The 5 Second Rule

the 5 second ruleThe 5 Second Rule by Mel Robbins. This was an audiobook that I got from Audible about a month ago. Just short of 8 hours in total. I got about half way through it in one go and then got too annoyed by the brusqueness of the narrator’s voice to continue. I resumed it yesterday though, resolving to finish the remaining 3.5 hours in one day. And so I did. I was pleasantly surprised by how Mel seemed to sound less masculine and more sensitive by the end. It’s interesting that she’s a professional speaker – you can sense it in the way she narrates. And not in a good way. It’s like Joe Rogan (who is one of my favourite public figures): when he does comedy it just seems to strike the wrong cord. It sounds like a commentator/broadcaster attempting standup and it’s not a good mix for such a subtle art.

The content of this book is incredibly simple. This book is like the anti-intellect. And yet ironically, there is an intellectually compelling discussion as well. Books generally seem to promote a circumspect attitude. Not this one. This book is like an antidote to analysis paralysis. We all know that there is power in quick action though.

The core idea is also the name of the book: The 5 Second Rule. Basically whenever you sense an inkling to do something and you know you probably should, count “5, 4, 3, 2, 1” and then just do it. This paragraph so far represents most of the content of the first half of the book. In the second half though I was impressed by how much she delved into why, how and when. On the other hand it’s not that impressive because of course you can find lots of ways that “acting now” can be beneficial. The simplicity of the book is why I gave it 3 stars, but that in no way detracts from the importance and quality of its message.

There is a certain genius in the 5 second rule. Importantly, it instills a sense of urgency which is otherwise hard to come by for some people. Applying the rule seems to activate the prefrontal cortex which is that part that would overcome our baser instincts such as sloth or fear. It’s simple and such that it can be applied to a range of situations.

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about having a “mental toolbox”. This seems to fit in well because there is undoubtedly times in life where “just doing it” is best. I wouldn’t make it my central governing philosophy as the author appears to have done though; doing so would give a person an air of brusqueness and perhaps incongruence.

This book seemed to draw a dichotomy in my mind which wasn’t there before. Intellectually, I sense that this is what I gained most from it. The dichotomy is between the macro and micro perspectives of success. It drew this dichotomy by illustrating what success looks at the most operationally micro-level there is. This is something that I had little concept of because it’s generally overlooked by the intellect.

When I say micro I mean momentary. It’s easy for me to visualise what success looks like over the course of a year or a life time. What does success look like in a fleeting moment though? This book mounts a pretty convincing case that often it is acting without hesitation on certain inclinations or inspirations. I’m very nearly overcomplicating it here.

For me the most compelling advantage to living in this way is that it creates a certain element of magic, authenticity and urgency. Don’t get me wrong; living a circumspect life can be a beautiful thing. You can design yourself a perfect life and work towards it over years and it can be utterly wonderful. This in itself is missing something sexy: spontaneity, authenticity, vitality, urgency. Honouring subtle and fleeting parts of oneself by bringing them into concrete reality. I’ve been someone that generally prefers to take as much time as necessary to come to the best decisions. Or to motivate myself to do something over a period ranging from minutes to years. On some level I knew that my life was lacking these vital qualities. I also intuitively understood that they are attractive to women and necessary for achieving success of a non-academic flavour.

The main reason that I’ll be re-listening to this audiobook sometime soon is that it is rich in psychological concepts and studies. For example, I learned about something called “bias for action”: this idea has stuck with me like glue. The scientific aspect of the book alone earned it an additional star in my rating. Without this research to back it up, the book would be ugly – as motivational books often are. I do wonder if this impression would be different if it were narrated by a professional narrator instead of a professional speaker.

She gave various situations that the 5 second rule can be applied to. Some were more robust than others. Two that I remember are to stop worrying and to “leave nothing important unsaid” with loved ones.

According to Robbins, the single most important thing you’ll do all day is get up without pressing snooze. She managed to back this up with a scientific explanation. I detected a note of surprised self-satisfaction in her voice for this intellectualism, which was endearing. The argument was: when you press snooze your body tries to reenter another 90 minute sleep cycle, so if you do wake up in 10 minutes you have 80 minutes of “sleep inertia”. She suggested that it takes 4 hours or even ruins the whole day; which I believe from experience but couldn’t explain why it is so.

