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The 5 Second Rule - critical summary review

The 5 Second Rule Critical summary review
Self Help & Motivation

This microbook is a summary/original review based on the book: The 5 Second Rule: Transform your Life, Work, and Confidence with Everyday Courage

Available for: Read online, read in our mobile apps for iPhone/Android and send in PDF/EPUB/MOBI to Amazon Kindle.

ISBN: 1682612384

Publisher: Savio Republic

Also available in audiobook, download now:


Critical summary review

According to television host and motivational speaker Mel Robbins, all you need to change your life are five seconds. In “The 5 Second Rule” she explains why this is not yet another self-help gimmick, but stone-cold science. Get ready to hear her reasons and prepare to learn how to transform your life for the better!

Discovering the 5-second rule

Back in 2009, Mel Robbins was an exhausted 41-year-old woman facing major problems with money, work and marriage. Her reality show, “Someone’s Gotta Go” had been recently canceled by Fox, but she was still locked into a contract for 10 more months with the television network that prevented her from pursuing another media job. Moreover, her husband’s newly launched pizza restaurant was struggling, and since the couple had poured their home equity line and entire life savings into the restaurant business, Robbins had to borrow money from her father to cover the mortgage. With the financial pressures putting a strain on her marriage, she began drinking – and before too long that was pretty much all she was doing every night. 

Consequently, there wasn’t a day that she didn’t wake up with a hangover, overwhelmed with a feeling of dread for the future and a sense of entrapment in the present. She knew what she had to do to change that: get up on time, take better care of herself, ask for some help from her friends, drink less, be nicer to her husband. However, she couldn’t do any of that. Instead, she’d hit the “snooze” button several times a morning and get up from bed only after her husband had already left for the restaurant and her kids had already missed the school bus. But then one night, everything changed.

Robbins was about to head to bed when a television commercial showing the launching of a rocket caught her attention for some reason. She remembers the event quite vividly: “I could hear the famous final five-second countdown, 5- 4- 3- 2- 1, fire and smoke filled the screen, and the shuttle launched. I thought to myself, ‘That’s it, I’ll launch myself out of bed tomorrow…like a rocket. I’ll move so fast I won’t have time to talk myself out of it.’” The next morning, she did just that. And that’s how the 5-second rule was born. It’s as simple as rules can get: “The moment you have an instinct to act on a goal you must 5-4-3-2-1 it, and physically move, or your brain will stop you.”

Why the 5-second rule works

As deceptively simple as it might seem, the 5-second rule is as firmly rooted in science as it is in common sense. In other words, there’s mounting evidence that you should indeed “trust your gut” almost as much as you trust your brain – because, well, the two are connected. As famous Italian poet Giacomo Leopardi once wrote, “Thinking about how one breathes, you find you can hardly breathe; thinking and ruminating on the act of urination, you find you can’t urinate. Thought can crucify you.” As Robbins found out, your gut can actually resurrect you.

You see, whenever you set a goal, your brain notes it down and marks it with a red exclamation point. Now, whenever you’re near things that can help you achieve that goal, it tries to fire up your instinct as a signal to get you to complete the goal in question. For example, if you have a goal to exercise more, whenever you walk past a gym, after the initial dread and doubt, your prefrontal cortex will light up to tell you that you should enter inside. And you’d feel that – right there, in your gut. That’s your instinct reminding you of your objectives, your “inner wisdom” guiding you toward your final destination. “When it comes to goals, dreams, and changing your life,” remarks Robbins, “your inner wisdom is a genius. Your goal-related impulses, urges, and instincts are there to guide you. You need to learn to bet on them.”

The problem with your inner wisdom is that it can be easily overruled by your intellect and thinking. Your brain prefers comfort and acquired habits to changes and learning. That’s why it tries to stifle your instinct whenever it appears. So, unless you act in the first few seconds, it will prevent you from acting at all. To paint you a simplified, but vivid example, your first instinct after waking up is the very unhealthy one to hit the “snooze” button - that’s your brain telling you “leave me alone, I want to go on dreaming.” Countdown from five, however, and you’ll experience the power of the push: you’ll feel a sudden rush of energy and an urge to get up and start doing something. Resist this urge for another second or two, and you’re back to hitting the “snooze” button. 

Feeling machines that think

The reason why we’re not doing what we’re supposed to do is not for a lack of knowledge. Contrary to common opinion, most people know precisely what they should be doing to improve their lives. The problem is that they don’t know how to do it. They are, simply put, losing the battle with their feelings. “If you’ve ever wondered why it’s so hard to make yourself do the things that you know will solve your problems and improve your life,” writes Robbins, “the answer is simple. It’s your feelings. None of us realize it, but we make almost every single decision not with logic, not with our hearts, not based on our goals or dreams – but with our feelings.”

The studies of Portuguese-American neuroscientist Antonio Damasio have all but proven this. For decades, Damasio has studied the neural systems which underlie emotion, memory and decision-making practices in humans. Most of his work concentrates on experiments with people whose damaged brains prevent them from feeling emotions. What he has discovered in the process is pretty revolutionary, not to mention fascinating. Namely, that it is not our brain, but our emotions that decide for us, and in the vast majority of cases – at least nine out of 10 times! In other words, our thoughts and actions aren’t stifled, but guided by our feelings. We are, as Damasio puts it, not “thinking machines that feel” but “feeling machines that think.”

