When it comes to the topic of excuses, just like opinions, everybody’s got them. It doesn’t matter what you do for a living, but as intelligent accountant moms, we could probably win an excuse-making contest, if there ever was such a thing.
You see, the funny thing is that we wouldn’t necessarily describe ourselves as very creative – we’re more the analytical types – but give us a challenge or a situation that seems scary, difficult, or unpleasant, and we can become as creative as Picasso with our excuse ability. For example, have someone suggest that Pilates done at 5 am is the best workout for accountant moms, and just wait until you hear all the creative excuses we can come up with!
While excuses can often be considered a polite way of getting out of doing something you don’t want to do, like bowing out of the invitation for dinner by saying you can’t get a babysitter when you really just don’t want to go, sometimes excuses are actually getting in your way more than you realize. Sometimes your excuses keep you stuck, have you doing things that aren’t in your best interest, or create results that you’re not happy with.
The interesting thing about excuses is that sometimes we’re aware of the fact that we’re making an excuse, but at other times we feel like we’re just stating a fact and not actually making an excuse. For example, you might know that you really do have time to take a walk after dinner and that it’s an excuse that you can’t walk, but at other times you claim there is absolutely no way you can walk, as if you are just stating an irrefutable truth, when in fact you could but it might take more effort.
The sneaky thing about excuses is that, once you believe them, your brain goes to work looking for proof to validate them. It doesn’t care what the excuse is or what the results will be for you when you make the excuse, it only cares that you have one.
Because accountants are so smart, we can often come up with excuses so quickly that we don’t even realize we’re making one. We’re so used to having to be on our toes all the time, thinking quickly about so many things, that we can be on to the next thing before we realize we made an excuse about this thing.
As a coach, I’m privy to all the excuses that my clients and the people I speak to have, especially when it comes to what’s possible for them. But I also get coached myself, and I have to be honest – some of my excuses are shocking and humorous when they’re pointed out to me.
The truth is that we ALL make excuses at various times about various things, but just because it’s normal doesn’t mean it’s helpful. Just because we can all come up with reasons for why we didn’t, couldn’t, or shouldn’t do something, doesn’t mean they’re good enough reasons or that we should keep using them.
What often happens is that over time, we make our excuses into our identity. We start labeling ourselves as the kind of person that does or doesn’t do certain things like “I’m just the kind of person that procrastinates” or “I’m just the kind of person that’s not capable of being an entrepreneur”.
I’m sure you have many “I’m just the kind of person” reasons for the things you do or don’t do, but it’s important to understand that most of your excuses aren’t facts – they’re optional beliefs. Whether it’s a new excuse that you’ve come up with or it’s an excuse you’ve been using for awhile, it’s incredibly helpful to understand why excuses actually happen and how to deal with, and stop, them.
This week I’m going to discuss why your brain is so good at coming up with excuses and how to stop your excuses.
Why your brain is so good at coming up with excuses
As I’ve shared previously on the podcast, your lower, primitive brain is motivated by 3 things, referred to as the Motivational Triad – to seek pleasure, to avoid pain, and to expend as little energy as possible. Your lower brain’s job is to keep you safe and alive, so it uses the Motivational Triad as its guide to what you should or shouldn’t do.
Over time your brain begins to form patterns of beliefs based on what you repetitively think and it begins to store those patterns of belief. Those stored patterns of belief tie perfectly into the Motivational Triad because they save you energy by not having to make too many decisions or trying too many new things, and then your brain gets a little hit of the feel good hormone, dopamine, when it acts on those stored beliefs.
In order to use an analogy that I know accountants can relate to, I want you to think about your brain as having numerous Zip folders, or file folders, with hundreds of files in each folder. One of those folders in your brain holds all the justifications and excuses that your brain sorts through to try to protect you from changing or doing something you don’t want to do.
Your brain scans the folder until it lands on a file that you will believe, in order to get you to start or stop doing something. It’s your efficiency-loving brain’s way of trying to make life easier and more pleasurable for you, because to this dramatic part of your brain, your life depends on it.
Unfortunately, whatever you’ve been habitually thinking, saying, or doing, your lower brain wants to keep it a habit, even if it’s not serving you. This part of your brain only cares about immediate gratification, not the long-term effects of those beliefs and behaviors.
These justifications and excuses that are stored in your Zip folder or file folder can come in many forms and sometimes be on opposite sides of the spectrum, depending on the situation:
- I want to
- I don’t want to
- I don’t have the time
- It’s going to take too much time
- I deserve it
- I don’t deserve it
- No one’s going to care
- Everyone’s going have an opinion
Your lower brain will just scan that folder until it comes up with a justification or excuse that creates pleasure, avoids pain, or expends as little energy as possible.
Whether it’s drinking that extra glass of wine at the end of the night, or staying late at work when you promised your family you’d be home for dinner, our lower brains are like toddlers that want what they want, when they want it. The easiest way it knows how to get what it wants, is to go through that Zip folder, find an easy excuse, and offer it up to you for your consideration.
If you think about it, it’s actually quite brilliant. Your lower brain not only wants those 3 things – to seek pleasure, to avoid pain, and to expend as little energy as possible – but it’s also in charge of getting what it wants through the use of justifications and excuses.
For example, if you’ve had a long day at work and you had scheduled to go to the gym afterwards, your brain has already expended energy all day doing all the accounting work you did, so why wouldn’t it come up with an excuse so that you don’t go to the gym? Unless going to the gym after work has become a pleasurable habit, your lower brain will scan that Zip folder and find the perfect excuse.
Very often, the perfect excuse is one that has worked in the past and has gotten the immediate reward your lower brain is looking for. You might even realize that you’re making an excuse, but unfortunately it just sounds so compelling in the moment, that it’s hard to argue with.
