Mel Robbins had a dire problem in the late 2000s. She was out of money, her husband was running a struggling restaurant, and her family was about to file for bankruptcy. She was at a point where traditional self-help motivation wouldn’t help her.
When you weren’t even motivated to get out of bed to deal with life overall, it’s pretty hard to argue the point of “hustling anyway”. And it’s difficult to get anywhere in life if your back is up against the wall, so to speak.
What’s needed at that point is a strategy, and Robbins found one that she used to propel herself to get motivated, break bad habits, push back procrastination, and change her life forever.
She called it “The Five-Second Rule”. She even has a book with the same name, in which I can imagine she goes through those details and breaks them down.
I can only imagine because I haven’t read it. And based on this review, it’d be better to watch a video where she talks about it instead. So here’s a video:
Nevertheless, this book has sold 22 million copies and been published in 33 different languages. The success spurred another book called The High 5 where Robbins adds more depth to the 5-second rule too.
But despite the success, I do think there are holes in this overall rule.
5 Seconds Depends On What Is Occupying That Space
I was thinking of writing this piece on how effective this strategy is, but a conversation with my dad yesterday got me thinking about this particular angle. It all started with my mom proudly announcing that he—after four years—removed the insulation from the ceiling in their sunroom.
The conversation eventually turns into my mom talking about the various other home improvement projects that are on the list that have been put off for about the same time, if not longer. Painting the borders around the windows, removing the carpet from the workout room, and completing the half-done second bathroom, among other things.
“Alright, well, add it to the list then, and I’ll get around to it,” my dad responded.
The conversation after that focused on the first point I have against this rule.
Yes, this strategy will stimulate your prefrontal cortex and change your behaviour, however, it can easily backfire in certain contexts. Notably, when you are doing other things in your life or have a lot of large tasks to do.
It runs a similar situation to to-do lists. I personally love them and consider them a viable strategy, but they work in a vacuum. Specifically when you don’t pile on multiple tasks.
I see the 5-second rule that Robbins proposes in the same light. If you’re able to focus on one thing and only one thing the whole time, it’s much easier to change your attitude and get it done. But its effectiveness diminishes if there are multiple stimulants vying for your attention.
You begin to feel overwhelmed, and a person can’t just focus on one thing at a time.
This is the same criticism that’s directed toward the to-do list. When you have a never-ending list of things to do, you experience overwhelm and simply stop.
5 Seconds Rule Still Leans Into The Just Do It Sort Of Motivation
To be fair to the 5-second rule, this rule takes a more balanced approach to the rah-rah motivational hype messaging that is emblematic of “Just do it.”
However, it still boils down to that whole type of advice, and it leaves it open to neglecting the particular circumstances of those who apply it. In the case of my dad, he can’t just do all the housework. He runs a side hustle that is very demanding of his time, he has work, and a lot of other commitments.
Yes, during his free time, he could be tackling those issues, but his free time is really the only time he is relaxing, and even his free time is a pretty small window.
Furthermore, because this strategy is a mental one, pre-existing mental illnesses can also get in the way of it, as this Reddit post outlines. It’s challenging to overcome or use raw motivation to overcome procrastination if one is having a mental breakdown or suffers from anxiety.
It’s one of those situations where the author assumes that your issues are minor and that you don’t have underlying issues. That the blockade you are dealing with is purely emotional.
Ultimately, the advice is for those of us who contemplate whether to sleep for a few more hours or get our day going, whether to eat that extra slice of pizza or have a piece of fruit. It focuses on the smaller decisions that we deal with. Those can still make some massive changes in our lives, such as overcoming a bad addiction like smoking, which can lead to better health, or overcoming a porn addiction, which can give you more time to start a business idea or a more fulfilling hobby.
But that advice falls off for people who suffer from deeper problems. The “just do it” motivation isn’t exactly going to make someone overcome their depression. It can still frighten people into not showing up to meetings or interviews
Your Fear Can Shift From The Action To The Countdown Itself
Heralded as a barrier breaker for potential fears, one thing Robbins didn’t consider so much is how the fear of the task can shift to the fear of the countdown. Of course, one can argue that a countdown in itself isn’t necessary. You just have to do the thing you’ve been putting off.
But by using this strategy and forcing yourself to think about this task that you’re putting off, your brain can hijack the thought of action to cite more reasons to simply avoid doing it.
This strategy involves using the prefrontal cortex—the area in which you change your behaviour, direct your thoughts, or learn something new. Yes, one can argue that a countdown could stop us from our usual knee-jerk decisions and emotional responses, but it can just as easily reinforce them in certain cases.
Hence, it took my dad several years to do a house project that could be done in an afternoon. I wouldn’t say he was afraid, but due to other commitments, he didn’t feel it was necessary. Especially since my mom is the only one using that room.
In the end, people can just as easily condition themselves to fear—or feel indifferent about—the countdown as they would with any task.
The “Science” Is Anecdotyle
From my research of reviews of the books to other self-help articles, one thing that I’ve found bizarre is how the science doesn’t seem to be found. The only hint I’ve gotten is from a post almost 6 years ago that was posted in Psychology & Neuroscience.
They asked if there was empirical support for the effectiveness of this rule. Even back in 2017, there might’ve been some research that looked at it, but it hasn’t been tracked.
To this day, the only 5-second rule on scientific research I can find is the other 5-second rule regarding food falling on the ground.
In the end, even with scientific terms being used for why this strategy is effective, it’s one of those methods where it’s as effective as the person using it. Even if it’s marketed as this universal rule that can change everyone’s life, the actual science on just how effective it can be is based on hearsay.
It’s not so different from recommending certain diets or weight loss strategies to people because they have had success with them or know someone who has seen results. In the case of diets, there is evidence for and against, but when it comes to Mel Robbin’s 5-second rule, there doesn’t seem to be anything at all beyond secondary connections.
All of this isn’t to say that the 5-second rule from Robbins is bogus. The book sold 22 million copies, and her TEDx Talk was a viral video back in the day. Between her conviction and belief in this rule, Robbins is genuine about encouraging this rule.
And no doubt, it’s helped out a lot of people. That much is clear since I have yet to see any scathing criticism for this technique. The only gripes are what I presented above.
But the important thing to note about all of this is that with every piece of advice, context matters. If you found that the rule changed your life, that’s wonderful. If you don’t care about to-do lists, that’s fine too. But at the same time, we can’t deny the fact that not every piece of advice is for every person out there—even when we present it as this universal rule.
And this sort of framing is crucial to recognize as we grow. Because some strategies aren’t going to work for us, and that’s okay. But when we’re not mentally prepared to face that fact or are aware of it, self-help advice tends to keep us stuck in a loop.
You count backwards to 5, and you still can’t find yourself able to do the thing you’ve been putting off. In so many cases, people convince themselves that they are the problem and that the rule isn’t. Never once consider that maybe this strategy isn’t the best for them at this point in their lives.
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