I thought about writing a book about excuses.
I could use having written the book as an excuse for not doing all the other things I want to do. “I know I planned on doing _______, but I was busy writing a book about excuses.”
That’s probably a heavy-handed metaphor, but what I've got is serious. It’s like time-cancer. Excuses have overrun my life. Please allow me to categorize a few of the most malignant.
The Three-Month Plan
For a long time, I've felt like my ideal life — the real beginning of my journey — was always a very specific time away: three months. I was on a perpetual three-month plan. “In three months, I’ll be ready to move somewhere new.” Instead of living in the present moment, I was giving myself “breathing room” and living in some hypothetical, projected future. Three months to save money, look for jobs, update my portfolio, finish some projects. I was conveniently pushing any actual accountability into the future.
But the real problem with my three-month plan? It didn’t advance. It was always three months in the future. That three-month goal? It never arrived, and I stayed stuck in a cycle of “things will happen eventually.” I never realized any of my three-month goals, because they weren’t goals — they were excuses for not acting in the present. For not following my passions now.
The real problem with my three-month plan? It was always three months in the future.
Taking focus off “now” and placing it in the future lets me off the hook. It doesn’t matter if I spend my afternoon watching House MD on the couch, because in three months I’ll be on track to living my ideal life. In three months, I’ll be at the top of my game. Hell, in three months, I might even be happy.
Three months later, my goals are still three additional months in the future. It’s kind of like paying the minimum on a credit card — you aren't failing but you’ll never get ahead. The funny thing about those three month plans? I never put them on an actual calendar. That would have held me accountable, that would have made it a real day, and that simply wouldn’t do.
The Sunk-Cost Fallacy
I first came across this little nugget in my college finance and accounting classes. In terms of financial investment, it’s known as a “sunk cost”, but applied more generally it’s known as “Commitment Bias”:
[…] the phenomenon where people justify increased investment in a decision, based on the cumulative prior investment, despite new evidence suggesting that the cost, starting today, of continuing the decision outweighs the expected benefit. (source)
With me it’s rarely about money, but it took me a long time to realize that this principle applies just as readily to investments of time, work, and emotion. Spending time in a job I hated, being afraid to move to a new city because I’d spent so much time cultivating myself in an old one, and don’t even get me started on romantic relationships.
Like the three-month plan, this excuse is highly rationalized and logical, making it particularly hard to shake. It’s a kind of Frankenstein’s monster of sentimentality and fear of loss. Somebody’s grandpa once called this “throwing good money after bad” with regard to a lemon of a car I had as a teenager, and I guess that applies here too.
Fear of Failure
I think most of us can agree that this one’s a real humdinger. It’s probably the biggest excuse on my list, but also the most difficult to extricate from everyday life — it’s ever-present and that makes it somehow less obvious.
For me, this fear rarely keeps me from starting things, yet almost always keeps me from finishing them. I keep a running list of active “projects” (I define that term pretty loosely in this context) that’s ever-growing and increasingly intimidating. At this point a reasonable goal might be to finish it by the time I’m forty.
What’s kept me from finishing most of those things? Being afraid they won’t be good enough. But you know what’s really not good enough? An unfinished project sitting on my hard drive not seeing the light of day. This is the stuff of idioms and inspirational posters, which is dangerous ground, but my girlfriend introduced me to this quote and I must say I’m quite fond of it:
“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.”
— Samuel Beckett
Hard as it is to admit it, I’ve got nothing to gain by fearing failure and keeping unfinished projects hidden from the world. At least if I fail, I can do so publicly and feel accountable to someone besides myself.
I’ve started to analyze every time I say “no” or “I’ll finish _____ later” and I’m finding excuses everywhere. Aggressive treatment seems hopeful, but requires some radical changes and new approaches. I’m burning the manuscript. I’m setting hard deadlines and rededicating myself to my calendar. I’m learning to let go of projects I don’t want to finish for whatever reason, regardless of how much time I’ve spent on them. I’m doing my absolute best to stop fearing failure; if I’m comfortable with the worst-case scenario, I’m unstoppable.
Perhaps most importantly, I’m realizing that “stop making excuses” is an all-or-nothing concept.