Her mind starts to race with all kinds of cool things they could do. The conversation among her colleagues is winding down and the vice president of business development says, “These are great suggestions. Anyone else?”
Christine has a decision to make, and she’ll make it in the next five seconds.
She knows she should jump into the conversation, but she stops to think. Is this going to sound crazy? No one else suggested anything even close to this. She shifts in her chair. Is there a reason no one else has mentioned Snapchat? Now she’s questioning whether she should share the idea at all.
In the next five seconds, Christine will either decide to say nothing, a pattern that’s become a habit of hers at work, or she will find the courage to speak up.
Christine has a goal. She wants to advance in her career and is worried that she’s going to get passed over for more senior roles if she doesn’t improve her executive presence. She’s been spending a lot of time figuring out what she needs to do and she is struggling with her ability to make herself do it. Her confidence is taking a nosedive.
She has devoured fantastic books such as Lean In, Tribes, Daring Greatly and The Confidence Code. She has attended women’s conferences, listened intently to her mentor and practiced power posing in her mirror at home. Thanks to all this research and reading, Christine knows what she needs to do (share strategic ideas, be proactive, lean in, be more visible and volunteer for projects that stretch her), and she knows why she needs to do these things.
You’re probably wondering, Why on earth doesn’t Christine just speak up when she has the chance? Great question.
The answer is simple: she’s losing a battle with her feelings. Christine isn’t struggling with speaking. She’s struggling with self-doubt. Christine knows how to speak in a meeting. What she doesn’t know how to do is beat the feelings that are stopping her.
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, it’s because of your emotions. 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.
Our feelings in the moment are almost never aligned with what’s best for us. Studies show that we opt for what feels good now or feels easier rather than doing the things that we know in our hearts will make us better in the long run.
The moment you realize your feelings are the problem, you now have the ability to beat them.
The moment you realize your feelings are the problem, you now have the ability to beat them. Look at how quickly Christine’s feelings began to take control in that meeting. In less than five seconds, self-doubt started to fill her mind. It happens to all of us. Once you understand the role feelings play in how you make a decision, you will be able to beat them. Here’s what you need to know:
We like to think that we use logic or consider our goals when we make decisions, but that’s not the case. According to neuroscientist Antonio Damasio, it’s our feelings that decide for us 95% of the time. You feel before you think. You feel before you act. As Damasio puts it, human beings are “feeling machines that think” not “thinking machines that feel.” And that’s how you ultimately make decisions, based on how you feel.
Damasio studied people who had brain damage and couldn’t feel any emotions at all, and he discovered something fascinating: None of his research subjects could make a decision. They could describe logically what they should do and the pros and cons of the choice, but they couldn’t actually make a choice. The simplest decisions, such as figuring out what to eat, were paralyzing.
What Damasio discovered is paramount for you to understand. Every time we have a decision to make, we subconsciously tally all the pros and cons of our choices and then make a gut call based on how we feel. This happens in a nanosecond. That’s why none of us catch it.
For example, when you ask yourself, What do I want to eat? You are actually asking yourself, What do I feel like eating? Christine was doing the same thing at work. She wasn’t asking, Should I share my idea? Subconsciously, she was asking, Do I feel like sharing my idea? Huge difference.
Change is hard. Logically we know what we should do, but our feelings about doing it make our decision for us. Your feelings will make the decision before you even realize what happened. How you feel in the moment is almost never aligned with your goals and your dreams. If you act only when you feel like it, you will never get what you want.
You must learn how to separate what you feel from the actions that you take. The 5 Second Rule is a remarkable tool in this regard.
My exploration of the 5 Second Rule started in 2009. I was 41 years old and faced some major problems with money, work and my marriage. As soon as I woke up each morning, all I felt was dread.
Have you ever felt that way? It’s the worst. For months, I felt so overwhelmed by the problems I had that when the alarm rang at 6 a.m., I would lie there and think about the day ahead, the lien on the house, the negative account balance, my failed career, how much I resented my husband… and then I would hit the snooze button. Not once, but over and over.
The reason I didn’t get out of bed was simple: I just didn’t feel like it. I would later learn that I was stuck in what researchers call a habit loop. I had hit the snooze button so many mornings in a row the behavior was now a closed-loop pattern encoded in my brain.
Then one night everything changed. I was about to turn off the TV and head to bed when a television commercial caught my attention. There on the screen was the image of a launch pad. I could hear the famous final five-second countdown, fire and smoke filled the screen and the rocket 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. It was just an instinct. One that I could have easily dismissed. Luckily, I didn’t. I acted on it.
The next morning the alarm rang at 6 a.m. and the first thing I felt was dread. It was dark. It was cold. It was winter in Boston, and I did not want to wake up. I thought about the rocket launch, and I immediately felt like it was stupid. Then I did something that I had never done before: I ignored how I felt. I didn’t think. I did what needed to be done.
Instead of hitting the snooze button, I started counting backward.
And then I stood up. That was the exact moment I discovered the 5 Second Rule.
