Image: Matthew Loffhagen
If you have tried everything to banish procrastination from your life but you’re still struggling, you’re going to want to tune in today. Mel Robbins’ The 5 Second Rule can help even the most willful procrastinator have their breakthrough.
What makes this technique different from everything else you’ve tried to get yourself motivated? Read on to find out, but I’ll give you a hint: it has nothing to do with motivation.
Why we procrastinate in the first place
The first thing Robbins wants you to understand is that procrastination is not laziness or a matter of avoiding work; it’s a coping mechanism for dealing with stress. When you do something pleasurable instead of engaging stress, you feel relieved. The relief comes by way of a dopamine release which is literally, physiologically addictive. The more you give in to a pleasurable activity and get a dopamine reward, the more likely you are to repeat the behavior and get stuck in a pattern of procrastination.
Trying to motivate yourself out of a habit loop like this rarely works, because the habit has been reinforced countless times through repetition and reward. Neurological studies on chimps have shown that the more you reinforce a behavior by reward, the harder it is to alter that behavior.
One technique that people have used to try to override habits is to set up rewards for the desired behavior in hopes that they can form a new habit through reward reinforcement. This can work, but it’s hard for humans to set up external rewards that are as powerful as the automatic dopamine releases that follow predictable behavior choices.
What we need is a fast, simple, foolproof technique for short-circuiting the habit loop. Enter Mel Robbins’ 5 Second Rule. The beauty of the 5 Second Rule is that it does not depend on motivation or reward. It interrupts the brain before the brain has a chance to enter into the familiar habit loop.
We humans have a tendency to make a lot of our decisions based on how we feel in the moment, but Robbins says the key to overcoming procrastination is to replace feelings with action, not with other feelings.
You aren’t battling your ability to stick to a diet, execute a business plan, repair a broken marriage and rebuild your life, hit your goals, or win over a bad manager- you are battling your feelings about doing it. You are more than capable of doing the work to change anything for the better, despite how you feel. Feelings are merely suggestions, ones you can ignore. To change you must do the same, you must ignore how you feel, and just do it anyway.– Mel Robbins, The 5 Second Rule: Transform Your Life, Work, and Confidence with Everyday Courage
The 5 Second Rule is a simple, immediate course of action that ignores feelings and forces us to commence whatever it is we’ve been putting off.
How the 5 Second Rule overrides procrastination
So, what is this magical rule? If you haven’t watched Robbins’ TED Talk or read her book on the subject, there’s a lot of value to be derived from either of those resources.
But the rule itself is almost impossibly simple: when you already know what you truly want to do to move forward in life, and you know it’s time to do it, don’t give yourself time to decide how you feel about doing it. When the moment comes, count backwards from five, and when you hit zero, you begin. You don’t think, you don’t question, you don’t feel. You begin.
Why is this so effective? Though the technique is simple, there are a number of scientific reasons why it works: first, counting backward works in the opposite direction to what your brain is used to doing, so it triggers an unfamiliar response – jarring you out of the habit loop. Counting backward also means that when you reach zero, it’s blast-off time. If you count up to five, you can keep counting until you’ve loaded another episode of The Good Place and it’s all over from there. Further, the short countdown doesn’t leave you any time to start feeling your way out of taking action.
Finally, choosing action over an internal conversation with yourself means that you don’t have the opportunity to argue yourself into or out of doing anything. Once you start the countdown, there’s no question about what happens when you reach zero. Like a rocket, when the countdown ends, you take off.
Ensuring success with the 5 Second Rule
Note that this technique only works if you already know what you’re supposed to be doing and you have the time to do it. Robbins suggests making a to-do list, then giving each item a ‘why.’ Knowing the why behind each task on your list will help you sustain motivation after you’ve started. I suggest also giving each item a ‘when.’ This way, your schedule stays organized and you manage all of your commitments in a healthy, balanced way.
If you are thinking that a to-do list doesn’t apply because your only item would be ‘write a book,’ think again. You have research to do on publishing paths, developing a brand, marketing, hiring a good editor, getting a professional cover design, writing or hiring someone to write a blurb, and more. You might even have an item on your to-do list that says ‘figure out to-do list.’ (If so, browsing our writing, marketing, and publishing article archives is a good place to start.)
If you are hesitant to make your to-do list, first finish this article. Then: stay where you are. Don’t go to the bathroom, don’t get a refill on your coffee, don’t open a new tab and check Instagram ‘for a second.’ Open whatever app you use to create to-do lists, or better yet, find a piece of paper and a pen, which are inherently distraction-free (besides, nothing is so satisfying as crossing something off with a pen). Count down 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, and go! Write your to-do list now.
