When I was young, in my early 20’s, I would only write when I felt like it. If the motivation was there, I made progress. If not, I didn’t.
But as soon as I got handed a book deadline, it didn’t matter whether or not I was motivated. I had to sit down and write that book. And I noticed my level of motivation didn’t make a lick of difference in how much progress I made. The bottom line was that I sat down and I wrote.
That’s when I learned that motivation is overrated.
And today’s guest on the Building a Story Brand podcast, Mel Robbins, is with me on this notion that motivation isn’t the key to accomplishment. More than that, she’s developed a simple mental strategy we can use to bypass motivation in order to get the important things in our lives done. It’s incredibly intuitive, as you’ll see, and it has the power to dramatically impact your life.
The problem with motivation
“It’s a major mistake in life,” Mel told me, “to assume that at some point you’ll feel motivated to do the things that will actually grow your business.”
To succeed, both in life and in business, you’ve got to do the things you don’t feel motivated to do.
That’s just because your motivation is going to come and go. It’s not a reliable source to continually drive positive action day in and day out. To succeed, both in life and in business, you’ve got to do the things you don’t feel motivated to do.
A lot of us fail to live up to our potential because we let that lack of motivation interfere with our ability to get things done. Our businesses don’t grow like they should. Our relationships fall short of their potential. Our health suffers.
How we actually make decisions to act
“The secret,” Mel says, “is all about not waiting for your feelings to kick in.”
But to do that, we first have to take a step back and understand a bit more about how we make decisions.
The course of our lives is shaped by our decisions: according to Mel, we make about 35,000 tiny, split-second decisions every day. Most of them we make without even realizing it’s a decision or how we came to it.
We like to pat ourselves on the back and think we’re making calculated, rational decisions. But Mel told me that 95% of those little decisions are just based on how we feel in the moment.
For example, you know you need to make a sales cold call. Do I feel like making the call? you ask yourself. If you don’t feel like it in that split second, you won’t do it. Without even realizing it, we let our fears and self-doubts take control of the choices we make.
All those tiny little decisions add up to impact the quality of our relationships, our businesses, our health, and more. And Mel wondered: what would be possible if we just slowed those decisions down and tried to make choices while “fully awake, not based on how I feel in the moment, but based on my values?”
How to slow down the decisions and take control
According to Mel, you’ve got a five-second window between the moment when your “inner wisdom” tells you what you should do (You should make the phone call!) and when your brain actually responds (I do (or do not) want to make the phone call!)
And in her words, “everything changes if you wake up and take control of that moment right before you’re about to make a decision.”
To do that, you simply just count backwards in your head before you make a decision. Five, four, three, two, one.
When we do that, Mel says, here’s what’s happening in our brains:
Mel started using this “5 Second Rule” whenever she faced a task she needed to do — get to the gym, do research, start a big project. “And as I started to see myself making the small decisions and taking the small actions that wake you up and that put you into action,” she said, “my confidence started to build.”
And while it seems simple — and it is — it’s incredibly powerful. Mel shares a few stories of dramatic transformation from people who started applying this rule to their decisions. Marriages have been healed. Businesses have turned around. Lives were even saved, as she shares the story of one man who told her about his turnaround on Twitter:
Practical ways the 5 Second Rule can help you this week
For improving our health. Let’s say I have a friend who’s driving down the street and the donut shop is open. How does the 5 Second Rule keep my friend from going into that donut shop?
“Anytime that you want to change your health,” Mel says, “it is about being mindful and masterful about the small five-second decisions that either improve your health or sabotage your health.”
By counting “five, four, three, two, one,” when the initial decision presents itself, you give yourself enough time to snap out of your ingrained habits, remember why a healthy lifestyle is a part of your values, and (in the case of our donut-loving friend) keep driving past the temptation.
For more productive mornings. A lot of us are sabotaging our productivity for the entire morning before we even step foot out of bed.
To understand why, you need a quick primer in how we sleep. We tend to sleep in 75-90 minute cycles for most of the night. But about two hours before we wake up, Mel says, the cycles stop and our brains start slowly waking up.
Then your alarm goes off. And if you’re like a lot of people, you hit the snooze button, hoping to snag a few more minutes of precious rest.
But once you go back to sleep, you’re not “snoozing.” You’ve actually just started another 75-90 minute sleep cycle. Nine minutes later, when the alarm sounds again, you shock yourself awake. “The cortical region of your brain is stuck in a sleep cycle and it takes at least four hours for your brain to snap out of it,” Mel says. You feel groggy not because you didn’t get enough sleep but because your brain is stuck in a sleep cycle even though you’re awake.
Instead, when the alarm sounds the first time, wake up your prefrontal cortex with the 5 Second Rule. Count five, four, three, two, one, and then launch yourself out of bed.
(This particular action is what catalyzed dramatic transformation in Mel’s own life. She tells the full story in the podcast and it’s well worth a listen.)
For beating procrastination. What if I told you that procrastination has nothing to do with work? That’s Mel’s take.
“Procrastination is a misdirected stress reliever,” Mel explains. If you’ve got big stresses in your life about finances, business, relationships, etc., those come with you to work. And instead of getting to the office and starting on your project, you dither around on Facebook or play Candy Crush on your phone. You beat a level or see a notification badge and your brain gets a pleasant hit of dopamine.
It’s not that you don’t want to start the project. You’d just rather have something that’s going to relieve the stress you’re feeling.
But we all know it doesn’t work, right? “The only way to break the habit of procrastinating is to create a habit of starting, so that you’re in control of the behavior,” Mel explains.
The only way to break the habit of procrastinating is to create a habit of starting, so that you’re in control of the behavior.
Scientists call it a “starting ritual,” and that’s basically what the 5 Second Rule is.
In those five seconds, you interrupt the habit and take control. “Instead of having procrastination as a habit take over when you’re not paying attention, you’re now very mindful,” Mel says. “You catch yourself when you’re engaging in behavior that sabotages your success and happiness.”
If this sounds mentally exhausting, don’t worry. Over time, the bad habit be replaced by the habit of positive action. You’ll become the kind of person who, as Mel says, “defaults to action.”
Be known as a person of action
There’s a basic rule for fiction writers, and it’s this: your characters have to do things. They can’t sit around and think things. Nobody reading a novel gets to know and care about a character based on what the character thinks. It’s only on what they do.
To write our own stories, we need to take action.
As Mel says, “You’ve got everything you need. You’ve got your inner-wisdom coaching you. Now you need this tool to be able to push yourself, and more importantly, to get your brain to switch gears, so that your prefrontal cortex is working for you instead of letting the reptilian brain work against you.”
There’s so much more wisdom to glean from the episode, so give it a listen and try the 5 Second Rule this week. I know it will help you preempt some of the unhealthy habits of procrastination and inaction that could be holding back your life or your business.
Ready? Five, four, three, two, one — click here to listen!
Executive producer: Tim Schurrer
Additional production and editing: Chad Snavely