The Power of Habit


The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. Right off the bat I would say that this book is well written. However lot of the content is case studies and I had the feeling that that was in order to fill more pages. That being said the stories often had their “aha” moment where it dovetailed with the lesson of the chapter. Quite classy. I also noted that each chapter was very close to 30 pages which was quite satisfying actually. So there you have the most salient quality of this book: its excellent construction. A good example of a successful non-fiction book if ever one was to try and write one, in my opinion.

Onto the content itself. This is a rare book that bears directly on the reader’s behaviour. Often that’s what you hope from this genre. Among many ideas in the book; one sticks out as being central. You might even say the whole book revolved around just one idea. I’m referring to the theory that all habits are composed of three distinct parts:

Cue -> routine -> reward

I’ve found this very memorable and easy to apply to my own life. I even have the sense that it’s become a key part of my mental toolbox, if ever anything has. However, I’m yet to see if any positive behavioural changes will stick over the long term with this method (because I’ve only known about it for a week).

The way to “hack” your psychology, if you will, in order to change your behaviour, is to identify the three parts of the habit. Often a habit you’re trying to change. Once you’ve identified the cue then you must choose a different routine: a competing response. I’ve found that the effectiveness of this book breaks down with the selecting of a new reward. Or at least this is where the challenge lies. For example, it seems that sometimes any reward you could give yourself is just as bad or worse. For example if you’re trying to replace internet addiction and the steady dopamine rush you get from it, then what more innocuous reward can you replace it with? Marijuana? Sugary foods? Not all rewards are created equal. Over the long term it seems to me you have to learn how to delay gratification. There is a subtle balance there that this book doesn’t address.

Some things that I noted down from the book are:

  • A keystone habit is one which leads to other positive habits emerging. For example I identified a keystone habit for me as avoiding the snooze button.
  • The basal ganglia is the key part of the brain involved with habits. Brain scans show that over time the brain activity drops while doing the same activity. I.e. it becomes easier, more automatic, you can focus on other things while doing it even.
  • Apparently you can’t truly extinguish a bad habit you can only change it. I quit smoking so I’m not sure about this. Noticing what triggers habitual behaviour is known as awareness training.
  • It’s known as a competing response when you design a new response to the old cue e.g. chew gum when you crave a cigarette.
  • Many new habits have a tendency to break down in high stress situations. Duhigg drew an analogy of Alcoholics Annonymous to show how they deal with this. Apparently putting faith in a higher power is the key to maintaining a habit in tough times.
  • Willpower is a muscle not a skill. Build willpower through your habits and it can spill over into other things as well.
  • Organisational habits. Starbucks turned self-discipline into an organisational habit by identifying and drilling on inflection points. Inflection points are challenging scenarios. People are more likely to stick with a desired behaviour if they have a definite plan for how to deal with inflection points.
  • If you dress something new in old habits it becomes easier for people to accept. This is why new music on the radio sounds similar to last months. If it sounded too new people would be put off by it
  • Effective social movements are driven by a combination of strong ties between people (close friends and family) and weak ties (larger community). This point didn’t seem to fit well with the central thesis of the book. He was trying to discuss societal habits (having already discussed individual and organisational habits).
  • Most cues fall into one of five categories: location, time, emotional state, other people and immediately preceding action.

Reading this book has made me think a lot more about cues, routines and responses. Now I use cues as a way of anchoring certain behaviours that I’ve always wanted to employ – it does work well because cues are easy to remember. I’ve also started trying out rewarding myself for doing good things. It’s a bit of shock to my reward system. It’s like dopamine is generally a bit lower but then a big hit comes when I celebrate doing something important. For a long time I’ve been used to a very steady stream of dopamine and that pattern has been disturbed recently.

Usually books influence little more than your thoughts and feelings. All in all though I feel confident in saying that no book has had a more direct impact on my actions than this one.

Success and You

Don’t let life discourage you; everyone who got where he is had to begin where he was – Richard L Evans

In my quote app (DailyQuote) this ^ is the “quote of the week”. Thankfully – since it’s taken me well over a day to internalise what’s it’s really saying. It’s obvious to the point of being cliche yet surprisingly deep when you begin to probe it. Therefore it merits bearing deeper consideration.

