This post originally appeared on the Handel Group.
And they totally made sense at the time! Yes, I had a plan to get up and go for a jog on Thursday morning, but the baby had been up during the night and I was really tired, and not feeling 100 percent up to the task.
So I reworked the plan to account for these extenuating circumstances.
I decided that I would take care of myself and sleep in another hour past my alarm. That seemed right at the time and, even upon reflection, I would’ve defended it; if I had actually been able to get back to sleep, that is. I tossed around thinking about my day instead. I wasn’t considering what the day might feel like if I really pushed myself to honor my commitment to go for a jog. From my warm, cozy bed, I was gathering evidence to support the case that I should stay put: I feel so tired! What if I come down with a cold? I really need my energy today! I already worked out twice this week, skipping today won’t kill me.
We can talk ourselves into or out of anything.
Behold, the incredible computing powers of the human brain! We truly can program it to do anything we please, from “practice thoughts of self-love” to “stop eating dessert after every meal.” And the brain adapts to our behaviors by forming new neural pathways that light up gleefully as we get the hang of a new routine or practice.
The difficult part is the programming itself: Becoming aware of what we truly want, and figuring out the steps that it'll take to get us there. Once we’re clear on that, we remove the guesswork from our decision-making process! There’s no more debating whether or not it would be a good idea to order the banana split or skip the workout.
Until, yes: extenuating circumstances.
Extenuating circumstances, aka “excuses,” are nice words that take the edge off broken promises. Whether they’re big or small, their basic function is to alleviate the guilt we feel for deviating from the plan we made. They show up in many different forms: Stress at work, a fun but indulgent weekend, boredom, social anxiety, bad habits, big celebrations, in-laws in town for the week… Whatever gets you off the hook! And because they are thoughts invented by your brain, they seem like good, logical ideas to you. Easily convinced, we’re quick to adopt a new, temporary plan that allows us to do what’s comfortable, rather than push ourselves to adhere to the plan for what we really want.
So, how does one identify and banish a persistent case of extenuating circumstances?
Without a dream, there is no plan, and no rules to follow or break. So dream big! On a practical level, getting clear on the dream and the plan to get there sets real boundaries for what you will and won’t do in any given moment. Your actions are then divided into ones that get you closer to your dream and ones that don’t, regardless of external influences. When you get caught up in the internal debate of whether or not to bail on your original plan, you can literally say to yourself, "Doing XYZ will get me to my dream" or, alternately, "Doing XYZ will not help me reach my dream." Then you can make an honest choice.
When rationalizing an extenuating circumstance, I recommend playing out all the possible scenarios, to lay your options. I could see a couple of scenarios for myself if I had gone for the jog:
Those are all the likely outcomes that could have arisen from my decision to fulfill my promise. And I am not completely powerless over them either! We know the mind-body connection. We know that what we think about, what we bring about. I could have decided that getting up for the run was the right choice and empowered it, energizing myself, and connecting to my dream. But my inner “brat” won instead.
How often do we go against what we think is the "right" plan and, lo and behold, find that in fact it doesn’t get us the results that we wanted anyway? That’s what happened to me. I didn’t exercise, I didn’t get more sleep like I thought I would, I didn’t connect to my dream, and I felt crappy about it. I knew that the key to feeling better was to rectify the situation: by challenging myself with a consequence. The next day I got up early and did an extra long morning jog with my baby, and later in the afternoon I powered through a conference call with a set of eight-pound dumbbells at my desk. I was a little more tired at the end of the day, sure, but I brought myself back into alignment with my dream, and I got to impress myself too.
At the end of the day, how proud you are of yourself is essential to the results you will see from your efforts. On a deeper level, when you know you can count on yourself to do the things you say you want to do, it becomes easier to believe that you’ll be successful at bigger, riskier things. Remember that practice makes progress, and as you get used to following rules that align with your most heartfelt dreams, your beautiful brain will start connecting the dots to bigger and crazier ones. If I run five days a week, could I complete a marathon? Could I complete the New York City Marathon?!
These simple truths are enough to get me to “just say no” to extenuating circumstances that tempt me from my big plan: for my exercise routine or anything else. It’s a great comfort to know that I get to design my life no matter what arises. A lot more comfort than I’d get by staying in bed!
This piece was originally written by Laurie Gerber for Handel Group®.