After each item, write a why. Determine what you’re going to do first, and write when. Then schedule the rest of the items, and put both dates/times on your calendar. When the time and day arrive, don’t let your mind change itself. This is the time your best self determined that you were going to do something for your goals. Start your countdown, and begin.
When you’re waiting, you’re doing something more destructive than procrastinating. Robbins says that you are actively working against your dreams. ‘You validate your ideas by pursuing them.’ That’s the only way to honor your creativity and goals.
The role of fear in putting things off
One of motivation’s powerful enemies, mentioned above, is the dopamine reward you receive when you engage in something pleasurable instead of wrestling with your stress (something we discussed a little less scientifically in There Are Wolves In You! Now, How Can They Help You Write?) The other powerful enemy is fear.
We often procrastinate because we want evidence or proof that if we take a risk, we will succeed. We’re afraid to begin without any reassurance, but life doesn’t work that way. If you want to win, you have to keep rolling the dice, so to speak. As Robbins points out, The Avengers’ Mark Ruffalo went to 600 auditions before he landed his first role. Each time, fear could have kept him home. What is fear keeping you from doing?
Here’s the other thing about fear: fear and excitement are physiologically the same thing. This isn’t an opinion; it’s a well-studied phenomenon. When we experience fear and when we experience excitement, our limbic systems are actually undergoing the same thing. It is our brain’s interpretation of these physical signals that determines whether we perceive fear or excitement. What we need is a tool for re-evaluating the physiological experience so that our minds interpret a motivating force rather than a prohibitive one.
Fear and procrastination can feel like insurmountable obstacles. By willpower alone, they often are. Confidence to overcome fear isn’t typically built by squeezing your eyes shut and willing yourself to feel more confident. Confidence in yourself is built through acts of courage by which you prove to yourself that you are strong and capable.
How can you perform acts of courage when you are stuck in a habit of fear or procrastination? Employ the 5 Second Rule. Just because you told yourself you would follow through before and didn’t, that doesn’t mean you are destined to repeat the same behavior. Forgive yourself for procrastinating in the past. Envision the new version of you that follows through. Create your plan. Get started. The more 5-4-3-2-1 times you launch yourself over the motivation hump into action, the more you build up a pattern of taking small but courageous steps in the direction of your goal.
Using the 5 Second Rule as a writer
Let’s say you decided you want to get up an hour earlier to write. Given your work and family life, this is the only time you have. Gotta bite the bullet. The alarm goes off at 5:00, but you’re not convinced, and so you go back to sleep. The problem is, you don’t have a strong enough motivator in place for your desired writing habit when that extra hour of sleep is beckoning. You also drank one more beer than you should have before slumping into bed at around midnight. You knew you didn’t need the beer, and you knew it would mess with your sleep, but after the day you had, you needed to unwind. So off goes the alarm, you roll over, and another day goes by that you didn’t get in your morning writing session.
The 5 Second Rule is going to do more than help you open your laptop and start typing. Actually writing your book starts sooner than that. It starts with you eating right the night before, skipping the nightcap, getting a good night’s sleep, obeying your alarm, and then opening up your laptop and starting – whether you feel like it or not.
Count down from five, then put that third beer back in the fridge. When it’s bedtime, count down and brush your teeth. When the alarm goes off, start counting and propel yourself out of bed at ‘zero.’ If you’re too tired to write, count your way into the kitchen to start a pot of coffee, or better still, into the shower and turn on the cold water. Count again every time your brain tries to convince you that this isn’t really what you want to do. At the end of the countdown, there are no questions, there are no feelings, there is only action.
You can imagine a similar scenario for any item on your checklist. There may be several contributing factors that are making it difficult for you to achieve your goal. For many authors, the urge to procrastinate may come during the research or publication or marketing phase. Break each to-do item down into its component parts, decide when you will tackle each, and then when the time comes, ignore how you feel and just count down 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, LAUNCH! Start, and then you’re doing it. Soon, the courage to begin will become the courage to keep going. Soon after that, I’ll look forward to seeing your book on Goodreads.
So, have you tried the 5 Second Rule? What did you think? If you haven’t tried it yet, why are you still here? Go try it, then come back and let me know how it went. And make sure you don’t get distracted reading How To Fix Your Procrastination Problem and Can The Pomodoro Technique Help Your Writing? for more on overcoming procrastination.