Whenever we fall short of what we set out to do, there’s always a reason for it. Often, we think we know the reason. Often, the reason is actually an excuse in disguise. Focusing on the difference between your reasons and excuses will spell the difference between your failure and success.
You want to get up early to exercise, or meditate or write the great American novel. But every morning, you wind up sleeping in, dragging yourself out of bed just in time to get to work. You decide that the reason you aren’t getting up is that your alarm isn’t loud enough to summon you from a sound sleep.
Is your alarm really the reason? There’s an easy way to find out. Get a louder alarm. If you now get up early when the new alarm goes off, then the alarm really was the reason you were sleeping in. And by addressing the reason, you easily solved the problem.
But if you find yourself hitting the snooze button again and again, and still waking up with barely enough time to get to work, then the alarm clock was just an excuse. The real reason may be that you're sleep-deprived, or that you don’t like getting up early and would rather sleep in.
That may be harder to address than simply getting a new alarm, but the only way you’re going to get up in time to exercise or meditate or write the great American novel is to acknowledge the real reason for your slumber and then focus on solutions.
Focus on the Reason, Never on the Excuse
With just about everything in life, focusing on the real reason something isn’t working is the best way to get it to work. Focusing on the excuse, which most of us do far more than we’d like to admit, will never solve the issue – for the simple reason that the excuse is merely an excuse. It is not what is actually holding you back or causing the problem.
How many times do we say, “I was late because the traffic was terrible.” If the route you take almost never has traffic, and on one particular morning, a rare accident causes a backup, then you can make a case that traffic was the reason you were late for your meeting.
But if traffic on your route is no cause for surprise, then the real reason you were late is that you didn’t allow sufficient time to drive to your meeting, knowing in advance that traffic could be a factor. Focus on the real reason, and allow yourself enough driving time, and you’ve solved the problem. Continue to rely on traffic as an excuse, and you’ll be late for your next meeting too.
At work, at home, in relationships, trying to achieve personal goals – in every part of your life – you likely have more excuses hanging around than you realize. And they’re holding you back.
How to Tell the Difference Between Your Reasons and Your Excuses
Try this exercise: Write a list of the areas of your life that aren’t working as you would like. These could include relationship issues, finances, fitness goals, career or personal goals, being late to work – write down everything that isn’t working out optimally.
Next, make two columns beside each item, one labeled “Reason” and the other labeled “Excuse.” For each item, ask yourself what is the obstacle that is preventing you from solving the problem or achieving the goal. Based on your initial intuition, without giving it a lot of thought, write down the obstacle either in the Reason or the Excuse column.
If you wrote the obstacle in the Excuse column, ask yourself what is the real reason you are not moving forward. If you placed the obstacle in the Reason column, ask yourself if it really is the reason, or if it’s actually an excuse.
There’s an easy way to determine whether your stated obstacle is a reason or an excuse.
Ask yourself: If I addressed this obstacle, would my problem go away, or at least improve? If yes, then it likely is the reason. If no, then you’ve just uncovered an excuse and need to find the reason by asking yourself what action you could take that actually would solve the problem.
Getting a new alarm clock will not cause you to get up earlier because the alarm clock is an excuse. If the real reason is that you aren’t getting enough sleep, then going to bed earlier will solve your problem. Similarly, complaining about traffic is an excuse that won’t help you, but allowing sufficient driving time will because it addresses the real reason you’re late for your meeting.
(And yes, of course there are certain reasons that cannot be overcome. If the reason you're not playing basketball in the NBA is that you're 5' 1" and your vision is impaired, it's unlikely you'll get into the NBA by trying to address the reason. Even if you manage to improve your vision, you'll still be 5'1". But for most areas of life, working on the reason will yield big results, certainly bigger than by clinging to your excuses.)
Reasons Are Empowering
By focusing relentlessly on your reasons, and making sure that your reasons aren’t really excuses, you move from complaining about a problem to taking constructive steps to solve it. This can be incredibly empowering as you see yourself progress and realize you have far more ability to change your situation than you thought.
Take a look at top performers in any field – Michael Jordan, Warren Buffet, Richard Branson, Beyoncé – you won’t see a lot of excuse-making going on. People who accomplish a lot find the reasons for what’s getting in the way and get to work on them.
And if a successful person does lapse into excuse-making, it’s usually not their finest hour – they get back on track only when they again focus on the reasons.
The next time you notice you are telling yourself or others why something isn’t working out as it should, stop and ask yourself if it’s really an excuse. Then find the reason and focus relentlessly on it.