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.

Resistance and Plateaus

A mastery path has its own inherent value. To speak only of the literal; it is the most straightforward way to be a leader in a field or to create something of superior quality. It will maximise the total time spent in flow state throughout your life. To speak more intuitively, however, we all sense that it involves a subtle deepening of one’s character, a shift in one’s core identity.

In the human experience, mastering a skillset offers unique challenges and benefits. I tend to see it like a game that all humans (and perhaps other animals too) can play. It has a private but also a public component. It’s an important thread in the art of living.

Part of the reason that it’s so valuable is that it exercises various character strengths as well as the skillset itself. It presents an opportunity for “self-mastery”, presenting a unique opportunity to become something bigger and stronger inside. Something more actualised and simultaneously more wise and grounded. Certainly more confident and apt to be a leader.

mastery curveTo my great anguish, I’ve always been a jack of all trades yet a master of none. Often telling people that I’m more of a “generalist”. Don’t misunderstand me: there is value in being a generalist, especially for a writer. There are serious drawbacks to only ever being a generalist in life though.

I’d like to share a little story about the career path I’m currently on since it pertains to the mastery path and I feel that it will be instructive.

I’ve been working with Salesforce for almost exactly 1 year. It pays the bills and I’m even self-employed which is cool. I’m just starting to get to a point of adeptness. Recently though, for a few weeks, I had this feeling in my gut. I just wanted to change to something else. I wanted to be a programmer instead for various reasons.

Salesforce seemed boring and trivial, made-up, arbitrary. Not worthy of my intellectual energy. I felt useless at work and unmotivated. Not built for it. I very nearly gave up, and probably would have if I didn’t need to pay the bills.

What I have since realised though is that this was a plateau (the longest plateau I’ve ever seen mind you). In The War of Art, Steven Pressfield defines something called “resistance”. Resistance is a self-defeating, emotional hindrance to stop you doing what will lift you higher. My depressed phase turned out to be resistance: because I’ve come bursting out the other side, leaving it all behind. Importantly, I am once again excited about working with Salesforce and continuing to improve. I feel more competent than ever (which is what makes it a plateau).

If I had followed those instincts to change because I was getting bored with something I was good at, then I would have lost out on a crucial opportunity. I’ve found the single most rewarding thing has been a sense of deepening of character and self-efficacy. There’s a deep and abiding sense of satisfaction that wasn’t there before, and it’s as if nothing could ever take it away. All this by simply continuing to work and riding out that plateau.

There may come a time where you feel like giving up on your path, for whatever reason. I don’t deny that sometimes changing course is the best course of action. I’m a huge advocate of, in the long run, spending your time doing what you enjoy most. As well as maximising happiness, this is in large part because you’re more likely to stay with it and ultimately reap the benefits of reaching a high level of proficiency. I just want you to understand from my story that there is inherent value in riding out a plateau, regardless of the skillset.

A Meditation on Inner Strength

Sometimes I like to think about what certain qualities would be like if taken to the utmost extreme. Perfected. Epitomised. This morning I was wondering about how when “weaker” people are in control they seem to be less graceful about it. They feel less secure and that feeling manifests itself in their behaviours and is felt by those who are lower than them on the ladder. Yet sometimes someone who is relatively weak or even sickly seems to take great responsibility in their stride. Emotionally they are able to handle it and remain feeling larger than it, in control. Think of Angela Merkel who is basically a little old woman or Gandhi who is 5’4” and led millions of people whilst wearing a robe and hunger striking. By comparison, sometimes I struggle to get to work without a coffee or to deal with the emotional burden of leading one person. Imagine doing this being famished and wearing a robe. Sounds like being a backpacker actually.

I believe the quality we’re alluding to here is loosely understood as inner strength. A quick google search indicates that inner strength is roughly synonymous with resilience to difficult circumstances. In other words, the ability to deal with difficulties without breaking down or giving up. The ability to look life in the eye and smile, when other people become depressed. Surprisingly it also seems to be an actual term in the dictionary. Its definition: integrity of character; resoluteness of will; mental resistance to doubt or discouragement (wiktionary). This last part suggests that it’s intrinsically linked to the social.

This definition seems close to what I’m talking about but isn’t quite there. I’ll draw an analogy to demonstrate what I mean. Imagine you spent your whole life bearing the most difficult and demanding job in the universe. Physical pain and danger, lack of necessities, social pressures of all kinds, uncertainty, responsibility for trillions, countless temptations, profound demands on every type of intelligence. All of these factors were off the charts. And then you suddenly found yourself with the most demanding job on Earth, such as being the leader of a great power. How would you react to this new role that would probably break most people?

