There is no shortage of motivational advice written about how to overcome excuses, but in case you haven’t noticed, we haven’t really solved the problem yet. And to be entirely honest with you, it’s because most of the advice out there sucks. So we all keep making excuses to ourselves and to others, and then beating ourselves up over it afterwards.
Many make excuses for not exercising, or for poor work performance. Others find themselves asking why they make so many excuses not to go out with friends, or to avoid people and commitments in general. This funny little social mechanism, a thorn in ever so many sides, leads most of us to wonder at one point or another: how do I actually overcome these excuses?
The problem with all the ineffective advice out there is that we haven’t been asking the right question yet. Or at least, we haven’t been asking the full question yet. If we want to really get things turning, the question we should be asking is: How do I overcome my excuses in a healthy way?
We’ve got most of it there already, but it’s the healthy part that we’ve been missing. Which, oddly enough, is very similar to something my doctor said at my last physical.
We are going to answer that question today. The real question. But first, we need to understand why we haven’t “solved” excuses yet, and the problem with the question we’ve been asking so far.
We’re Getting it Wrong with Overcoming Excuses
Okay, so we generally don’t like excuses very much, right? Effectively, they’re a tool to dodge responsibility in an area where you failed, came up short, or created a problem.
This behavior leads to disappointment in oneself, as well as causing frustration in others.
There are no winners here.
Ergo, we have the general line of thinking that excuses are things we shouldn’t use. It is a shortcoming compounded on top of another shortcoming (that is, having messed up in the first place), and we associate this with weakness.
Most of the times you see or hear the word “excuse,” it’s either 1) being used to scold someone (e.g. “I don’t want to hear your excuses!”), or 2) it’s in catchy motivational one-liners or self-help aphorisms like:
- “Excuses don’t get results”
- “Find a way, not an excuse”
- “Excuses are for people who don’t want it bad enough”
- “Make moves or make excuses”
- And of course the all-powerful, “NO EXCUSES”
We look at someone making an excuse and chalk it up to being weak (a word we already struggle to use in a productive way), and just like that, the solution becomes: you suck, just be better.
“Just Be Better”
Those phrases above can go a long way to boost the confidence of try-hards and people who were already feeling pretty good about their motivation and self-discipline to begin with. And of course, they look great on posters, and t-shirts that used to have sleeves but don’t have sleeves anymore. Presumably, the sleeves burst off all by themselves in sheer awe of the absolute meat cannons of the aforementioned iron-willed superheroes.
As for us mere mortals, talk like this is not especially helpful.
Turns out, addressing a problem by telling someone (including yourself) to just not have that problem anymore, is about as useful as a middle shoe. HUH.
Imagine telling a sick person to “push past that weakness,” or telling an unhappy person to “just cheer up.” The latter of which, by the way, is called toxic positivity.
By treating excuses as weakness, and weakness as some sort of disappointing but intentional life choice, we create a toxic environment. It makes everyone feel lousy, yet doesn’t actually do anything to deal with excuses, or their underlying causes.
Not exactly helpful, is it?
Now that we see the solution not to use on the problem we’re not solving, let’s dive into what we actually are dealing with here.
Why Do We Make Excuses?
The basic anatomy of an excuse isn’t really all that complicated when you get down to it.
It starts when you say, do, or (perhaps most often) don’t do something, and you don’t feel proud of it. Maybe you broke a rule, or let someone down. Maybe you let yourself down. In any case, it feels uncomfortable because it’s something that the best version of you would not have done, and you know it.
But this is an uncomfortable truth to bear, and an easy one to reject if only there was another narrative, one that makes sense of the situation.
And here we have it. An excuse, typically, is a version of the story that excuses you from the full responsibility of a certain outcome, without significantly altering the facts. It aims to protect the speaker from vulnerability by easing the disappointment, anger, or frustration of the listener (when you make excuses to yourself, you are both the speaker and the listener). In other words, it is a tool to de-escalate a situation gone wrong.
The broader effect of an excuse (made in a healthy way, and for a valid reason) is that it helps to preserve self-image and maintain relationships. No one (including you) needs to beat you up for every minor misstep, particularly when there really are extenuating circumstances.
When viewed like this, an excuse is a healthy psychological tool. The problem only comes (and it comes quickly) when we get too comfortable using this mechanism, and start to make too many excuses.
Too Many Excuses
As an occasional occurrence, there’s nothing wrong with an excuse.
If you show up late to work for the first time in three years due to a major road closure, there’s no harm to anyone in making that excuse. You know you are a punctual person, and that this was not your fault, and that any reasonable person will see that. You ought to be excused from being judged as tardy or unreliable.
So long as you accept some responsibility in the matter, and adjust your schedule (or route) going forward, there’s no need for anyone to chew you out or make you feel like garbage.
If you show up late to work for the third time in a week, and mutter something about “traffic,” it becomes pretty obvious that you’re taking no responsibility for your situation. When you over-use excuses to routinely dodge culpability, the benefits of excuses that we saw in the last section can totally 180 and backfire.
Working out is another example. If you miss a week at the gym while healing a legitimate injury, that’s a valid excuse. No harm done. It is not something to blame yourself for. But if you try to excuse yourself from your leg workout for the ninth week in a row because of the vernal equinox, then you are creating a problematic pattern of excuses, and giving them control.
