that book I’ve been thinking about, but between family duties and my full-time job, I just don’t have the time.

These are all pretty good reasons… but are they the REAL reasons?

Upon asking yourself this question I believe you’ll find more times than not that it is really just a convenient excuse. So why do we impulsively create these reasons for everything we do? One little word: ego.

Why We Make Excuses Ego StopThat little voice in our head that strives to protect us from any and all sorts of blame or doubt. It uses excuses to justify the things we have or have not done.

It is much easier to comfort ourselves with a GOOD reason rather than the REAL reason which usually comes down to a personal fear or deeper issue we have yet to face. The ego’s job is to protect ourselves from negative thoughts and feelings. Facing and identifying fears and inadequacies is basically the POLAR OPPOSITE of this goal.

You can kind of think of it as the little devil on your shoulder that makes it seem like he has your best interests at heart. But there are always two sides to the coin, and we have the choice to listen to that deeper voice.

Let’s take the above examples and derive the real reasons from them:

  • Past:
    • I could have worked out yesterday, but I was a little tired and didn’t want to put in the extra energy.
    • I should have spent a couple hours studying for that certification test, it would make me feel accomplished and further my career, but seeing all the information I don’t know always makes me feel dumb and hopeless.
    • I know you wanted that important project finished yesterday, but instead of first completing the task that I knew was the most important, I chose to distract myself with easier busy work.
  • Future:
    • I would love to start playing an instrument again, but I’m afraid that I’ll have forgotten everything I’ve learned and will have to start from scratch, wasting a lot of time.
    • Someday I’ll start my own business, but I just don’t know how. I don’t know where to start and have little business knowledge.
    • I would really love to start writing that book I’ve been thinking about, but I have so little free time that I prioritize unwinding activities over passion projects that could add a huge sense of fulfillment to my life.

You’ll notice the main difference between these two sets of answers is that the former places the blame on external sources that are seemingly out of our control whereas the latter places it on internal personal issues that we have the ability to change, we just haven’t.

I’ll show you what I mean using the examples:

  • Past:
    • External Reason: Had to stay up late for a work project.
      Internal Reason: Laziness/Lack of willpower.
    • External Reason: Game of Thrones Episode was on.
      Internal Reason: Fear of own ignorance.
    • External Reason: Coworkers kept distracting me.
      Internal Reason: I prioritized the wrong tasks.
  • Future:
    • External Reason: The amount of time that has passed since playing.
      Internal Reason: Fear of wasting time.
    • External Reason: I’ve been dealt a bad hand in my current situation.
      Internal Reason: Lack of knowledge.
    • External Reason: Family and work take up all my time.
      Internal Reason: I prioritize the wrong activities.

Stop the process here and you could do some serious damage. You now have a list of reasons why YOU aren’t good enough to accomplish your goals. Sounds like a recipe for mental self-destruction to me.

So before we fall down the slippery slopes of self-doubt and into the dark depths of despair and depression, let’s take this cognitive struggle a couple steps further and transform all that negative energy into a driving force of reform in our lives.

Contemplating Contemplations

Let’s walk through the process as it usually happens. You are faced with a situation you feel unsure about so you begin contemplating and analyzing it. Your ego is hard at work creating a list of excuses for you to choose the most satisfying of.

Based on your analysis, you draw a conclusion and pick a pretty GOOD reason that fulfills the uneasiness you were experiencing. This is where the process stops for most of us, most of the time. In fact, I’d say the only time we analyze deeper is when the situation at hand involves why SOMEONE ELSE did something. When it comes to another person, your ego couldn’t care less about whether the reason is that person’s fault or not, so it gives us the freedom to contemplate it further.

So how do we catch our ego when it comes to justifying the reasons WE did something, to allow us to find the REAL reasons instead of just the GOOD reasons?

Awareness. If we want any hope of overcoming this ingrained dialog we must hone the ability to be aware of our thoughts. We must actively take a step back and analyze our analysis. Engage in a little THOUGHT-CEPTION, if you will.

Why We Make Excuses Thought-ception

This is much easier said than done but is an invaluable tool if you can get the hang of it. One of the best ways to train our awareness is through meditation, which I covered in another post here.

This isn’t just something you suddenly “get” and you will undoubtedly catch yourself giving in to many of your excuses when first trying this out.

I suggest starting small. Just try to catch a couple minor excuses throughout the day and analyze them. Figure out what the REAL reason you’re making that excuse is. Even if you don’t change your decision, just getting used to doing this sort of thought analyzation will greatly help you in becoming aware of when your ego is on autopilot.

Once you get comfortable with the process of catching and contemplating your subconscious thoughts there are some very powerful things you can do to get moving in the right direction and use the real reasons to get real positive results.

Turning the Tables

Now that we’ve gotten comfortable calling out our own BS, let’s get to work on using what we find to solve our problems. There are a couple of different ways to go about this.

The first is to pick an area of your life and decide outright that all excuses relating to that thing are no longer valid. No matter how convincing or logical they may be, you recognize them for what they are and tell yourself: “No that is not a good reason”.

This option certainly takes the most willpower, but if you can train the right mindset then that list of excuses becomes fuel. Each excuse no matter how daunting just becomes another hurdle for you to dominate on your path to success.  It’s that “nothing will stand in my way” type of determination. Powerful stuff.

Why WE Make Excuses Brain LiftThe second option is a bit more of a methodical approach, so if specific directions are more your cup of tea, read on.

This approach involves taking the excuses, deriving the REAL reasons behind them, and then USING that reason to give you actionable steps to take toward your goals.

