The Art of Making Excuses
Distractions and excuses are everywhere. It’s as if people are playing Pokemon Go and walking around trying to catch them all. Every excuse seems logical to the person offering it, and may even be legitimate.
Excuses come in one of two types: those that contain blame, and those that invite accountability. Learning to differentiate between the two will eventually allow you to minimize blame, eliminate excuses, and become more accountable.
Living a life of excuses undermines your confidence and prevents you from recognizing opportunities. [Photo credit: Pixabay]
Your Brain Works Against You
Making changes in our excuse-making behavior may be even more difficult than our attempts to keep New Year’s resolutions. Although making excuses is often a subconscious process, breaking a habit requires conscious effort. Habits are neural pathways carved deep in the brain’s basal ganglia, fed by dopamine neurotransmitters that reward and generate pleasure associated with the task at hand.1
But there is a region of the prefrontal cortex known as the infralimbic (IL) cortex that may hold the key to breaking old habits. Researchers found that the IL cortex favors new habits over old ones. The old ones are only tucked away, not forgotten, which helps explain why it’s so hard to break old habits and why they consistently resurface.
With those mechanisms in mind, there are methods you can employ to break your excuse making habit. The following strategies are by no means quick fixes, but they are effective and will help you to achieve far greater life satisfaction.
Stop Playing the Blame Game
To overcome your excuses, you must first admit that you are making them. Then begins the work of identifying them. Take this seriously, because if you have been making excuses for most of your life, this is going to be a difficult habit to break. More often than not, these justifications have slid off your tongue so easily that you don’t even realize it is happening.
Start by thinking about commitments or decisions that you have been putting off or canceled. Ask yourself if you are able to recognize the reasons why you have delayed taking action. Fear is frequently the underlying culprit: fear of failure, of embarrassment, of success, of change, and of uncertainty. Fear is not the only problem, and being scared is all too often used as just another excuse. There are also lack of willpower and self-discipline, which lead to lost focus and procrastination. The root of your excuses could also be a perceived lack of resources.
I work at a university that recruits highly intelligent student-athletes. These athletes have chosen to undertake a sizeable commitment to both their studies and their sport. When midterms roll around, so do the excuses. Understand, these kids are biochemical engineers and future architects; their course load is daunting. But I have a complete lack of sympathy for them when they attempt to skip a training session. Their excuses aren’t really reasons, they’re just rationalizations they make to themselves and others for not pursuing what they want in life. The reality is that excuses are just a relatively painless way to place blame for their failure to take action. At the end of the day, we will only be able to succeed when we remove the “can’t” and start living lives that show we can.
Honesty Enables Responsibility
When something isn’t a priority, admit it. Once you begin to make excuses, the next one will come easier, then the next one after that, then another and another. A snowball effect takes place and before you know it, those excuses become your way of life. Be honest about the fact that you don’t really want to babysit for your brother or serve on some committee. Saying that we don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings sounds like fairness, but more often than not it’s really about avoiding confrontations. Or you don’t want to have to admit that other things are more important to you.
When we choose fear as a primary excuse, this will result in self-generated complaints, more personal stress, and wasted time and money. Choosing to accept responsibility with your present fear still fully alive takes courage, but the positive outcomes are overwhelming. Minimum personal stress, minimal wasted time and money, and the complete removal of self-generated complaints will be your rewards. The more often you pick the desire to win over the fear of losing, the more power you take back from the excuse making habits we all have built over the years.
Drop Your Vampires
When you feel less secure, excuses are much easier to come by. Real or perceived, avoiding your shortcomings provides only a temporary false sense of confidence. In today’s fast-paced society, the easy, popular excuse is “I’m too busy.” Life is hectic, but we all have the same 24 hours in a day. The difference lies in how we use those hours and how well we manage our priorities.
The reason we may not have time is because we allow other distractions to take the place of things that really matter. Focus your attention on eliminating your energy vampires. These vampires are all of the people, things, and commitments that suck your time and energy out of you. Most of these vampires that you make excuses for don’t really matter or contribute to your wellbeing. Everybody has their own strengths and weaknesses, and it’s only when you embrace everything you are and aren’t, that you will discover your true potential.
Quit the Comparisons
To quote Admiral Akbar, “It’s a trap!” Comparing yourself to others can be very motivating. But it also makes it much easier to find reasons why you haven’t accomplished quite as much, or why you are at a disadvantage. This habit can lead you to the dark side, because no matter how much you accomplish in life, there will always be someone, somewhere who as accomplished more. Compare yourself only to your own reflection. There is no one else in this world that can do a better job at being you than you can.
There may be people from your past who we use as an excuse for our current actions because of how they treated us five or ten years ago. Instead of using them as a crutch, call them, go knock on their door, and thank them for making you as tough as you have become. These people from the past have help to mold us into the great people we are today. Without them, we could have never grown up enough to conquer our current fears, faults, and failures.
Hack Your Brain with Meditation
There is a specific part of our brain is devoted to habit-forming.2 Even semi-automatic behaviors, like blurting out an excuse, are ultimately under our control. How can we become more aware of our semi-automatic behaviors and be more mindful or our actions?
Research has shown that even a brief period of mindfulness meditation can be a quick and effective strategy to foster self-control, even under conditions where we feel inadequate.2 Even after years and years of habitual excuse making, it only takes a few minutes to refuel your mind, which will facilitate greater focus and increase your brain’s regulatory capabilities.
Take the Excuses Out of Your Life
Living a life of excuses undermines your confidence and prevents you from recognizing opportunities and developing talents. The irony is that the skills that your excuses have kept from you might have helped you overcome the very challenges you were avoiding. Be persistent, be hungry for success, and make a little progress every single day. Imagine where you could be if eliminated one excuse per week for one year straight. It’s the small, consistent progressions that get the results, not the big tasks that you do every once in a while.
Reach your full potential:
1. Smith, K. S., A. Virkud, K. Deisseroth, and A. M. Graybiel. "Reversible Online Control of Habitual Behavior by Optogenetic Perturbation of Medial Prefrontal Cortex." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 109, no. 46 (2012): 18932-8937. doi:10.1073/pnas.1216264109.
2. Friese, Malte, Claude Messner, and Yves Schaffner. "Mindfulness Meditation Counteracts Self-control Depletion." Consciousness and Cognition 21, no. 2 (2012): 1016-022. doi:10.1016/j.concog.2012.01.008.