The Challenge of Excuses3 min read

A person either buys his dream by surrendering his excuses 

or he buys his excuses by surrendering his dream.

—Orrin Woodward

An excuse is something you tell yourself to justify an exception to a commitment. It is rationalizing your emotional impulses so that you don’t feel bad about acting on them.

Find a procrastinator, and you’ll find an expert in excuses. Find an addict, and you’ll find a gold medalist in this sport. We are great at rationalizing; we can justify anything.

As with many self-discipline challenges, there is a neurological basis for excuses. The top priorities of our primitive brain are first to save energy and to survive, then to avoid pain, and then to experience pleasure. Excuses attempt to get the rational brain out of the way in order to justify following our impulses, by talking to it using its own language: reason. 

Creating bad habits is easy: simply take the path of least resistance. Follow what feels good in the moment, regardless of long-term consequences. Creating good habits is difficult: it takes effort and perseverance. You need to follow what you know is good, regardless of how it feels right now.

Excuses are a way to avoid making that effort, while at the same time avoiding feeling bad about it (emotional distress). “Prevent pain plus save energy at the same time? Oh YES!” —that’s your primitive brain’s reaction to excuses, and why it loves them.

This genetic predisposition works great if our goal is only survival. But for the modern human who seeks fulfillment, achievement, and meaningful contribution, it is self-defeating. It is you rationalizing why it’s okay for you to be less than you can be, not expressing your full potential.

If you deliberately plan on being less than you are capable of being, then I warn you that you’ll be unhappy for the rest of your life.

— Abraham Maslow

Some excuses prevent you from starting a project, or even dreaming about it. Others come later on, preventing you from being consistent, or preventing you from giving your all. 

Examples of excuses for not trying (or not trying wholeheartedly):

  • It will probably never work for me anyhow, because _____.
  • I’m too old for this.
  • I don’t have the time/money/support to accomplish this.
  • I’ll go for it after ______ (something in the future).
  • I’m not talented /connected/smart /experienced enough.
  • I’m not like _______ (role model), because I had a difficult childhood.
  • I’ve missed my chance. It’s too late.
  • There is no guarantee that I’ll succeed.
  • I can’t do it. I’ve never followed through with anything…

Examples of excuses for skipping the habit, procrastinating, or breaking a resolution:

  • Now is not the right time. I’ll start it when ______.
  • I’ll make an exception just this time, because ______.
  • I’m too tired/busy/demotivated to ______.
  • I don’t feel like it.
  • I’m not getting anywhere with this.
  • Let me think about it.
  • One bite/cup/round never killed anyone.
  • This will help me feel good and relax.
  • Skipping this time does no harm.
  • Everybody is doing this.

Which ones are your go-to excuses? 

What sacrifices are you making by believing these excuses?

This article is a summary of key ideas taken from Chapter 6 of Mindful Self-Discipline. To dive deeper, get the book or audiobook.


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