Making Excuses

There’s a general pattern of thought I’ve noticed when trying to push myself out of my comfort zone. Each time I come up with an idea for something I could do, I experience two very conflicting reactions. First: “Awesome! That seems like it could be a really good/fun/useful thing to try and do!”, quickly followed by, “What, are you crazy?! That sounds horrible!” The two seem to be different types of judgement - the former is much more rationally based and the latter more an intuitive, even emotional, reaction. A little battle then goes on in my head to try and figure out which I should listen to.

How do you tell good reasons from mere excuses?

It can be quite difficult to tell which voice to follow. In particular, it’s hard to tell whether my aversion to doing something is actually based on good reasons or not.Beyond this, even if we know we’re making excuses it can still be incredibly difficult to overcome them. To illustrate this, I’ve got a success and a failure story from the past week.

Going to toastmasters: success!

Let’s start positive. On Tuesday I went to a Toastmasters (public speaking) meetup. I want to get really good at public speaking this year, and I also want to push myself to go to more new things - especially when I don’t know anyone - so this seemed like the perfect way to combine both. As it turned out, the meeting itself was pretty tame/easy (I think there were quite a lot of new people there, so they wanted to be friendly and not to scare anyone off!) - but I was surprised at how much I struggled to get myself to go in the first place. I found myself coming up with lots of reasons against going - I was pretty tired, I had lots of important work and reading to do for the next day, I needed to do some washing... etc. I spent some time going back and forth, trying to decide whether these were good reasons I should listen to, or excuses I should ignore. In the end, the “you’re just coming up with reasons not to go because it’s not totally in your comfort zone” voice in my head won out, and I went.

Dancing alone: fail...

But it doesn’t always. On Friday night, I went to a friend’s gig, and it struck me that being the only person to start dancing whilst everyone else was standing and bobbing awkwardly to the music would be perfect for getting me outside of my comfort zone. Then the reasons against inevitably began flooding in - it wasn’t really “dancy” music, I’d look stupid and people would think I was weird, I was tired (yeah, the excuses got lamer and lamer...) - so I wimped out. In retrospect, would anything bad really have happened if I’d done it? Almost certainly not - I didn’t even know most of the people there, so rationally I don’t care at all what they think of me.

Why do we make excuses?

It seems like these "two voices" are a case of something called cognitive dissonance: the feeling of holding two conflicting beliefs is pretty uncomfortable, so we look to do whatever is easiest to resolve this discomfort. There are two ways of doing this. You can either look for new reasons why your aversion might be well-founded (and so decide not to act) or accept that your aversion is irrational and force yourself to overcome it by acting.

Which of these should you do? Obviously it depends on the situation - sometimes, your discomfort might be justified, so it makes sense to consider whether you might have good reason to avoid something. But a lot of the time, it seems like our aversions are irrational, and that listening to this discomfort all the time might hold us back. For example, I often feel quite uncomfortable overtaking other cars on a fast, busy motorway. If I never overtake anyone, it will take me much longer to get places and I’ll never improve as a driver - so it seems like it would be detrimental to me to never override this discomfort. On the other hand, if I’m completely rash and just overtake all the time even when I feel uncomfortable, it seems pretty likely I’ll end up in a crash. So what I really need to do is have some way of assessing when this discomfort is well founded (e.g. when there’s a heavy stream of traffic on my right or I haven’t checked my blind spot) and when it’s not (there’s a big gap and I’m certain nothing is coming or in my blind spot.)

When you really don’t want to do something, you’re massively biased towards finding reasons that you shouldn’t do it. In most cases when faced with a conflict between what you feel and what you rationally believe, it’s much easier to find reasons to support your intuition than it is to convince your intuition using reason. This means we might often end up rationalising discomfort when we shouldn’t - making excuses, essentially. Even if this doesn’t happen, and we can maintain the rational belief that our aversions are misguided, really internalising this can be difficult. Sometimes we can override this - I think in the case of going to toastmasters, my intuitive aversion was weak enough that I was able to simply ignore it given enough reasons. In the case of dancing alone, though, the aversion was much stronger, it was something I felt much more uncomfortable about, so not easy to override.


How can we get better at distinguishing good reasons for discomfort from bad ones, and stop just making excuses? How can we make it easier to override discomfort when we know rationally it’s not justified? These questions seem like they’re worthy of more attention, so I’ll try and address them in later posts. I’ve got some ideas, but I’d love to hear yours: how can you tell when you’re just making excuses, and what methods have you found useful for ignoring them?