Our brain is where we think thoughts. It’s also where thoughts go to die.
You see, our brain has one job: keep us alive. As our need for Survival is satisfied, we start exploring ways of staying alive more efficiently, improving the quality of our lives, and helping others stay alive. The moment our Survival is threatened, however, our brain sets all that aside and reverts to its primary mission.
There’s one problem: our brain is terrible at distinguishing between different types of threats. It doesn’t matter whether the threat is physical or emotional. If it threatens any of our basic needs, our brain will invoke the same fight-or-flight response to get us out of danger.
When you have the idea to do something bold, you have five seconds to act on it before you brain will shut the idea down.
Have you ever wondered why you talk yourself out of making meaningful changes in your life? Your brain senses that you’re about to step outside of your comfort zone. That means discomfort. Some of your needs won’t be met for a while. One part of your brain (the prefrontal cortex) came up with the thought and another part of your brain (the basal ganglia) doesn’t like it.
Your basal ganglia argues for the status quo with emotion—fear and anxiety. Your prefrontal cortex argues the case for change using facts and logic. You know you should take action. Your life would change for the better. What happens? Your brain keeps you glued to the easy chair in your comfort zone by emphasizing all the things that might go wrong. It might not work out. You might end up worse off than you started.
If you’re not intentional about the decision, your basal ganglia’s emotional arguments will win out over your prefrontal cortex’s facts and logic. You need a way to distract your basal ganglia long enough for your prefrontal cortex to take over and take action.
At the end of her 2011 TED talk, Mel Robbins introduced the 5 Second Rule. It’s simple and brilliant:
- Count backwards from five. In your head. Or out loud if you want. Up to you. 5–4–3–2–1.
- Act. Do something. Go. You don’t have to finish what you start right now, but put things in motion.
Counting backwards isn’t natural. It’s not something your basal ganglia has learned how to do. It takes conscious thought to count backwards. Your prefrontal cortex has to reassert control. You’re interrupting the fight-or-flight response the basal ganglia initiated.
Counting 1–2–3–4–5 won’t work. It doesn’t have the same effect. You count 1–2–3–4–5, what happens next? 6! Then 7–8–9–10. I can keep counting all day if it means I stay safe in my comfy chair.
But what comes after 5–4–3–2–1?
Blast off! The engines kick in and the rocket takes off! Lots of fire, lots of smoke, lots of work gets done. The rocket doesn’t hesitate. There are still risks present, but the time has come to act.
I’ll admit: when I first heard the 5 Second Rule explained at the beginning of the book, I didn’t think it was going to be that applicable. But you want to know what I did later that day? Twice? I counted 5–4–3–2–1 and then acted.
Both times, it worked. Could I have acted without it? Absolutely. Was it easier to act with it? It probably was.
The 5 Second Rule is a tool you should have in your toolbox. It gives you a reusable plan to overcome your brain’s defense mechanisms and act in spite of the fear that’s holding you back. It’s simple, but simple works.
There’s some idea that’s come to mind as you’ve read this. Something your prefrontal cortex knows you should do but your basal ganglia has been blocking it. Maybe it’s asking for a raise, or discussing changing your job description so you can make a more meaningful, enjoyable contribution. Or saying hello to an old friend. Or reaching out and meeting someone new. Whatever it is, it will change your life. It will make the world a better place.
What are you waiting for?
Question: What are you going to act on today that you’ve been putting off out of fear? Share your thoughts in the comments, on Twitter, LinkedIn, or Facebook.
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