You made a New Year’s resolution to go for a run at least three times per week, but have only managed to put on your running shoes a handful of times. It’s easy to muster up excuses as to why you haven’t stuck to your goal—you’ve been working late nights, it’s been too cold (or too hot) out to run—or you simply just can’t “find” the time to exercise consistently.
So instead of owning the reasons for breaking your resolution, you make excuses to place the blame elsewhere. And it makes you instantly feel better, like pressure releasing from a pent-up valve.
Why are excuses so alluring? Why are we so quick to push off blame instead of owning our pitfalls?
Let’s explore the reasons why it’s so tempting to make excuses, and how you can rewire your brain to avoid this first inclination.
Why Do We Make Excuses?
Excuse-making is psychological, and this habit comes down to an inherent need to protect your ego.
Your psyche wants to think of itself as an ethical, honest, and moral person. So when you’re in a situation that makes you feel the opposite, such as missing your deadline at work or forgetting your best friend’s birthday, you make excuses to protect a positive sense of identity.
Excuses serve as a defense mechanism in this battle between your positive self-identity and the common challenges of everyday life. So instead of admitting to your best friend that you completely forgot her birthday, you may call her the next day and tell her you were working late—even though you were binge-watching the latest Netflix series. By placing the blame on something that seems like it was out of your control, you are able to protect your self-identity and avoid feelings of shame or anxiety.
This practice of protecting your self-identity is also known as the self-serving bias. The self-serving bias encourages you to claim your successes and to deflect your failures. This means that when something good happens, you take the credit, but when something bad happens, you blame it on something out of your control.
Excuses serve as a defense mechanism in this battle between your positive self-identity and the common challenges of everyday life.
Think about your latest win at work. You most likely attributed the success to the extra hours you worked and the stellar strategy you and your team concepted to achieve the high-performing results.
If the campaign didn’t perform well, however, you may have found an external reason on which to blame its lackluster performance, such as a disengaged target audience or a team member who didn’t pull their own weight.
You put a lot of effort into being the best version of yourself. But it’s important to tackle your mistakes and flaws head-on. When you can recognize the types of excuses you give to friends, family, and coworkers, you’ll be able to target the real reasons for your less-than-favorable outcomes and be more productive the next time around.
The Bad Habit Of Placing Blame
Making excuses starts at an early age, primarily when we start school. The old adage, The dog ate my homework, comes from this habit-forming practice. Instead of telling the teacher you didn’t want to complete your homework, you just blamed it on an external factor, like your dog, as to why it wasn’t ready for on time. Now, your fluffy friend does enjoy chewing, but they don’t deserve this destructive reputation.
This bad habit of placing blame starts young and follows you into your career. Making excuses feels like the easier option rather than explaining the truth behind your procrastination or low productivity.
Here are the most common types of excuses:
- Lies: This is one of the worst types of excuses—a straight-up lie. Since our noses won’t grow like Pinocchio every time we lie, it’s an easy out when we need to make an excuse. Did you ever lie your way out of a deadline in college and tell your teacher you had a “family emergency”? (Guilty as charged.) Lying makes it seem as if the situation was out of your hands and you had no choice but to miss the deadline.
- Self-handicapping excuses: When you aren’t too concerned with protecting your ego, a common type of excuse is self-handicapping, such as “I don’t have the skills to do that”, or “That’s not my job.” Feigning poor performance can actually inspire sympathy from coworkers. If you make an excuse as to why your submitted work is not the best quality, you may find your colleagues to be more willing to let you off the hook, according to Dr. Andrew DuBrin.
- Blame-shifting excuses: In this scenario, instead of putting the blame on your lack of abilities, you accuse external factors for your missteps or lack of performance. In a 2012 study at Fairfield University, researchers found that colleagues are more forgiving when they believe mistakes were caused by external factors or are beyond your control. This is why missing the train is a common, and often justifiable, excuse.
Even though excuses are alluring and can give you an easy out from an uncomfortable situation, they can cause more harm in the long run, such as lower productivity, increased anxiety, and procrastination.
How To Hold Yourself Accountable In The Face Of Easy Excuses
He that is good for making excuses is seldom good for anything else.
– Benjamin Franklin
Mr. Franklin must have spent a fair amount of time working and collaborating with others to form such a strong opinion about excuse makers. Just because you’ve made excuses in your lifetime, however, doesn’t mean you can’t break this bad habit. By practicing a few of the following strategies regularly, you’ll be on your way to following in the footsteps of another founding father who apparently never told a lie (looking at you, George Washington 😏).
- Pinpoint the reasons why you make excuses 📌
The first step in holding yourself accountable to avoid making excuses is figuring out exactly why you are making them. Do you give yourself short deadlines to complete a project? Are you overworked and need to ask for additional support? Are you getting enough sleep at night? Taking the time to analyze your shortcomings will give you insight into how and where to improve so you don’t use excuses as a crutch as to why you’re not on top of your game.
- Build better brain habits 🧠
Just like a puppy, you can teach your brain new tricks. Excuse-making is a subconscious process, and breaking a habit requires conscious effort. The infralimbic (IL) cortex in the prefrontal cortex of your brain is devoted to creating habits. In an experiment with rats, researchers found that the IL cortex actually favors new habits over old ones. By being conscious of when you make excuses and the types you make, you can actively prevent your inclination to make excuses in the future. You have power over your brain habits — so take a break for reflection, then take control!
- Set realistic expectations🏆
If you find yourself making a lot of self-handicapping or blame-shifting excuses, your expectations and goals may be out of whack. Properly align your goals to your working style, and schedule so you can structure your time and energy to complete tasks and learn new things without feeling the need to make excuses when you’re not performing at maximum level.
You can use a time tracking app, like Harvest, to figure out how long it takes you to complete certain work tasks. This will give you insight into how long tasks take you to complete when you sit down with your manager and teammates to set project deadlines. And if you find yourself constantly saying you don’t know how to do something or don’t have the skills, you can schedule time with yourself for a couple of hours each week to learn that new skill. A little bit of effort each week for education will go a long way.
- Track your progress ⏰
A goal is only a dream until you write it down. The primary way to prevent excuse-making is by tracking your goal progress. Since excuses transcend all areas of your life, you can use a mind map to connect your personal and professional goals. You can then break down your goals into bite-sized tasks each week in a weekly to-do process. So the next time your friend asks you how your 52 Book Challenge is going, you won’t need to make an excuse and say you just don’t have enough time to read that many novels. Instead, you can confidently tell him that you read 30 books already and are on track to surpass your reading goal.
- Don’t be afraid to fail 😬
Failure is one hurdle along the journey to building better brain habits and holding yourself accountable. So the next time you trip up and realize you are back to making excuses, simply record them in a journal or a Trello board in order to hold yourself accountable the next time around.
Fight The Inclination To Make Excuses
It’s enticing to rely on excuses to give us a way out of an uncomfortable situation or to protect our egos. But at the end of the workweek, these constant justifications will wear down your productivity, and can even lead to a bit of complacency.
So the next time you blame the weather on why you haven’t gone out for a jog in a few weeks, push that excuse to the side and hit the ground running on your way to building better habits.
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