I open my laptop and tell myself, “Time to write that new article.” Before I open Word, I notice the Netflix icon on my desktop and I think, “Well, it’s been a long day, I’ve earned a quick break, it’s important to rest.” So… I start the first episode of House of Cards.
As the episode nears its end, I say, “Okay, but this is the only episode, after this, I’ll get back to work.” The credits roll, and I tell myself, “Just one more episode.” This pattern repeats itself for a good four hours until eventually I tell myself, “I’ll write the rationalization article tomorrow.”
Behold the power of rationalization. Rationalization has two steps:
-We feel a negative emotion: stress, resistance, fear, etc…
-We Make up a seemingly logical explanation for that negative emotion.
In the above example, I felt stressed about working, so I rationalized that I deserved to take a break by watching some Netflix before getting to work.
We all rationalize. Emotions are the most powerful driver of human behavior, and our emotions often don’t align with our long-term goals. Intellectually, we may want to lose 20 pounds, but emotionally, our brain would much prefer to sit on the couch and eat Cheetos. Intellectually, we may want to be a standup comedian, but emotionally, we’re terrified of risking social humiliation. Intellectually, we may want to start a business, but emotionally, we don’t want to risk failure.
Emotions Trump Logic
The intellectual center of your brain (generally speaking, the neo-cortex), is the part of your brain that sets goals, thinks about the future, and uses a certain degree of logic in its decision making. But that part of your brain isn’t nearly as powerful as the more ancient emotional centers in your brain.
Neurologically, emotions specifically exist to guide your behavior. For example, it isn’t a coincidence that sex feels good, that feeling is your brain’s way to convince you to have as much sex as possible.
Many of our decisions are guided by emotions and make no logical sense. Logically, smoking, quitting the gym, or ordering a 2,000 calorie meal at Taco Bell are all uniformly bad decisions. Yet, they feel good (if for only a moment), so your brain invents rationalizations to make those decisions seem logically sound.
Rationalization can be dangerous because it causes us to lose perspective. When we rationalize we do what feels good in the moment- which often contradicts decisions that will help us progress towards our long-term goals.
Many of our long-term goals are worth pursuing, yet, we will never accomplish them if we buy into our rationalizations every time we experience some emotional resistance.
This creates a conundrum because any worthwhile long-term goal will bring about emotional resistance. If you want to get in better shape, at some point you’re going to feel an emotional desire to quit. If you want to build a business, at some point you’re going to want to give in to your fear of failure and quit.
So, how do we overcome rationalization (well, some of it) so that we can more effectively accomplish our long-term goals?
Awareness is the Key
Awareness is the key to outsmarting rationalizations. Rationalizations are only effective because they seem to make logical sense. If you feel stressed, it makes sense that you might think, “I deserve a cheat meal,” but if you notice that your inner dialogue is just a rationalization, you can choose to act against that rationalization.
As soon as you tell yourself, “Yeah, but today isn’t my cheat day, I just want to eat fast food to cope with my stress,” you can will yourself to overcome the rationalization.
Of course, this is easier said than done. The first step to becoming aware of your rationalizations is to understand that wherever there is emotional resistance, there is rationalization. This means that whenever you feel uncomfortable, stressed, or fearful, you should be skeptical of the voice in your head.
Whenever you feel strong emotions, the intellectual center in your brain is taking a backseat to the emotional center: your long-term goals are no longer being prioritized, and your mind will try to convince you to take the easy way out.
When you notice you are rationalizing, don’t fight against yourself, this will just cause you more distress. Instead, ask yourself questions, challenge your thinking. For example, you might ask:
“Am I rationalizing right now?”
“Am I really too tired to work?”
“Will I regret this decision tomorrow?”
“Is there another way to think about this?”
“Why do I feel so much resistance, should I avoid it, or face it head on?”
When you engage in this kind of self-inquiry, you will sometimes realize that you are in fact falling for an emotional rationalization, and once you are aware of this fact, you will be free to make the decision the rationalization is attempting to prevent you from making.
This isn’t a quick fix, it’s a long-term process. You won’t always catch your rationalizations, and sometimes even when you do, you’ll still listen to them. But, at other times you will outsmart your rationalizations and act in spite of them. Over time, through asking yourself questions like the above, you can limit the power rationalization has over your life, and take more conscious control of your decisions instead of being constantly swayed by the emotions of the moment.
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