The 5 Second Rule: How to Gain Courage & Confidence

I think the first time it really sank in was when the facilitator of our iDEFEND General Assembly approached me to ask if I would talk instead to the speaker later who at that point was answering her last set of questions, and I said, without hesitation, “No, I want everyone to hear this.” Three months ago, I most probably wouldn’t have done that. But that was before I came across Mel Robbins‘ book The 5 Second Rule: Transform your Life, Work, and Confidence with Everyday Courage (5SR).

How Does the 5 Second Rule Work?

So what is the 5SR? It is a personal growth tool to force yourself to stop worrying or being indecisive and to take action instead. How exactly does it work? All you have to do is say 5-4-3-2-1, and Go! Take action! 

In the first part of book, Mel Robbins tells us how she came upon the idea of the 5SR. It was a very difficult part of her life. She was drinking too much, had trouble at work, and was having problems with her marriage. In the mornings, when the alarm would ring — so she can begin her day, take care of breakfast, and the kids — she would repeatedly press the snooze button. She was caught in a vicious cycle of worrying and dread.

One night, in bed while watching TV, she saw a NASA rocket blast off after the usual countdown, and that’s when the idea struck her. She would countdown herself to take action. The following morning, when the alarm rang, she 5-4-3-2-1 herself to get up without pressing the snooze button. And the rest was history. It completely changed her life. In all aspects of her life, she chose to use the 5SR to stop drinking, fix her relationship with her husband, help her husband get out of his business debt, find her passion as a life coach and speaker, and help hundreds of thousands of people with their lives. And, recently, it helped mine.

It was as if there was a personality change. Now, not to toot my own horn (magbuhat ng sariling bangko), I already was comfortable talking to people, and found my role as a connector among individuals and organizations in my advocacies. I was already comfortable as well in my own skin. During meetings and forums, I would share my thoughts at opportune moments. However, during this particular general assembly, it was different. It was as if, I added another level to my powers — “lumevel-up,” in Filipino slang. I did not hesitate to share my thoughts, question assumptions, etc. Kung walanghiya ako noon, mas naging walanghiya pa ako ngayon. (If I was shameless then, I was even “more shameless” now).

So why does the 5SR work? According to Robbins, the 5SR is a metacognition tool — metacognition refers to the state of being aware of what’s happening to your mind or thought processes — to force yourself to access your prefrontal cortex where rational processes/thoughts and conscious decisions occur. Instead of thinking of excuses or being caught in a loop of worry, you are forced — by counting 5-4-3-2-1 to take action, GO! Our brain doesn’t want the unfamiliar — its primitive way of keeping us safe. However, our brain doesn’t know that we already live in a different context. The 5SR is our way of short-circuiting, as it were, that evolutionary impulse to survive.

Activation Energy

In the book, Robbins explains that activation energy — coined by the legendary psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience — is the reason why making change is so hard, and that the 5SR starts the process of breaking down this obstacle. She says:

Activation Energy is that “initial huge push of energy that’s required to change, — whether it’s to get a stalled car to move forward or yourself out of a warm bed in the morning.

When you start to count 5 4 3 2 1, it is the beginning of a chain of reaction that not only awakens the prefrontal cortex, but also gets you ready to make that physical “initial huge push” that’s required to change.

Locus of control 

Robbins also alludes to the concept called Locus of Control in psychology put forth by Julian Rotter in 1954:

The more that you believe that you are in control of your life, your actions and your future, the happier and more successful you’ll be. A bias towards action which the 5SR develops is guaranteed to increase your feelings of control over your life.


The 5SR can help you improve and achieve your goals in all aspects of your life. Mel Robbins happened to mention the 5SR in passing — not even the subject of her talk — in her TED talk about careers, and suddenly, people were writing and messaging her, telling her how the 5SR changed their lives:

At 18:57, Mel Robbins mentions the 5 Second Rule in her TEDx Talk

Health

Physical Health

If you have been putting off exercising for some time now, just 5-4-3-2-1, put on your shoes, go to the gym or take that first step, and start brisk walking or start jogging. Just 5SR, and put one foot forward in front of the other!

Or if you are tempted to eat that large slice of cake, just 5-4-3-2-1, and grab that banana or apple instead.

Mental Health

You can use 5SR as well to stop worrying. And if you have anxiety attacks you can try 5SR to conquer it. All you have to do is reframe it. According to Robbins who suffer from the condition, when you have panic attacks, you experience the same physical or biological reactions — you heart beats faster, your palms and armpits get sweaty, etc. It’s the same feeling you get when you just had a near-accident, except that you didn’t have one. Robbins says that when she experiences this, she tells herself that she’s just getting excited. By doing so, her brain now has an explanation of what’s happening to the body, and the mind will begin to calm down.

Robbins says you can also use anchor thoughts to fight off worrying and anxiety. If you’re worrying about giving a speech, for example, just tell yourself the satisfaction the audience members will feel when you’ve shared your knowledge. Or when travelling, and you are worrying about getting into an accident, just start thinking of something positive that you will do once you reach your destination, such as enjoying your time with family or experiencing a new adventure.

Relationships

In relationships, say what you have to say to your family or your relatives. Tell them how much they mean to you. Or just be present when they need you. You may not be given the opportunity to do so again. Just 5SR, and say it or do it!

Career

You can use the 5SR to explore what you want to do with your life. Use your curiosity to start researching or Googling that hobby or skill you have wanted to try for a long time. Then 5-4-3-2-1 yourself to attend that seminar or workshop to explore that hobby.

This is what Ryder Carroll in his book The Bullet Journal Method means to honor your curiosity. You don’t have to go all out, leave your job, etc. You just have to make one small step at a time, dip your foot in the water, so to speak, and find out if something is meant for you.

Going back to my iDEFEND GA, it was not only me who noticed my more confident self. There was a female advocate (from the parish community who helps relatives of drug war/extrajudicial killings) who told me “Natutuwa ako sa iyo.” (“You amuse me.”) I asked why. She told me I was so hyper. I told her it must be the Zykast I was taking for my coughing (hyperactive airways condition). Her male companion joked that whatever it was, that I should continue taking it. I told them briefly about the 5 Second Rule. (Just to make sure, that it was indeed the 5SR, I Googled and it was not the Zykast. 🙂 )

Reporting at the iDEFEND GA. (Photo by Jenny Linares)

My iDEFEND colleagues also noticed my active participation during the discussion. I told them about the Bullet Journaling I was doing — which I shared in my first post — but not about the 5 Second Rule.  So I’m telling everybody now. (Speaking of journaling, just learned that Mel Robbins also designed a 5 Second Journal to help you become “the most productive, confident, and happiest you.”)

If you want a massive shift or change in your life, and if there’s only one book you would read this year (but better to read more!), you should buy the 5 Second Rule by Mel Robbins. You won’t regret it. You will be inspired by: how an employee mustered the courage to talk to their CEO after being given another chance, and consequently the chance to move up the corporate ladder; how a teenager who unexpectedly passed away inspired others to seize the day and celebrate relationships; how a college student up and walked out of his law class, and enrolled as a Physical Education student in another university; and more stories of taking risks and overcoming self-doubt: people from all walks of life finally taking steps to achieve their dreams.

The 5SR is all about gaining, as Robbins says time and again, a bias towards action, it is about taking small steps — what Anne Lamott calls taking it Bird by Bird, in her eponymous book — to gain courage. Over time, these small moments will make you gain confidence, empower you, and will embolden you in other aspects of your life. So try the 5 Second Rule, if there’s something that you’ve been putting off for some time now that has the potential to change or improve your life, just 5-4-3-2-1 and Act! Would love to know how it goes.

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