Here’s an example to illustrate this better. One of Damasio’s subjects had suffered a brain injury that made him incapable of feeling any emotions at all. Strangely enough, he couldn’t make any kinds of choices either. He was, in one situation, left paralyzed by the simplest of all questions: “What do you want to eat?” It’s not that he couldn’t logically describe the pros and cons of his choice, it’s just that he couldn’t stop listing them. In other words, he couldn’t act because he was thinking too hard. And he was thinking too hard because there was nothing in his body guiding him toward any kind of decision. Most of us think that it’s our feelings that trick our brains into procrastination and indolence. Damasio claims it’s the other way around. The 5-second rule should help you turn the odds in your favor.

Instinct and courage

The 5-second rule is a remarkable “research-backed metacognition tool that creates immediate and lasting behavior change” by allowing you to separate what you feel from the actions that you take. “There is a window for everyone between the moment you have an instinct to change and your mind killing that instinct,” Robbins explains. “While your mind starts working against you in nanoseconds, the barrage of thoughts and excuses don’t seem to kick into full force and stop you for a few seconds. The five-second window seems to work for everyone.” 

Take, for example, a 26-year-old preacher by the name of Michael. Soon after taking his clerical role, on December 5, 1955, he was nominated by his peers to become the leader of a group of protests and boycotts organized in response to the arrest of an innocent 42-year-old Alabaman woman. “It happened so quickly,” Michael would say many years later, “that I did not have time to think it through. It is probable that if I had, I would have declined the nomination.” 

Thank goodness he didn’t, exclaims Robbins, because otherwise he would not have become one of the greatest civil rights leaders of all time. Michael, as you should know, was the birth name of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and that 42-year-old arrested Alabaman woman was none other than Rosa Parks, “the mother of the freedom movement.” Unsurprisingly, she too had acted on instinct when she refused to give up her seat to a white man on a Montgomery bus, just four days before Dr. King became the leader of the Montgomery bus boycott. She didn’t plan it or anything; on the contrary, she “didn’t hesitate to think it through.” And that made all the difference.

German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe once described courage as “the commitment to begin without any guarantee of success.” That’s another reason why the 5-second rule works: it gives courage. With the lack of a guarantee that  an action will lead to some kind of a reward, your brain will try its best to talk you out of taking it, steering you away from the potential risks and telling you it’s not the right time or the right circumstances to act. Your instinct, however, will tell you to take a leap of faith, pushing you into action. And it’s actions that build habits and character, not intentions or thoughts.

Productivity and procrastination

Most people believe that their thoughts influence their feelings which, in turn, influence their actions. But the opposite seems to be far more true: it is our feelings and thoughts that change as a result of our actions. Courage, in other words, isn’t something you feel before doing a courageous act, but something you gain through courageous acts. Aristotle made the connection two millennia ago and summed it up in the following four words: “Do good, be good.” 

Put simply, behavioral change shouldn’t be the goal of your actions, but their beginning. And that’s why the 5-second rule works. By automatizing your response to instincts, it allows you to start things before you’re ready to start them. “By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail,” remarked Benjamin Franklin once, quite wittily. However, he forgot to mention that by preparing too much for an action, you are simultaneously failing to act. And that’s far worse than acting in error. So, we guess Romantic poet William Wordsworth was more to the point when he wrote: “To begin, begin.”

But then again, you know that. The problem is you can’t seem to implement it. That’s pretty much the essence of procrastination, the act of delaying an important task by focusing on something less urgent. The best way to tackle it, claims psychology professor Timothy Pychyl, is to just get started. That’s what the 5-second rule does. A “starting ritual” by its very nature, it switches the gears in your mind and allows the prefrontal cortex to take control before it loses interest.

One more thing before we round things off. Not all procrastination is bad. Namely, in addition to destructive procrastination, there’s also something psychologists call “productive procrastination.” As oxymoronic as the phrase might sound to you, setting aside a creative project for a while and allowing your mind to wander aimlessly when you’ve hit the proverbial wall is probably the best way to finish it. The reason? Your mind needs breaks, too. So, don’t just force-use the 5-second rule when you feel it doesn’t work. Sometimes, allow yourself to procrastinate productively as well.

Final notes

Translated into more than 30 languages, “The 5 Second Rule” by Mel Robbins was one of Audible’s nonfiction bestsellers of 2017, and was named Audible’s 2017 Book of the Year in Self-Development. Moreover, the related 2011 TED Talk is still one of the most viewed and shared TED Talks of all time. 

True, the book’s philosophy can be summed up in merely a few words, but who said that “simple” ever meant “easy”? While we’re there, who said that transformation can only be achieved through complex and difficult life strategies? If anything, it’s usually the opposite.

12min tip

Even though you can’t control how you feel, you can always choose how you act. Use the 5-second rule to push yourself to do the right action at the right moment. 5… 4… 3… 2… 1… Go!

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Who wrote the book?

Mel Robbins is an American lawyer, entrepreneur, television host and bestselling author. She made her name as CNN’s legal analyst, in particular during her coverage of the George Zimmerman trial. Robbins first p... (Read more)