The title — The 5 Second Rule: Transform Your Life, Work, and Confidence with Everyday Courage — intrigued me.
According to the publisher, Mel Robbins’s self-help book is “based on a simple psychological tool that the author developed to motivate herself. Using a technique that involves counting down backwards from five to one, she gave herself the extra push she needed to complete dreaded tasks, become more productive.”
Could this technique help solve my task-initiation problem?
I am a brain injury survivor. I have clusters of thin-walled blood vessels in my brain. Two of them bled. To prevent additional bleeds, I underwent brain surgeries, which left me with a number of challenging symptoms, including difficulties initiating tasks.
Though similar to procrastination in its end result, brain injury-related issues with task initiation feel very different. I am fully aware when I procrastinate, and I often laugh at myself in the process. When I procrastinate, I make conscious choices. Instead of working on the annual report, I choose to do the laundry, edit an essay, or take my dog for a walk. And when I run out of excuses or get too close to the deadline, I get started.
Trouble initiating tasks is more akin to the difficulty of shifting to a new undertaking after completing a long and involved project, when it feels almost impossible to switch to the next activity.
I usually have no idea that I’m having trouble initiating a task. I know with absolute certainty that I will get to the task—just not right now. In my mind, starting isn’t an issue, because this internal conviction that “of course I’ll do it” is so strong. It’s as if there’s a disconnect between the belief that I’ll do the task and the cognitive action required to actually initiate it. I’m not choosing to distract myself, and I’m not trying to postpone the inevitable. There’s simply no conscious awareness and no control over it.
Compounding the challenge is that brain injury-related task initiation problems don’t follow any recognizable pattern. They arise without warning and are frequently unrelated to the nature of the task, interfering equally with tasks I enjoy and those I’d rather avoid. They can last anywhere from several days to several years. They often end abruptly, for no apparent reason. When my brain releases me, I’m off and running, all signs of struggle gone, as if the problem never existed.
To combat my difficulties beginning an activity, my neuropsychologist suggested I keep a daily list and block off chunks of time in my calendar to work on those tasks. Fortunately, my brain injury brought on a level of rigidity—once an item is on that list, I feel compelled to address it.
Alas, identifying problematic tasks to include on the list is not straightforward, because the same “I know I’ll get to it” belief means there’s no problem, and it doesn’t occur to me that it belongs on the list. And I sometimes can’t initiate writing the list—I know I’ll write it, just not right now.
I’d recently been having trouble beginning a new essay on a topic I wanted to explore. It had been simmering in my mind for a while, and I felt ready to begin writing. But I couldn’t. I tried tricking my brain into cooperating by breaking the task into smaller and hopefully more manageable chunks.
I was able to sit down in front of my computer, but my brain refused to attempt the next task. Later, I managed to open a new file, but my mind wouldn’t move beyond that chunk. I left the file open, knowing I’d get to it (just not now). A few days later, I typed a title, but couldn’t start the body of the essay. I knew exactly how I wanted it to begin. The words were there. But I wasn’t.
Galvanized into action by Robbins’ five second rule, I was determined to try it the next morning.
As I finished getting dressed, I thought about working on the essay. “5-4-3-2-1” and there I was, at my computer, tapping away, the essay taking form just as I’d imagined it.
Every time my inner voice suggested I needed to take a breather, before I had time to question my motive, I applied the five second rule. “5-4-3-2-1” and I was back on track. After finishing a first draft, I wondered about working on another troublesome essay. Five seconds later, I was back at the keyboard. Feeling like I was on a roll and afraid that I’d fall prey to my damaged brain if I paused, I moved on to sending email queries about speaking engagements and book events.
The next problematic item that came to mind gave me pause—I needed to grade a pile of essays. This time, the five second rule failed, because common sense kicked in. I had reached my limit—fatigue overwhelmed me and my brain blanked out. I absolutely had to rest, or I’d be in no shape to do anything.
I came away from that day feeling good about myself. I’d been more productive than I’d been in a long time. But I was also exhausted. Applying the five second rule had thoroughly drained me.
I have since realized that the five second rule doesn’t work for me exactly the way Mel Robbins explained it. I haven’t abandoned it, but as with so many other things post-injury, I am learning to adapt it to my particular circumstances. I have to pace myself, and as soon as I recognize the early signs of fatigue, I use the rule to take a nap.
The five second rule rules.
Robbins, M. (2017). The 5 Second Rule: Transform your Life, Work, and Confidence with Everyday Courage. Savio Republic. ISBN-10: 1682612384
This guest article originally appeared on the award-winning health and science blog and brain-themed community, BrainBlogger: The 5 Second Rule: Task Initiation.