The 5-Second Rule: How Can It Help You Beat Procrastination?

Wooden tiles with letters written on them, arranged to together to spell out: "Make Stuff Happen".

Is procrastination a natural part of being a human or is it pure laziness? Unfortunately for us, who are trying to be more productive day by day, procrastination has an evolutionary science behind it, meaning that no matter how much we try, we all struggle with procrastination from time to time. However, if left unchecked, it can have serious implications for our lives. So if we cannot beat procrastination entirely — how can we at least reduce its grip on our lives? Let’s take a look at a 5-Second Rule that has helped many beat procrastination and improve their time management and productivity skills.

What Is Procrastination And Why We Do It?

Procrastination is an intentional act of delaying or postponing tasks or actions that you need to get done, typically with full awareness of the consequences of that delay. Whilst there are many things people procrastinate doing, there is generally one theme across the tasks that get delayed: we usually procrastinate when we feel that the task at hand is either too difficult or not interesting enough for us. In a world full of opportunity, our brain is predisposed to chaise after immediate pleasures and gratification. If the task at hand is not going to give us exactly that, we are more likely to choose to delay it in exchange for more pleasurable actions.

Even worse, the more you allow yourself to procrastinate the more likely you are to do it more often. Procrastination can turn into a bad habit. After all, our brain will force us to repeat behaviours that provided us with a reward. If you choose to watch TV and laugh at a comedy show instead of raking the leaves in the garden, you are likely to do the same when you need to shovel snow off of the driveway in winter.

Let me give you another example.

As human beings, we all understand the importance of taking care of our health and staying fit. Regular exercise is a clear path to staying healthy and active into old age, but half an hour of exercise today will hardly have any impact on your overall health nor will you see a six-pack appearing on your stomach! Whilst we realise the long-term benefits of exercise, the reward of it is so far into the future, that our brain often chooses a task that will give it gratification immediately! That is, scrolling through reels on Instagram will have you entertained right now, having a bubble bath will make you feel relaxed immediately, and making a cup of tea and watching the colourful leaves fall will have you feeling at peace right this second!

Procrastination of important tasks that will bring benefits in the future can even actually make you do less pleasurable things now. But the reason for it is the same. If you are delaying starting a project that will last 3 months (that is you will only start seeing results in 3 months) and instead vacuum your living room (not such a pleasurable task, right?), it is because you can see an immediate result of clean carpets that will give you instant gratification! It is a good example of what is known as productive procrastination!

Mel Robbins, the motivational speaker and the author of the best-selling book “5 Second Rule” takes a different approach and identifies stress as the main problem leading to procrastination. Her reasoning is: “A lot of people think procrastination is all about willpower, it means that you’re lazy. It has nothing to do with that. It’s all about your stress.” Procrastination, in her words, is a “coping mechanism” for stress. As soon as you acknowledge that you’re feeling stressed about the task that you’re delaying, you can embrace the emotion and make a decision to act upon it with the reward being reduced stress as the task progresses.

A man with glasses with a worried facial expression.

5-Second Rule

The five-second rule is a technique that suggests that if you need to do something but don’t feel like doing it, you should start doing it immediately, that is within 5 seconds. The idea is that if you hesitate for too long, you will talk yourself out of doing it. When you catch yourself procrastinating, you have five seconds to make yourself start doing the thing you need to do. It’s about making a decision to act!

The 5-second rule is threefold:

  1. It gives you the time to acknowledge the emotions you feel towards a certain task: whether it’s stress about it being too difficult, boredom that it will bring or the inconvenience of having to step out of your comfort zone.
  2. It allows you a moment to embrace the emotion and push it aside for the greater good of achieving your long-term goals.
  3. It gives you a deadline (of 5 seconds) to start the task in consideration. This acts as a positive psychological pressure that can help you beat the habit of procrastination.
A woman rolling her eyes at an alarm clock.

How To Use The 5-Second Rule To Beat Procrastination?

The first thing to understand is that this five-second rule is a mechanism to initiate a task. It is not going to magically complete the task for you, but it will give you a head start to acknowledge that you are procrastinating and take action!

  1. The first step is to identify the task you need to complete (your daily to-do list will be of great help here).
  2. Acknowledge that you are procrastinating and recognize the emotion behind it: are you scared of failure? will it make you bored? is it going to take a long time to see results?
  3. Align the task in question with your long-term goals: how will taking action now help you achieve your dreams?
  4. Countdown: Five. Four. Three. Two. One.
  5. At the end of the countdown, start the task! This needs elaborating, of course. The countdown to the start of the task is designed to initiate action. It pressures our mental system into motion by activating the prefrontal cortex. Do not apply more pressure on yourself by believing that you will have to finish a task all in one go after you start. Just think about it this way: If you are on a race track at the start line, and you hear a loud beep that signifies the start of the race, you are likely to start running even though you have no intention (or current ability) to win the race. But it gets you moving, and it will get you across the finish line sooner or later! After all, you miss all the shots that you don’t take! The best way to complete a task is to start it!
  6. Build a new habit by practising this simple rule any time you catch yourself procrastinating! Frequent repetitions of the 5-second rule will help you make a significant change in the way you approach tasks and allow you to make determined decisions by changing the thought pattern!
A person wearing blue joggers at a start line on a race track.

