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In 2008, author, entrepreneur, and award-winning television commentator Mel Robbins was out of work and out of money and running out of options.
Her husband, Chris, had invested in a restaurant that was struggling and the family was facing bankruptcy. Simple, everyday decisions like getting out of bed in the morning suddenly became a real effort.
"You talk about not feeling motivated?" Robbins asks in this interview. "I didn't have the motivation required to play the hand that life had dealt me and that I had created, frankly."
Robbins realized she needed more than motivation to pull herself out of her funk. She needed a strategy — something that would propel her to take action even when she didn't feel like it, because — as Harvard professor Gerald Zaltman discovered — 95 percent of decisions that people make are not based on logic or rational thought. They're based on emotion, on how a person feels about the action.
"Most of the time when you have stuff that you need to do, you're not going to feel like doing it. And it's a major mistake to sit around and think that you need to be motivated first, and it's an even bigger mistake to think that at some point you will feel like doing it," Robbins said.
The Five-Second Rule
So, after stumbling across a television commercial with the image of a rocket launching, Robbins decided she would launch herself out of bed the very next day with the same gusto and determination. When the alarm clock rang, she counted backwards from five just "like NASA when they launch a rocket," she said.
So she did it the next day and the day after, and pretty soon, Robbins was counting down on every action she didn't really feel like taking. In just five seconds, she was doing things she hadn't felt like doing before.
It soon became her new rule.
"Life, and business in particular, is about pushing yourself to do the things that are uncomfortable so that you can achieve the results that you want," Robbins said. "The secret is all about not waiting until you feel like it."
The Significance of Five Seconds
It's estimated that Americans make about 35,000 decisions a day. And most of the time, those decisions are made unconsciously.
"We like to think we make decisions based on logic, based on what's best for our businesses," Robbins said. "The fact is that 95 percent of the decisions we make are based on the way we feel in the moment."
What's worse, negative emotions like fear, anger, and uncertainty seem to have strong influence over our decisions.
Research shows there's a roughly five-second window of time between a thought, an idea, or intuition, and the brain's move to support it — or kill it.
"It turns out that inside that five-second window, your entire life and business, everything changes if you wake up and take control of that moment right before you're about to make a decision," Robbins said.
The Science Behind the Hack
So how does a deceptively simple hack create such drastic change?
Here's how: Rather than defaulting to familiar defense mechanisms, counting backward from five (5-4-3-2-1) forces your brain to stop, focus, and occupy itself with something else. Your brain's no longer being hijacked by fear, doubt, anger, or any other powerful emotion that can lead to bad, knee-jerk decisions.
It also stimulates the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that's active when you're changing behavior, when you're learning something new, or when you're directing your thoughts.
"So instead of letting your brain sabotage you, you're using a meta-cognition technique to switch the gears in our mind and make changing easy," Robbins said.
Not Just for Work
The five-second rule is useful whenever you're faced with decisions that don't serve you.
Should I hit the snooze button? Should I stay home and watch TV? Should I eat that extra donut? Should I skip that work meeting?
"In life, there is going to be stuff that happens to you. And in business, for sure," Robbins said.
"The game and the skill and the magic in life is making sure that your emotion and your feelings aren't dictating what you do."