NERRR! NERRR! NERRR! NERRR! *Obnoxious alarm clock sound*
Being ripped from my sleep by that awful sound.
Doesn’t matter if I have twinkly bells or a booming foghorn, I hate it just the same. For many of us, getting out of bed is an art form. A carefully designed process of coordinating the alarm with the number of times we can get away with hitting the snooze button so that we eek out the most sleep we can before we absolutely must drag ourselves from our pit. We go to bed with good intentions to get up as soon as the alarm sounds, but in the early hours of the morning that snooze button is just too much to resist.
I have learned never to make decisions first thing in the morning. I can’t be trusted not to choose the easy option. If I allow myself to decide whether or not to get up and get going in those early waking moments it’s practically GUARANTEED I’ll stay in bed. As a personal growth specialist I’m well-versed in the benefits of an engaging morning routine, techniques to maintain momentum, and mindset strategies to just generally getting your #%& in gear. But even though I KNOW that I should get up and get on with my day it’s just. so. hard.
Why is it so hard to do the little things that will improve our life?
While it is tempting to blame laziness, tiredness, or a super-snuggly bed, there are deeper reasons why we opt for comfort over action. This applies not only to the never-ending fight against the alarm clock, but to our tendency to procrastinate and to avoid action in general. The reason ultimately stems from the way our brains are wired to stop you from doing anything that might hurt you at all costs.
Keeping you safe is one of the primary objectives of your brain. Any time your brain detects that you might be about to do something risky, it unleashes a torrent of tricks and tactics to try and prevent you from doing it. Unfortunately, going after your dreams requires you to step outside of your comfort zone, and the second you hesitate, your brain kicks into high gear to talk you out of it.
You won’t find motivation when you hesitate
Many of us make the mistake of waiting to feel motivated before we take action. The alarm goes off and we hesitate for just a moment to check in with ourselves to see if we really feel like getting up.
Firstly, you probably won’t ever feel like doing it. If you wait until you feel like getting up, you’ll lie there all day. Secondly, and more importantly, you hesitated. Hesitation is a signal to the brain that something is making you uncomfortable or nervous. If it wasn’t uncomfortable, you wouldn’t have hesitated right? Your brain picks up on this hesitation signal as stress and goes to work trying to protect you. Those few seconds of hesitation while you ask yourself if you really want to do it allows your brain to swoop in and tell you no, you really don’t want to do it because its uncomfortable, and therefore probably too risky. Wouldn’t you much rather stay here in bed where it’s safe?
Breaking the habit loop
Mel Robbins was struggling with this exact problem when she discovered possibly the simplest yet most effective technique for breaking the habit loop and beating her alarm clock. Struggling through business failure, unemployment, troubled relationships, and drinking too much, Mel knew what she needed to do but struggled to get herself to do it. She just needed to get herself out of bed on time, get the kids off to school, and start looking for a job. So why couldn’t she do it? The solution came to her while watching NASA on TV.
The five second rule
Mel had determined that the reason she couldn’t beat her alarm clock was that while she lay in bed thinking about whether or not to get up, her brain would talk her out of it. She needed a way to ‘beat’ her brain and get out of bed before it realized what she was doing. While watching NASA launch a rocket on TV, it dawned on her that she could do the same thing – she could launch herself out of bed like a rocket before her brain had a chance to argue with her!
The alarm goes off, Mel counts down from 5 to 1 and launches herself out of bed. To her surprise it works. For the first time in months she beats her alarm clock. It works day after day, simply counting down from 5 to 1 and jumping out of bed before her brain can chime in to stop her.
Mel also began to notice this rule could be applied to other situations. There are numerous times throughout her day when she was presented with an opportunity to act, to make positive decisions, or to procrastinate. The five second window of time seemed to exist in all of these situations and Mel was able to turn her life around entirely, simply by counting down from 5 to 1.
Why does the five second rule work?
The reason why this simple countdown technique works so effectively is that by counting backwards you interrupt the habit loops encoded in your basal ganglia. Engaging in counting backwards requires your brain to switch off autopilot and activate the prefrontal cortex. Activating the prefrontal cortex also engages the part of your brain needed for learning new behavior and initiating action. Counting down works as a ‘prompt’ for action – when you reach the number 1 you instinctively know that you are meant to move. This technique doesn’t work if you try and count upwards as you can keep going indefinitely. You need to reach a definite endpoint (the number 1) to trigger the action. Simply counting down from 5 to 1 interrupts autopilot, allows you to gain control, and prompts you to move into action.
There are many examples of this technique in use in everyday life. For example, teachers are well known for using a countdown from 5 to 1 to get a large group of children to focus and become silent ready to listen to the next instruction. Moment to moment decisions in our everyday lives can be impacted greatly by interrupting the habitual thought patterns our brains use to keep us from doing things that are uncomfortable. Deciding whether or not to go the gym? To speak up in a meeting? To make an important phone call? Each moment of hesitation and ‘checking’ in to see if we feel like doing it allows our brains to take control away from us and steer us towards inaction. This ridiculously simple countdown technique puts you back in control so that you can make positive decisions to act and move forward towards your dreams.
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