So where does this pattern lead? Why should you avoid making too many excuses? You probably already have some sense of it, or else you wouldn’t be here in the first place. But let’s take a moment to really hammer out exactly what we’re working to avoid here.
Consequences of Making Too Many Excuses
There is room for excuses. They can be a healthy mechanism when used in a constructive way. But there’s a reason we talk about excuses the way we do, as something to “deal with.” And that reason is what happens when we get too comfortable making excuses.
When you default to looking for a new, preferable narrative any time you come up short in a task, you create a pattern that makes coming up short feel okay. Choosing the short-term comfort of not being at fault, every time, comes at great cost.
Relying too heavily on excuses can have a bevy of consequences, including:
- Others losing their respect for you
- You losing respect for yourself
- Breaking down others’ trust in you
- People not believing your excuses anymore (think Boy Who Cried Wolf)
- Being seen (and treated) as unreliable
- Internalizing the belief that nothing that goes wrong is your responsibility, and reducing your motivation to fix the underlying problems
Excuses are like band-aids. They are useful for protecting yourself while you address the issue underneath. But an excuse, like a band-aid, isn’t a solution to every problem, and won’t fix everything on its own.
In order to overcome excuses and the trap they can put us in, we need to finally see them for what they are: short-term tools that assist us while we make long-term changes.
With that in mind, we can now move on to talk about how to actually deal with excuses, without beating ourselves up about them.
How Do I Overcome My Excuses?
Okay, ready? How to overcome your excuses in just 5 steps. Here we go, let’s do this:
- Quit being a lazy punk.
- Buy a t-shirt that says “No Fear, No Limits, No Excuses.” The exact wording here is very important, because if the shirt says anything different, you may end up with fear or limits, which we don’t want.
- You know what comes next: rip those sleeves off. Rip ‘em right off! Toss those bad boys in the trash. They’re of no use where we’re going, they can only hold us back. Sleeves are like the excuses of upper torso attire.
- Feel the excuses melt away from you as weakness hastily flees your body.
- Go forth and accomplish whatever you want, free of excuses (and limits). You’re cured.
Ok, these steps won’t quite work, at all, probably ever. But man, wouldn’t that be something?
Now that I’ve got that out of my system, let’s lay out a few tips that can actually help you to overcome your excuses, in a helpful and lasting way.
1. Start with Self Love, not Self Loathing
One reason that you may be especially motivated to make an excuse for yourself is that you’ve already started beating yourself up before anyone else even has a chance to. If you over-inflate the consequences of your actions (or inaction) in your head, then you’ll be driven by a primal need to protect yourself. An excuse becomes the shield of choice.
By practicing love and understanding for yourself, it becomes easier to see that not every mistake or shortcoming is the end of the world. If you are able to react to yourself with honesty and acceptance rather than anger and loathing, you will be more prepared for (and less fearful of) the reactions of others. That is the first step to making room for responsibility. Which brings us to the next step.
2. Make Room for Responsibility
Recall back to 15 years ago when you started reading this post, and how I said that excuses help us to deflect responsibility from difficult circumstances.
We do this because responsibility carries with it the full weight of failure, which can cause pain. But at the same time, responsibility brings us the power and motivation to make change, to improve things, and to reduce the risk of future failures and missteps. Pain feels bad, but that doesn’t mean we should never feel it.
Do your best to accept at least some responsibility, both internally and to others, for your outcomes. Even when you have a good excuse, when there is a real reason things didn’t work out the way you wanted them to, there is room for responsibility alongside it. Sometimes things are your fault. Sometimes they are not. But it doesn’t have to be your fault to be your responsibility. In either case you have the power, perhaps even the obligation, to decide what comes next.
Do not become so comfortable with your excuses that they make you complacent. Even the good ones.
3. Be Honest and Humble
Things go wrong. We mess stuff up. Everyone gets that.
Now and then, something goes wrong in a way that was totally beyond your control. There was nothing you could have done, and now we’re here. But you know as well as I do, sometimes it really is just our own damn fault. And more often than not, the best thing you can do is to just say so.
“I messed up. I will do better next time.” See? Not as bad as our minds can build it up to be.
Sure, someone else may be mad, or you may be disappointed in yourself. But those feelings will pass. What will not pass is that you chose honesty and responsibility over comfort and dodging the truth. In so doing, you earn the respect of others and yourself. And, just like we covered in #2 above, choosing responsibility is a key motivator in not finding yourself in this situation again next time.
4. The Best Excuse Is not Needing an Excuse
The decision whether or not to make an excuse in the moment is a tricky one. Sometimes it’s okay, and other times it’s better to own up to things fully. It is usually based on context, and your relationship with yourself and whomever else you may be talking to.
But if there’s one thing that’s certain, it’s what to do after this moment has passed.
Our greatest pitfall in overcoming excuses is that we treat these moments like they exist in a vacuum. As if these are single moments of weakness, and it is up to the magnitude of our willpower whether we will overcome them.
But very little in our lives exists in a vacuum, and when it comes to changing behavior, it is usually patterns that we should be looking out for.
If something comes up and gets in your way one time, and justifying yourself seems the way to go, then sure. Do it. But when that moment has gone by, it is up to you to reflect, and to address whatever you need to so that same thing doesn’t keep happening.
When you make the same excuse three days in a row, then you have given into comfort over necessary change, and let your excuses overcome you. But if you are ready to love and accept yourself, take responsibility, and make changes, then you will be the one to overcome your excuses every time.