On excuses and validity

We learn’t yesterday about what is a problem? I want to talk about one specific aspect of the barrier.  The part of the barrier that is inside your head.  The one that makes excuses.

The barrier inside my own head.  The barrier that says, “ice-cream, but I would have to get up out of my chair for that” and decides against it.

Another way to think about one of the classes of in-head barrier is to call them excuses.  The reasons your mind makes up as to why you can’t do the thing.  If we create a class of “excuses”, we can talk more about it.

Let’s take the simple goal of going for a run in the morning, and look at some of the excuses that might arise from trying to avoid it:

  • I don’t feel like it
  • I wanted to sleep in
  • it’s raining out
  • It’s too early
  • It’s too late
  • It’s too cold
  • It’s too hot
  • It’s too dark
  • I feel sick
  • I have no one to go with
  • I have a broken leg
  • I have asthma and can’t run
  • It’s my rest day
  • I am running late to work
  • I don’t have the time

The thing about excuses is that they are all equally valid.  “not feeling like it” is just as valid as, “I have a broken leg” as “I don’t have the time”.  But also the thing about excuses is that they are all equally invalid as well.  “It’s too dark” is just as much an invalid excuse as “it’s raining out”, as “I have a broken leg”.

What really is an excuse that is valid?  Well on a day that you got to bed at 4am and you need more sleep than waking up at 7am to go for a run; then yes.  “I wanted to sleep in” is a valid excuse.  On a day where you sleep from 7pm and wake up at 7am refreshed with a 12 hour sleep under your belt.  Well then.  Less of an excuse then.  Which is to say; The validity of an excuse depends on the situation in which it is made.

As I said above, any excuse is a valid excuse.  And any excuse is an invalid one.  To a person who gets sick easily; “it’s raining” is a real excuse, to someone who can probably run in the rain; that’s not much of an excuse.

All excuses are real excuses.  There are no rules for which excuses are valid excuses and which excuses are not valid excuses.  The solution lies in sorting out the goal and the counter-goals.  I have referenced Kegan’s immunity to change beforemore than once.  I have talked about barriers before too.  I previously said:

What we are doing with our time is everything else that we are choosing not to do with our time.

This is what excuses do.  They (sneakily) say, “I am not going to pursue that goal X, because I am instead going to pursue that goal Y”.

The simple “I don’t want to go for a run because it’s raining”, is really the more complicated and long winded, “I considered my preference of making sure I don’t get sick by avoiding cold and windy conditions and I compared it to my preference of exercising in the morning by going for a run and I decided that I would rather not go for a run, and instead avoid the cold and windy conditions”.  Which is fine.

Ideally any excuse that you make can be written out in it’s long winded form.  In this form the self melts away, the guilt melts away, the shoulds disappear.  all that is left is several goals or several preferences battling it out for what is ultimately the action you take.

What about when we take the long winded of, “I don’t want to go for a run because it’s raining”, and we get something like this, “I weighed up my preference for not getting dripped on while I go for a run alongside my preference to exercise by running in the morning and I realised I don’t want to go running in the rain anyway”.  Well, maybe then it’s time to consider if this is a valid excuse for you.  Or maybe it will be completely obvious whether it is or is not a valid excuse when you lay it out like that.


Putting it to use

0. Be willing to try this.  Precommit to giving it a shot for the next 10 times you notice you make an excuse to not do something.

  1. Noticing.  I can’t really explain how to notice when you make excuses.  But in order to do something about it; you need some kind of trigger, some kind of voice in your head that goes, “hey, wait…  Am I sure that’s not an excuse?”.  Look for times when you say no.  Look for times when people challenge your automatic actions.
  2. Make it a long winded excuse.  Take the surface reasons and trace them back to the goals at the root of the statement.
  3. Lay them out against each other.  You can do this in your head, you can do this on a piece of paper, or a spreadsheet.  In a conversation with a friend.  It doesn’t really matter how you do that.
  4. Choose.  Pick which goals you want to fulfil.  Or investigate how to do all the things you want to do.  Maybe there’s an indoor exercise routine that isn’t running outside that still is exercise but doesn’t get you rained on.  Ideally meeting all the goals is the intention.
  5. Share.  Write back if it worked, if you discovered excuses you make that you can now stop making.

The funny thing about excuses is that they don’t feel like you are making excuses from the inside.  They feel like you are making decisions.  If you hold certain goals strongly enough, then it’s clear when you fail to carry them out.

The great part about this process is you get to say, “yes!  I don’t want to go for a run because I care about not getting sick”, you get to feel good about your preferences.  Even as they take your other preferences and smush them into the ground.  You can feel good about choosing that path because it is your choice.

If that’s not what you want – then it’s time to change your preferences!  Wilfully and because you want it.  with your active brain, not with your passive-whatever “more junk foods” brain.

Next up: Noble excuses


Meta: this took two hours to write.  About half way I got tired and distracted and the rest took a lot longer to write.

Cross posted to lesswrong: http://lesswrong.com/lw/oq7

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