I would argue that you would smile like a Budha at the emotional burden. You’d remain centred. You’d think optimally. You’d respond emotionally appropriately to the situation. The risks, responsibilities, the disapproval, imperfections of self. You would find your flow or even get bored. The neediness, frailty and fearfulness of others. You’d be aware of them, you’d look them in the eye but yet not feel overwhelmed by them. With God-like strength would they even be a blip on your awareness? Your sense of self-potential would just seem to dwarf those demands. True strength would be able to deal with those without being apathetic to others since they wouldn’t necessarily escape their humanity entirely. People would feel that. Or maybe it would corrupt them absolutely. In any case I think this sort of emotional strength is an eminently appropriate quality for a leader to have. It inspires confidence. You’re not likely to ever find one in this degree but it doesn’t hurt to imagine what the epitome would be as a thought experiment.

There is a premise here. It’s that going through great challenges builds greater inner strength. I love the story of Franklin Roosevelt. How he had Polio and that personal struggle seemed to build in him a strength and gracefulness. Now he is rated USA’s greatest president by an aggregate of ratings. I wonder if this inner strength can exist innately in a person, such as through genetics? Sounds like Achilles or Gilgamesh, to me.

One is reminded of Marcus Aurelius with all this talk of high office and nobility. The most powerful man in the world at the time. It’s well known that power inspires confidence and when one has power in this degree the anxieties rightfully fall away. It’s interesting what someone does when their anxieties fall away. Where does one turn for guidance when the normal motivators of pleasure and pain become distant? Marcus turned to philosophy. Stoic philosophy. You have to live somehow and decided to make his life a temple with the pillars of reason and stoic virtue. One can’t help but see the similarity between stoicism and the image of inner strength. The main difference is that the perfect inner strength I illustrated seems to be able to take challenge in its stride whereas stoicism struggles with it more. So does human nature struggle for perfection, though.

If one wishes to have inner strength but they don’t have it innately, what is required? Well, it seems that a full spectrum of challenging circumstances is both what builds it and what is required to make it demonstrated (although a sense of being larger than a situation can be felt without demonstration). One may be thrust into this or embark willingly on such a journey. Perhaps they could try to live their current life with principled perfection. Go without things you think you need. Bear risks and uncertainty. Be cut down and challenged by people. Be vulnerable. Aim higher and take on more responsibility. Be more in the spotlight. When leading or dating, be bold. We can see that above all one must have an attitude of courage. 

Why would one want to have inner strength at all, though? To attract women? Because it’s better than anxiety? To achieve some desired outcome? To be higher on the pecking order of humans? To be a better leader? It does have survival, reproductive and transcendent value. It seems to me that it’s something of a second order end in itself, though. Self-improvement is an imperative and inescapable part of quality personhood, but quality personhood demands more than focusing on oneself. I don’t recommend pursuing it wholly for more than a week since you don’t want to have an obsession with inner strength written on your face – that would be unwise and unsexy. I would recommend broader philosophies of life and growth-oriented action, however best they may be applied for you.

Ironically to the existence of this article, simply having a girlfriend or a child will cultivate this quality in you. Perhaps because evolutionarily, family needs more for you to be strong than to be happy, so they instinctively challenge you emotionally. Inner strength can be sexy or deathly real, appreciated or unappreciated. It’s correlated with maturity but also with uniqueness. It’s not ultimate good but it may facilitate a more glorious or robust existence.

Fear-Based Somatic Responses

Over the last few years I have been carrying a lot tension in my face. In my jaw, lips and eye sockets mostly. It looks unpleasantly contorted and often confusingly unrelated to the context. I also have a generally uptight way of carrying myself, with very stiff shoulders and (I’ve been told) awkward movements. Walking sideways or moving very slowly whilst dining. Sometimes I’d these wear these as a badge of pride, thinking they demonstrated an active mind – a hallmark of high intelligence. However I now believe that it’s rather undesirable and something which ought to be addressed if possible.
So this week starting a few days ago, I decided to start carrying myself with more confidence. That means not looking down so much, holding eye contact more, and consciously remembering loosen muscles when I feel them tighten. At first it was challenging; it felt incredibly vulnerable. It made me feel like I was being aggressive or elitist. It made me realise something important: we use muscular tension and mannerisms in response to a sense of vulnerability, and ultimately fear. It’s the body’s physical manifestation of nonacceptance and defence.
When you try to release muscular tension in situations where you usually carry it, the emotion which underlies it is feels completely out of control. Thus by practising conscious relaxation of muscles in these triggering situations one can both gain knowledge of our unhelpful emotional responses (it’s easier to name an emotion than a muscular tension) and also to practise letting go of them. I believe that emotions come in waves and amplitude lessens when we let them freely wash over us. Fear is diminished when you let your guard down in a situation and nothing bad happens. Confidence improves. less energy is wasted in muscular tension. The gaze softens. The voice becomes like honey. As the prefrontal cortex quietens down a richer and more noble intelligence blossoms, newly patient without the impetus of fear.
I’ve noticed clearly that how a man carries himself is linked essentially to his attractiveness and respectability. Survival and reproduction value. Same with women but not so much. With women I find that relaxed, upright posture despite vulnerability is the ultimate in feminine gracefulness – super attractive. Nervous gestures and defensive posture are tantamount to submissiveness or retreat. On the other hand confident body language inspires respect. Confidence correlates with leadership and status. There’s a beautiful phenomenon in humans: you can fake it until you make it. Improve the way you carry yourself and how you feel will follow.
I believe that a completely relaxed, slumpy posture is undesirable. Generally you want something that’s confident whilst situationally appropriate and congruent with who you are – “normal” for lack of a better word. It seems to me that the best way is to simply avoid defensive and nervous mannerisms. Notice what things you’re doing to pacify yourself and stop doing them. When you feel yourself tense up in response to a situation consciously try to relax those muscles and deal with the emotions instead. When you find yourself looking down around others, bring your gaze up. Stop nervous or protective gesturing. Hold peoples’ eye contact. Sit comfortably rather than making yourself small. What all of these things have in common is that they feel risky at first. That riskiness is the seed of feeling more confident and the willingness to deal with those social fears at all is an attitude of confidence. Although it’s rare it does shine through and I find it quite admirable and endearing, inseparable from courage.