The truth is that it absolutely sounds compelling because you have used that or similar excuses many times in the past, acted on it, and believed it. When you acted on an excuse, your brain was rewarded with dopamine and now your brain believes that’s a good thought to think because every time you think it, it leads to a reward.
If you think of the toddler analogy, it makes sense because if the toddler got a piece of candy every time it used an excuse, then it would want to continue using that excuse in order to get the reward of the piece of candy. It’s not wrong to do it, it’s just not helpful in the long-term.
For me, I noticed that my perfect excuse has been “It won’t really matter” whenever I didn’t want to do something, convincing myself many times that that excuse was justified because in the short-term, it typically didn’t matter. But the issue was that the excuse became my brain’s knee-jerk response to so many things that I didn’t notice until afterwards when I got a result I didn’t want.
For example, the “It won’t really matter” for that extra drink at dinner wasn’t a problem until the next day and I woke up feeling like crap. Or “It won’t really matter” if I buy this thing I saw on Instagram doesn’t become a problem until I keep using that excuse and my credit card bill the following month is much higher than expected.
Excuses feel fine in the moment, but string them together, and over time they can become a problem.
How to stop your excuses
So now that you know that your lower brain is in charge of all those justification and excuses, what can you do about it? Thankfully you are NOT just your lower, primitive brain – you have a human brain which also has a higher, executive functioning part of the brain.
This higher part of your brain can think about the future, set goals, and weigh the pros and cons of things, among many of it’s amazing abilities. The biggest issue though is that you’ve probably never realized it was there or how to properly use it.
As an intelligent accountant, you probably assume you’re utilizing your brain optimally, however, I assure you that you’re not. If, for example, you feel stressed during tax season, if you’re overwhelmed by your workload, if time never seems to be on your side, and if you find yourself making excuses for things you do and don’t want to do, you’re not properly using your higher brain’s potential.
One of the most beneficial uses for the executive functioning part of your brain is that it has the amazing ability to think about what you think about. It can plan and make decisions ahead of time, instead of being reactionary and only focused on immediate gratification like the lower brain.
The way I learned to delineate between these two parts is that while the lower brain is like a toddler, the higher brain is like the supervising mother. She can see the big picture, she is mature enough to not be fixated on immediate gratification, and she can redirect the toddler when needed.
So whenever you are looking to make a change, start or stop doing something, or go outside of your comfort zone, you are going to come up against that Zip folder with all the justifications and excuses that your lower brain has stored. When this happens you can either fall victim to the folder that stores your excuses, or you can be prepared for it.
The most important thing to understand is that just because your lower brain offers you a permission- giving thought, doesn’t mean you have to believe it or act on it. Because you have that higher part of your brain, you can think about what you’re thinking about, observe your brain spinning out with excuses, and choose to NOT believe or act on them.
One of the ways I learned to deal with excuses was from coach Rachel Hart who coaches individuals on how to stop overdrinking. She has a tool that she suggests to help you get control over your lower brain’s habit of making excuses and she calls it “Name and Tame”.
By naming the excuse, you create distance which allows you to see it for what it really is, instead of believing it’s true and automatically acting on it. When you name the permission-giving thought as an excuse, you can see it as simply your brain’s attempt to go through that Zip folder and find a thought you will believe in order to control what you do or don’t do.
The second part of the “Name and Tame” tool, the taming, helps put you back in charge by responding to the permission-giving thought with authority. Here’s where you would step in as the supervising mother and take back control.
You would do this by reminding yourself that you can supervise your lower brain, that you have a higher, executive functioning part of your brain, that you can question, examine, and challenge your thoughts, and that you can think about the future by weighing any pros and cons. By using this tool you learn how to not be run by your lower brain, unless you really want to.
So here’s what it would look like if you were using the “Name and Tame” tool for something like going to the gym after work. Let’s say you notice that your lower brain is coming up with the excuse “It won’t matter if I miss it”. The tool would look like this:
- Name – you would first tell yourself “‘It won’t matter if I miss it’” is just a thought that my brain is thinking in order to get a reward”; or you could tell yourself “‘It won’t matter if I miss it’” is just a thought I’ve rewarded over and over again with dopamine”. In this first step you are making sure that you are aware that the excuse “It won’t matter if I miss it” is an excuse and not a true fact by naming it an excuse. It may sound simplistic, but what you’re actually doing is switching from being the toddler, to being the supervising mother. You’re recognizing that the permission-giving thought to not go to the gym is just your lower brain using the Motivational Triad criteria to make decisions for you.
- Tame – now that you recognize that your excuse is just a thought, you tame it by deciding on a better thought. You step in as the supervising mother and gently let the toddler know what’s in your best interest. In this example you could choose the thought “I’m choosing to go because it matters to me” or “I’m choosing to reward myself by going to the gym”. You tame the excuse by using the higher, executive functioning part of your brain to make a better decision. You don’t make the toddler wrong for wanting what it wants, but you let it know that that’s not what’s in your best interest right now.
Hopefully now you have a better understanding of why our brains love excuses but also how to stop those excuses from derailing your life. Remember, every human brain has a folder full of permission-giving thoughts but the issue is when we let our lower toddler brain run the show too often, without questioning or challenging it.
The most important thing to take away from this is just because you think it, doesn’t mean you need to believe it or act on it.
- While excuses can often be considered a polite way of getting out of doing something you don’t want to do, like bowing out of the invitation for dinner by saying you can’t get a babysitter when you really just don’t want to go, sometimes excuses are actually getting in your way more than you realize.
- The truth is that we ALL make excuses at various times about various things, but just because it’s normal doesn’t mean it’s helpful
- Just because we can all come up with reasons for why we didn’t, couldn’t, or shouldn’t do something, doesn’t mean they’re good enough reasons or that we should keep using them.