Basically, you look at those depressing “real reasons” we came up with in the first section, and instead of giving up and accepting your inadequacies you simply ask yourself: “What do I need to do so that this excuse is no longer valid?”

Then do it.

Let’s take our examples from above one last time and attempt to find answers to the problems we discovered through critical thinking:

  • Past:
    • Real Reason: Laziness/Lack of willpower.
      Possible Solutions:

      • Workout earlier in the day, when you have more willpower.
      • Look up ways to motivate yourself to exercise when you aren’t feeling up to it.
    • Real Reason: Fear of own ignorance.
      Possible Solutions:

      • Face that fear by intentionally putting yourself in a situation that you know will show your lack of knowledge.
      • Prove to yourself that you are not dumb by racking up tiny wins in a field that you are more knowledgeable.
    • Real Reason: I prioritized the wrong tasks.
      Possible Solutions:

      • Always finish the most important task before engaging in smaller tasks.
      • Talk to your supervisor and explain your struggles, maybe they can find someone else to handle the less important tasks.
  • Future:
    • Real Reason: Fear of wasting time re-learning playing techniques.
      Possible Solutions:

      • Just sit down and try to play. Maybe you remember more than you thought.
      • Think about all the other things you have done that were “a waste of time”. Vacations, TV, getting coffee at work. Why weren’t you so concerned about your time during those activities?
    • Real Reason: Lack of business knowledge.
      Possible Solutions:

      • Start learning about business. Read online. Take some courses. Gain the knowledge.
      • Surround yourself with people who are more experienced than you. Glean knowledge by having successful business owners in your immediate social circle.
    • Real Reason: I prioritize unwinding activities over writing.
      Possible Solutions:

      • Take note throughout the day how much time you spend on frivolous tasks or activities and then cut down on that time to make room for passion projects like writing.
      • Take courses or read books on time management.

As you can see, each and every possible excuse has plenty of actionable solutions you can engage in. In this way, you transform your excuses from roadblocks into the roadmap of your success.

This can be applied to specific endeavors as well. Let’s say you want to start a business. Your mind is flooded with really GOOD reasons why you can’t. Take a piece of paper and write down all those reasons. Then take each reason, find the REAL reason, and then write down different steps you can take to correct those problems.

Why We Make Excuses Road MapThese lists of problems and the solutions to them will be different for each of us and again will take some critical thinking to determine the optimal path forward.

Once you have your list of actionable options, pick the most important one and get to it! DON’T let yourself get overwhelmed by how lengthy the list may be. DON’T fall back into the loop and make the excuse “I’ll never be able to fix all these things about myself, there’s way too many!”

A trick I learned from Tim Ferriss is when you have a “to-do” list like this, ask yourself: “Which one of these tasks makes it so the others are no longer important, or are easier to accomplish?” Pick one thing at a time, focus on that, and then move to the next. You can do it all; you just can’t do it all at once.

Conclusion

The mental landscape is a mysterious and vast place where many things go unnoticed. The more exploration we do, the more we demystify these subtle subconscious processes. I hope that I have made this one a little clearer to you, and given you new insight into how excuses affect our lives.

So try these tips out. Experiment with your excuses and see what you can uncover about yourself. You may be very surprised by what you find.

Leave a comment if you have any thoughts or opinions on this post. It’s a bit more abstract of an idea than I’ve written about in the past and I’m curious about what you think! I hope you all remember to be mindful today, and don’t let any excuses slow you down!

Categories: Mind Space

6 Comments

Jerry Huang | Smart Affiliate Success · March 27, 2018 at 12:12 AM

A very interesting read! This is a topic that is seldom talked about. You’ve given some really detailed explanation and great tips to overcome excuses.

I agree with you that EGO is one of the main reason. To be more specific, it is the comfort zone in our mind that is causing all the excuses and procrastination. Like you’ve said, human brains are designed for survival and thus it will protect us from getting hurt. That forms the comfort zone.

Feel the fewar, and do it anyway. Sometimes the things we want are just 2mm outside our comfort zone 🙂

    Jordan · March 27, 2018 at 12:02 PM

    Agreed. Often the most important thing for us to do at any time is that which makes us feel the most uncomfortable. Action cures fear!

Joo · March 22, 2018 at 11:23 PM

Thanks for the article! It is really insightful, and serves as a reminder to us, to get to the bottom of the real reason, behind each and every excuse. And work on those, whether they are areas of weaknesses, or a need for us to prioritise, etc.

    Jordan · March 27, 2018 at 12:04 PM

    I’m glad you found it interesting! Accepting our problems without dealing with them might as well be accepting a mediocre life! Life is all about overcoming and growing from our inadequacies.

GiuliaB · March 22, 2018 at 6:05 PM

I must admit, as an introvert by nature, hence a thinker, as soon as I saw the title of your post, I somehow suspected you were going to move in the direction of external causes and our not being entirely honest with ourselves, when we use them to justify why we have not done or are not going to do something that may sound a tad daunting, but whose ultimate goal is to improve our position or well being.
Yes I am an introvert, but by far not shy at all. Yet, in my thinking moments of solitude – which I very much need and crave for every day – I find myself grasping to those external excuses, but without letting them stop me from moving on. One of my favourite sayings is ‘Build that bridge and get over it’.
You mention meditation. Have you ever looked into lucid dreaming?
Thank you ever so much for prompting me to … well why not? more thinking! 🙂

    Jordan · March 27, 2018 at 12:07 PM

    Accepting our excuses for what they are is the trick. Our brains will never stop creating excuses, so we must become better at identifying them.

    I have looked into lucid dreaming! Unfortunately I’ve never been blessed with the experience, but I hope to someday!

    Thanks for your input and I’m glad you enjoyed the post!

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