Science Says This 5-Second Rule Will Make Your Brain Stop Procrastinating

By Thomas Koulopoulos

Founder, Delphi Group


I’ve been meaning to write this column for some time. The reason I’m finally getting to it is because it’s an excuse to avoid doing something else.

Let’s face it, few of us, if we’re honest, wouldn’t confess to occasionally procrastinating. Our lives are busy, with lots of competing priorities, so it’s only natural to put off doing those things that we know are going to take more than their fair share of physical, emotional, or intellectual energy. But there are times when procrastination is about much more than just juggling priorities, times when it’s downright debilitating and can seriously impact our careers, relationships, and quality of life in ways that we know are unhealthy.

Like so many things we do, procrastination is a habit. We fall into it and then struggle to get out. We play mind games with ourselves and withhold rewards, or we chain ourselves to a desk until we get the job done. But it’s like psychological quicksand–the more we struggle, the further into its grasp we seem to fall.

The worst part is that when you are in the throes of procrastination it feels as though you’re watching yourself being stopped by a paper wall. You know you can and should break through but nothing seems to help. What compounds the procrastination effect is that we not only get upset that we avoided what we needed to do, but then we spend the rest of the day beating ourselves up because we didn’t do it.

So what gives here? Why do we procrastinate, and how do we break free?

I Just Can’t Do It!

The answers are remarkably simple, according to Mel Robbins, author of The 5 Second Rule. The problem is that we don’t really understand procrastination. We see it as the result of being lazy or having a poor work ethic or even ineptness and incompetence. All of these negative ways we describe it just feed our frustration with ourselves. And all of that self-loathing ultimately shifts our internal narrative from “I don’t want to do it” to “I just can’t do it!”

Not true, says Robbins. Procrastination is not a reflection of your attitude, work ethic, or competence. Procrastination is actually a behavior meant to help us cope with stress. Whatever we are putting off is linked to something that is stressing us. Naturally, if you’re stressed, you want to escape the stressor. So we do what makes sense, we try to avoid the stress and instead seek near-term satisfaction, or at least a distraction and refuge from the stress. It momentarily makes you feel good to avoid the stress.

“What we are avoiding isn’t the task but rather the stress that we are associating with the task.”

Whether it’s something we need to do for work, a relationship, or our health, procrastination is basically a coping mechanism. In fact, I’ll go even further to label it as a survival mechanism.

Chalk it up to our ancestral DNA, which evolved in an environment where stress was like radar, helping us avoid those things that were likely to compromise our chances for survival. If you needed to go out and hunt for food but you also imagined that there might be raptors running around outside your cave doing the same, you’d most likely put off getting food and find a nice corner to scratch out a few wall drawings. Yes, those amazing insights into humanity’s first artistic inclinations were the result of our Neanderthal ancestors procrastinating.

That’s not so different from what you do today when you turn to Facebook or YouTube. It’s the way you escape from a cause of stress. And therein lies the gem of wisdom in what Robbins is preaching. What we are avoiding isn’t the task but rather the stress that we are associating with the task.

Knowing that provides a powerful way to suspend the negative judgment about yourself when you procrastinate. Instead, focus on why whatever it is that you’re putting off stresses you. Is the stress coming from a real threat or a perceived one? What’s the worst case scenario that you’re fearful of? This sort of honesty is a first step, and it’s helpful in developing a self awareness about why you procrastinate, but you may now spend the next few hours or days trying to unravel those questions as you procrastinate about addressing your procrastination!

The 5-Second Rule

Robbins answer is what she calls the 5-Second Rule. It’s incredibly simple and straightforward, but don’t dismiss it because it’s not overly complex. What you need is a way to alleviate the stress, not add layers to it. Here’s how it works:

First, an analogy. You’re sitting on a beach by the water’s edge with your toes in the surf when suddenly you notice a child in the water who is clearly in distress. There’s no one around her, no life guard on duty, and it’s not clear just how deep the water is. What’s clear is that only you have noticed–nobody else is nearby, and there’s not much time to act. What do you do? It’s a no-brainer, right? I doubt you’d wait to somehow size up the risks.

What’s fascinating about this impulse-driven sort of decision making is that it is rooted in some pretty deep science. Antonio Damasio, a neuroscientist doing research on how we make decisions, claims that our emotional decision making is just as important as our more rational and analytical decision making. In fact, if that part of your brain dedicated to gut reaction along with the emotions of punishment and reward (the prefrontal cortex and its orbitofrontal cortex) is damaged, you will get stuck making even the simplest decisions.

No-brainer decisions, like jumping in to help the flailing child, are actually driven by that very fast-thinking part of the brain. We most often call it going with our gut but it’s also a way evolution has wired us to speed up what might otherwise be a very slow and ineffective decision making process.

The link to procrastination is that you need to activate that part of your prefrontal cortex to get out of the cycle. And guess what happens to your prefrontal cortex when you’re stressed? That’s right, it pretty much shuts down!

The irony is that when we finally find ourselves with our back up against the wall and time has run out on whatever we’ve been procrastinating about, even our more rational brain will finally kick in and make some effort to get the work done. The problem, of course, is that it may well be too little, too late.

The key is to activate your gut before you’re in the twelfth hour. That’s where the 5-Second Rule comes into play. Here’s how it works:

1. The very first thing to do is to acknowledge that you’re stressed.

Don’t analyze or dissect it. Just accept that what you’re dealing with is not a fault, defect, or inability in you but a reaction to stress. It’s real, and it’s driving your decisions. That takes a bit of the pressure off and enables your prefrontal cortex to play a role in the next decision.

2. Make a five-second decision that is directly contrary to the stress response.

Robbins calls this a decision of courage: “When you act with courage, your brain is not involved. Your heart speaks first, and you listen.” It’s what you’d do in the drowning analogy I just gave. In other words, rather than try to rationalize the stress by thinking “How can I cope with it?” do the exact opposite and make a decision to spend the next five minutes working on whatever you are fearful of doing. Confront the stress. If it’s a phone call, then pick up the phone and make the call. If it’s writing, then make the decision to write whatever you can for the next five minutes. It may end up as gibberish and get tossed, or it may be brilliant. It doesn’t really matter because, as long as you make that five-second decision to commit five minutes, you will have broken the cycle and proven that you can confront the stress. The five seconds is critical in both triggering the fast acting part of your brain as well as limiting the influence of the slow acting part of your brain, as Robbins describes in her book. So don’t stretch it out to more than that. Decide and act.

Sounds simple, right? It is, but like anything else in life that promises to change a fundamental behavior, it takes time to build a new habit. I will caution you that if you use the five seconds to make a decision that you then analyze for the next five hours, you’ve just fallen back into the same trap. The key is to activate and then do, not activate and then think about doing.

The 5-Second Rule is no panacea, but the simple realization that procrastination is a natural and valid response to stress, and the knowledge that you’re always just five seconds away from making a decision, can be a huge leap toward breaking free of the irrational hold procrastination has on you.

Then again, if you’re reading this, it may well be because there’s something else you’re avoiding. The good news? You’re five seconds away from doing it!

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