Science Behind 5-Second Rule

Studies suggest that we have a limited time span in which we can change our minds before we make a decision to act upon something. This time span is known as the “decision window” and varies from person to person. Most people have a very short decision window — between 2 and 10 seconds. By setting yourself a 5-second deadline to immediately start doing the task you don’t want to do, you can trick your brain into snapping out of it and getting the job done!

What is more, self-help author, Mel Robins, suggests that a simple technique of counting backwards also plays a role in beating procrastination. Counting from 5 to 1 (as opposed to 1 to 5) interrupts habit. It forces a mental shift and activates the prefrontal cortex, which prompts you to act.

Examples Of The 5 Second Rule In Action

letter blocks arranged together to spell "Why not now".
  • If you struggle to get out of bed in the morning and hit the snooze button every time your alarm clock goes off, identify that you need to get up and how it aligns with your long-term goals, acknowledge why you don’t want to do so, and start the reverse countdown. Get up!
  • If you struggle to force yourself to make an awkward phone call to cancel plans with your friend, acknowledge whether you’re scared of making your friend mad at you, whether you don’t want to disappoint them or if you simply don’t like speaking on the phone. Identify how making this call will have a positive impact on your long-term future. Count. Start Dialing!
  • You have just spent 10 minutes mindlessly scrolling through social media and acknowledge that you are doing so to delay a particular task. Identify why you don’t want to do that task and how it will benefit you long term. Count. Close social media and start the task!

“Only put off until tomorrow what you are willing to die having left undone”

― Pablo Picasso

Tips & Tricks To Get Started With 5 Second Rule To Stop Procrastinating

  1. A 5-second rule is a useful tool that can be employed to take a small step towards personal development. But it only works with a clear determination in the background to make a small change in your daily life! Identify how procrastination is impacting your life and make a pledge to become a more courageous person who breaks the negative cycle of procrastination in exchange for feelings of control and excellent time management skills!
  2. Complete elimination of procrastination is not possible. It is in human nature, so do not expect perfection! The most important things are to get started with this simple act of beating poor time management skills and take baby steps: aim to start the task, not finish it when you are just starting out.
  3. Frequent repetition of the 5-second rule will make it easier over time to shift the mental state, break the bad habit loop and get on with the tasks that need to get done!
  4. Intentionally think about your long-term goals and how a small decision you will make within the next 5-second window will contribute to achieving your dreams! According to the University of Auckland: “Procrastination has been shown to lead not only to reduced performance but also to negative personal consequences such as stress, guilt, self-loathing and decreased confidence in one’s own abilities. In addition, procrastinators tend to be less happy than non-procrastinators and are more prone to depression and other negative emotions.”
  5. That’s because as a human being, you are also a creature of habit and routine. When your natural tendencies align with your long-term goals, your life and productivity flourish. But as soon as those habits start working against you – surprise! You procrastinate or have another regrettable episode from which to learn.
  6. Embrace the discomfort! If you are procrastinating as a way to relieve stress, it may be helpful to think about the end goal of the task as the removal of stress altogether. The discomfort you will feel by doing a task may be a small price to pay for the piece of mind once the task is in motion and moving towards full completion.
A cock on a work desk.

Disadvantages and Limitations of 5 Second Rule

When using a 5-second rule, it is important to understand that it is a tool, not a solution to the habit of procrastination.

  1. The 5-second rule is not a foolproof solution to beating procrastination. It is a trick that can help you get started but you have to make sure to finish the job. Whilst the task doesn’t need to get finished every time you start something, it is important that you apply the 5-second rule every day and keep track of what tasks need to keep progressing.
  2. This simple rule will not work if you don’t have a true dedication to change internally. Whilst the American lawyer and “5 Second Rule” book author disagrees, we believe that this method does require an element of willpower and determination.
  3. Five-second rule does not address the problem of having to overcome excuses. The human brain is excellent at talking us out of things: “But I feel tired”, “I deserve to relax”, and “This is a better use of my time”. I have actually talked myself into having a headache just as an excuse not to exercise.

Bottom Line

If you’re reading this, it means you’re someone who is interested in beating destructive procrastination and becoming more productive. And the good news is – you’ve just stopped procrastinating learning about beating procrastination! Yes, that’s right! You are on the right path! The 5-second rule is a simple trick that you can use to break through the barrier of procrastination and get started on any task. Whether it’s cleaning your room, starting a new project at work or even going for a run, you can use the five-second rule to help you get started and get moving. A small change in the way you approach habitual procrastination will help you form better habits, control little impulses to chaise after immediate gratification and change old behaviour patterns. And all of this will be built by one 5-second window at a time!

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