I see that it has two parts. The first is the “don’t let life discourage you…”. This is sentimental. A value statement. Advice given in good faith and probably with a bit of ego mixed in. It reveals the apparent purpose of the quote: to encourage the reader. It’s most pertinent when the reader is finding themself discouraged.

The second part is “… everyone who got where he is had to begin where he was”. This is rather factual, meant to enlighten and give reason to be encouraged. In what sense is this true though, if at all? What does it even mean?

Given the context of encouraging, we think of people that have “made it”. Whether that be becoming highly successful, getting through a tough time or anything in between. After all, those are the people who we wish to be more like.

There’s a basic truth here that once mentioned is almost too obvious, yet is overlooked all too easily when left unspoken. It’s that the people we idolise didn’t live in realities so different to our own. They were lucky in some measure yes, but didn’t have a crystal ball either so they were uncertain about what they would become. They experienced the same cocktail of emotions that we do, albeit in their own unique measure. They were subject to the same unwieldy outside forces and natural constraints that we are.

More existentially, the fact is that we are always where we are. Most anything else is mindstuff. We are rarely truly where we want to be because an object of desire is a different species to subjective experience. Thus Evans’ statement is a sobering reminder to soften our stance with what is, since we will never escape it for long if at all.

In summary; this statement is a call to remain patient and keep hope, though our aspirations may be frustrated or seem remote. All of us walk this same path. Those who are idolised weren’t always so.

The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem by Nathaniel Branden

Nathaniel Branden was the single biggest figure of the self-esteem movement, and this book is hailed as his definitive masterpiece on the subject. He wrote several other books over a period of many years but this appears to be the “one to read”. I should note that this book seemed antithetic to notions like “everyone is beautiful” or “every child is a winner”. Branden clearly believes that authentic self-esteem begins with awareness of reality.

This work is seminal. After reading it I’ve realised that many other writers have directly borrowed or learned from this book. Especially in the world of self-help or mens’ dating advice. I believe that in cases like this, one gets much more out of reading the original than reading derivative works. It just seems to give you a better grounding because it has to build its case from the foundation up, fully justifying its arguments. It is designed to take you from a state of not knowing about self-esteem to a state of knowing about it, so it gives you more than just the sound bites.

The book takes a very foundational approach to self-esteem. There are no quick fixes. In many respects it is a book about basic virtues such as having integrity. Although this is only insofar as will improve self-esteem.

The book seemed highly reminiscent of Ayn Rand. And sure enough, it is revealed that the author was in a romantic relationship with Ayn Rand for many years.

It uses a psychological technique called sentence stems. Sentence stems involve completing certain unfinished sentences in rapid succession. Supposedly this will bypass the logical mind and hopefully challenge what we think we know. I liked that it had an exercise to practise, because it’s more powerful than simply reading something about your psychology.

The two components of self-esteem are self-respect and self-efficacy. All six of the pillars are geared towards improving these two components. Self-esteem is something that we evolved to have; it has survival and reproduction value.

The six pillars are:

1. The practice of living consciously. Self-esteem requires that we have an attitude of respecting and seeking to be more conscious of reality as it truly stands. No weak excuses, no kidding ourselves, no averting your thinking from painful truths, no trying to escape the present moment and certainly no lying to ourselves.

2. The practice of self-acceptance. If you don’t accept yourself then you effectively don’t have self-esteem. Self-acceptance has various meanings though; such as not “disowning” certain parts of yourself.

3. The practice of self-responsibility. This is about making the successful transition from dependent infancy to independent adulthood. Includes the physical, financial, psychological and whatever else.

4. The practice of self-assertiveness. People with self-esteem aren’t afraid to be assertive (whilst being contextually aware). Whereas low-self-esteem people are more likely to perceive it as risky, unjustified. Acting this way improves self-esteem and having self-esteem causes you to act this way.

5. The practice of living purposefully. Having a sense of purpose is important for humans. I imagine people without purpose as having a certain slave-like quality. Having a purpose that that is wisely chosen is great.

6. The practice of personal integrity. Living in harmony with what we believe or profess to value strengthens our self-esteem, seals up the leaks where we lose respect for ourselves. If we don’t live in accordance with our inner-held values then it creates dissonance and we begin to feel worse about who we are.