Recapturing Your Productivity: Five Ways to Stop Rationalizing

Rationalization is a process of not perceiving reality, but of attempting to make reality fit one’s emotions. – Ayn Rand, Russian-American author and philosopher.

It’s always something, right? As the saying goes, life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans. You want to write the great American novel, but you can’t quite get up early enough to squeeze in that distraction-free daily hour, and you decide you’re not a great writer anyway. You want to start jogging twenty minutes a day, but you’re too tired, or the temperature’s too cool, or the weather’s too rainy. You have a paper due in your class, but it’s been a long day, so you say, “I’ll work on it after dinner. I deserve a break.” After dinner, you reason, “Ehhh, I’m just going to watch this episode of Bones, and then I’ll write a few paragraphs.” Suddenly it’s bedtime, and you haven’t written a word. Then you tell yourself, “I’ll work harder on it tomorrow to catch up—I guess I work better under pressure.”

Those are all rationalizations: excuses you make for something you didn’t do, often after the fact. It’s a defense mechanism that keeps you from feeling bad about yourself, especially when anxiety arises, or you feel emotionally or mentally threatened. It’s a normal response, and we all do it. You feel an emotion and respond by inventing an explanation to cover it up that, on its surface, seems logical — but it’s clearly unproductive. You’ve just found yourself good reason for making a bad decision, hoping that invented reason will overcome reality.

Rationalization can worsen if you use it to blame others for your failings: “I can’t do my white paper because Group A hasn’t finished the alpha test,” or “My report isn’t complete because the technical editor got backed up and there’s a bottleneck.” That’s the worst type of rationalization: the old blame game. It often raises its head when you’re faced with something tough, like working on your top-priority projects or dealing with a difficult coworker. Combine it with one of the famous two Ps, procrastination or perfectionism (or worse, both), and you’ve got a deadly productivity killer.

Luckily, if you take the time to stop and reflect on your work, rationalizations are easy to identify. Recognizing rationalization in your daily grind is the first step to fixing it. So, follow them up with the following:


  1. Remove blockages. If something or someone else really is slowing you down, find a way to step in and remove the bottleneck. If possible, offer to help someone get up to speed. Even if they spurn your help, this might jolt them into realizing they need to get themselves in gear. If nothing else works, go around them to find another way to get the information and work on everything else you can except their input. If that fails, make a preventive assertion, “Unless I hear from you by (x), I’m assuming that means (y), and I’m going to do (z).”


  1. Be honest with yourself. Lay off the excuses and just do the task. If you can’t, admit it to yourself… and do it anyway, unless you can legitimately delegate it. Own your responsibilities and come to understand why you dislike the task, what you can do to improve how you feel, and implement those solutions. Eyes on the prize.


  1. Take a small step forward. If you have a project you just can’t seem to start, implement the Pomodoro technique and force yourself to work on it for five, 10, or 15 minutes at a time. You may build enough momentum to complete the task. If not, stop at the end of the set period, knowing you’ve accomplished something.


  1. Increase your forward motion gradually. The next time you work on the task, increase your Pomodoro time by a few minutes, and keep increasing it daily until you hit the full time you’ve estimated for the task.


  1. Refuse to let anything get in your way. Put your head down like a rhino and charge. Work around physical blockages as necessary, and power through the mental and emotional ones —whether dislike, writer’s block, or fear of failure.


There’s Always an Excuse

 Rationalizations are an insidious part of the workplace experience, and like potato chips, there’s always room for one more. But it’s all about self-deception—and your supervisor will likely see them for what they are. Wherever the rationalization comes from, whatever its cause, it’s just a way to shift blame or find a way to escape responsibility. The only exception is if the task is a waste of time, and you shouldn’t be working on it anyway. While there are times when other people block your work, you can generally head them off with solid action and workarounds—even if they involve getting weeks ahead on other work while you wait for a bottleneck to break.

© 2020 Laura Stack. Laura Stack, MBA, CSP, CPAE is an award-winning keynote speaker, bestselling author, and noted authority on employee and team productivity. She is the president of The Productivity Pro, Inc., a company dedicated to helping leaders increase workplace performance in high-stress environments. Stack has authored eight books, including FASTER TOGETHER: Accelerating Your Team’s Productivity (Berrett-Koehler 2018). She is a past president of the National Speakers Association, and a member of its exclusive Speaker Hall of Fame (with fewer than 175 members worldwide). Stack’s clients include Cisco Systems, Wal-Mart, and Bank of America, and she has been featured on the CBS Early Show and CNN, and in the New York Times. To have Laura Stack speak at an upcoming meeting or event, call 303-471-7401 or contact us online.