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.

Quality Is Always a Result of Intelligent Effort 

“Quality is never the result of an accident; it always the result of intelligent effort”

– John Ruskin

I have an app called DailyQuote which gives you a motivational quote every day. Although I’ve grown disillusioned with the value of such quotes, I do believe they are a good writing prompt. This above quote by John Ruskin is today’s quote.
I like John Ruskin, especially his work “On art and life”. He delves into the hidden meaning of things such as gothic architecture and rust. It made a real sensual impact on me. I can still feel what gothic church spires are all about and the inner life that they sprung from.
Most quotes weren’t originally meant to be quotes. Rather, they came as just one part of a literary work or a speech. They were simply one idea or sentiment among many and often thus were intended to rest on the preceding development. I often find that these quotes are woefully divorced from their original context and meaning. They are presented as a general truth or advice that stands alone, and thus they become like a second meaning unintended by the author. I doubt many authors would mind being quoted, though.
Take Winston Churchill’s famous words: “if you’re going through hell, keep going”. This is often found completely divorced from the context they were said and is taken instead for a general truth or wisdom. An epigram. What he was trying to do was inspire his people to beat the Nazis. He wasn’t trying to give advice to people who are going through a tough time generally.
To truly understand the quote by John Ruskin we have to know where it came from and I feel stupid for having come this far without being able to tell you.
“Quality is never the result of an accident”. Let’s unpack this. Firstly, what is quality? Is it really true that quality is never the result of an accident? The dictionary says that quality is the standard of something as measured against other things of a similar kind, its degree of excellence. So the quote means that something that’s better than others of its kind never came by accident? The only exceptions I can seem to think of are genetics and the domain of love and relationships.
Arguably there is an intelligent effort involved in genetics by the parents. On some level we’re all trying to apply intelligent effort to make ourselves more appropriate to a partner but sometimes love seems to preempt or even spurn intelligent effort to obtain it, preferring to emerge by accident. Does quality apply to love, though? Is some love better than other similar loves? Comparing like this doesn’t seem to sit right; I believe that intensity is a better means of considering love than quality since it is a subjective feeling. However, I believe the concept of quality would aptly apply to long term relationships. For example, some marriages are better than others. And marriages do indeed seem to require intelligent effort to improve so Ruskin’s quote holds water thus far.
Is quality always the result of intelligent effort though? Well, intuition is a form of unconscious intelligence, so if you’re thinking about the artist that seems to do so very naturally and effortlessly let me stop you right there. Learning any art form most certainly requires effort in some degree.
It seems to me that quality isn’t about inventing something, but rather making an existing thing better. If you set out to make something specific that has already been invented you know what you’re making. You must learn from people before you. I don’t believe the genius exists that can truly make something better than seasoned professionals at the drop of a hat, without the intelligent effort of learning the art form. We simply need to learn from those who have made progress before us and that takes time and energy. Maybe among children but what child can produce something better than a professional adult without intelligent effort?
On the other hand creating something entirely new may be done seemingly without any effort; simply by having the idea come to you.
I can conclude that Ruskin was indeed stating a universal truth. A basic fact about quality. This is useful because we can assume that if we want to improve the quality of something be it good, service or organisation: we know that intelligent effort is required. Given that other people also will be applying intelligent effort and quality is a relative term, we can also conclude that barring exceptional talent we must generally apply more intelligent effort than others if we wish to produce a higher quality.

There’s a book called “Talent is overrated” by Geoff Colvin. His thesis is that something called “deliberate practice” is what determines the winners in their respective fields from the also-rans. I’m struck by the similarity between Ruskin’s idea of intelligent effort and Colvin’s idea of deliberate practice. In essence, they both mean to work but work smart.