By Marta Ustyanich
Have you vowed to crush your New Year’s resolutions once and for all? While research shows you’ll probably cop out thanks to your self-sabotaging brain, motivational speaker and bestselling author of The 5 Second Rule (2017), Mel Robbins, has discovered a foolproof tool that she promises will help you finally make changes that stick. Read on to learn the science behind our less desirable habits (and why they’re so hard to break), and how to make her simple strategy work for you.
WIRED TO FAIL
Change is hard, and the reason we often set sky-high goals only to fall flat on our faces is because, typically, our intentions aren’t exactly aligned with our habits. According to research published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, the stronger our habits, the less likely our intentions are to predict our behavior. As much as 45 percent of what we do every day we do out of habit, without a second thought. Even our mental processes are largely unconscious to us.
But just like your resolution to start meditating every day, our habits have good intentions. They protect us from what psychologists call “decision fatigue”—the drain on our mental energy that comes from making decisions. “Whatever can be done automatically frees up our processing power for other thoughts,” explains psychologist Jeremy Dean in his book Making Habits, Breaking Habits (2013). And while autopilot is an excellent evolutionary adaptation that can help us safely and efficiently go about our days, it also means that we rarely notice our habits, let alone pause to think whether they’re getting us closer to our goals or holding us back.
OLD HABITS DIE HARD
Another reason habits are so hard to break comes down to good old muscle memory, says Gregory Ashby, PhD, a distinguished professor in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at the University of California, Santa Barbara. For example, if you always turn to food in times of stress, this becomes your automatic response when you feel your cortisol start to spike. Or if you’re prone to doubt or hesitation, this response to things that intimidate you becomes second nature.
When you repeatedly respond in the same way to specific cues in your environment, you strengthen neural pathways in a primitive part of the brain known as the basal ganglia, which is responsible for habit learning. Your brain becomes so efficient at carrying out these actions or thought processes that they become automatic and reflexive.
If you want to shift from unconscious habits that are getting you nowhere to conscious decisions that get you closer to your goals, the key, according to Dean, “is to find a way to sabotage our unconscious, automatic processes and bring the decision up into the conscious mind.” In science lingo, that translates to activating a part of the brain that’s responsible for conscious processes like goal setting and decision making known as the prefrontal cortex. So, how exactly do you do that?
The 5-Second Brain Hack
According to Robbins, “At any moment you are capable of making a decision that changes the rest of your life.” Habit researchers have identified some effective strategies to help you become aware of these opportune moments to make a different decision. Robbins also points out that once you’ve set a goal or intention, research shows that “whenever you are near things that can help you achieve those goals, your brain fires up your instincts to signal to get that goal completed.”
The key then, says Robbins, is to act on those instincts—and that’s where The 5 Second Rule comes in: “When you have an instinct to do something that will help you reach one of your goals, you must immediately count 5-4-3-2-1, and then physically move in the direction of that thing,” she says.
Why count down from five? Five seconds is all it takes for your brain to trigger that familiar cascade of self-doubt, hesitation, and excuses that are designed to keep you right where you are. “That is how the system in your brain works—the longer that you think about something, the lower your urge to act becomes,” explains Robbins. “As soon as that impulse to act kicks in, you start rationalizing it away.”
More importantly, the very action of counting down fires up your prefrontal cortex, snapping you out of autopilot and into decision-making mode, and empowering you to take immediate action when the clock runs out. Have the urge to work out? Count 5-4-3-2-1, then lace up and go. Questioning if you really need that third glass of vino? 5-4-3-2-1, then pour a sparkling water instead. “By teaching yourself to take action when normally you’d stop yourself by thinking, you can create remarkable change,” writes Robbins.
It’s a simple concept that’s helped Robbins herself and millions of others make profound changes in their lives. Of course, it still requires you to put in the work. “The Rule doesn’t make these things easy; it makes them happen,” she points out—but when it comes to gettin’ ‘er done, that’s all that matters.