The moment you feel too tired, you’ll decide not to go for a run. But 5- 4- 3- 2- 1- GO, and you could make yourself go for one. If you don’t feel like attacking the to-do list on your desk, you won’t. But 5- 4- 3- 2- 1- GO, and you can force yourself to start working on it. If you don’t feel worthy, you’ll decide not to tell him what you really think. But 5- 4- 3- 2- 1- GO, and you can make yourself say it. If you don’t learn how to untangle your feelings from your actions, you’ll never unlock your true potential.
Here’s how feelings keep you from changing: When you stop to consider how you feel, you stop moving toward your goal. Once you hesitate, you’ll start thinking about what you need to do, you’ll weigh the pros and cons, you’ll consider how you feel about what you need to do and you’ll talk yourself out of doing it.
You aren’t battling your ability to stick to a diet, execute a business plan, repair a broken marriage, rebuild your life, hit your sales goals or win over a bad manager. You are battling your feelings about doing it. You are more than capable of doing the work to change anything for the better, despite how you feel.
You can’t control how you feel. But you can always choose how you act. Do you ever wonder how professional athletes achieve so much? Part of it is talent and practice, but another key element is a skill that we need in our lives: the ability to separate from our emotions and push our bodies and mouths to move. They might feel tired as the football game drags into the fourth quarter, but they don’t act tired. Feelings are merely suggestions, ones the greatest athletes and teams ignore. To change, you must do the same. You must ignore how you feel, and do it anyway.
Everyone struggles with their feelings of self-doubt. That is the truth. The biggest mistake you could make is to buy into the lies your feelings are telling you. Do not wait to act until you feel like it.
Let’s go back to that meeting where Christine has a decision to make. In the past, as soon as she felt uncertain, she would have looked down at her notepad, said nothing, and in five seconds, the moment would have been over. If one of her colleagues raised a similar idea (as colleagues often do), she’d spend the afternoon beating herself up for not speaking up.
But today Christine does something different. She dreads what she is about to do and she can feel the five-second window closing as her own brain fights her. Her stomach is in knots as she applies the rule.
She starts counting backward silently in her head to quiet the self-doubt and switch the gears in her brain. The counting interrupts her normal pattern of behavior, distracts her from her fears and creates a moment of deliberate action. By asserting control in that moment, she activates her prefrontal cortex so that she can drive her thoughts and actions. Then she opens her mouth and says, “I have an idea.”
Everyone turns and looks at her, and Christine feels like she might just die right there. She forces herself to keep moving forward. She sits up a little taller, takes up a little more space by sliding her elbows wider across the table, and shares her idea.
Everyone listened to her idea, asked a few questions, and her boss says, “Thanks, Christine. Very interesting suggestion. Anyone else?” On the outside, nothing earth-shattering happened, but on the inside something life-changing did. She discovered the courage she needed to become the person she always wanted to be at work—a rock star.
What Christine said wasn’t the point. It’s that she said anything at all that makes this moment powerful. Sharing her idea for a social media campaign changed something way more important than a company’s marketing strategy. It changed Christine. It not only changed how she behaved, but it also changed how she viewed herself. It even changed her mindset. This is how you build confidence—one five-second move at a time.
She used the rule to reach deep inside of herself and find a little courage. By speaking up, when normally she’d hold back, Christine proved to herself that she was good enough and smart enough to contribute ideas at work.
It was a small but monumental step. And it took courage. The rule is how she took a risk and was able to apply the advice that we all know works. It was how she leaned in as Sheryl Sandberg urges, outsmarted the lizard brain as Seth Godin implores, acted like an original as Adam Grant, Ph.D., champions, and dared greatly as Brené Brown, Ph.D., empowers us to do.
The rule is a tool that creates immediate behavior change. That’s exactly how Christine used it. By being deliberate, she was able to beat the feelings that normally stopped her and become more assertive in her career. The more she uses the rule to express her ideas, the more confident she will become.
Confidence is a skill that you build through action. Social psychologist Timothy Wilson writes about a psychological intervention that dates back to Aristotle: “Do good, be good.” It’s premised on changing people’s behavior first, which in turn changes their self-perception of the kind of person they are based on the kinds of things they do.
This is precisely why the 5 Second Rule is your ally. It is a tool for action and for behavioral change aligned with your goals and commitments. It is not a tool for thinking, and at the end of the day, you are going to need to do more than think if you want to change your life.
Wilson clearly agrees. He has said, “Our minds aren’t stupid. It’s not like you can just tell your mind, Think positively. You’ve got to nudge it a little more along.” I believe you must do more than nudge. You must push right through the feelings that stop you and do the work to break the habits that hold you back. Then you need to replace every one of these destructive habits with a habit of courage.
At the next meeting, Christine will need to practice everyday courage. She will have something to say, and she’ll feel uncertain and uncomfortable. She will doubt herself as she is about to share her ideas, and then she’ll hesitate and feel herself resist. That’s the push moment. It’s a moment when your values and goals will align, but your feelings will tell you no. Christine will need to use the 5 Second Rule to push herself to speak.
The more she uses the rule, the faster she will break her habit of staying silent in meetings and replace it with a new habit: courage. The more Christine is able to express her true self and bring out the ideas inside of her, the more alive, connected and empowered she’ll become.
If you’re afraid, count down, 5- 4- 3- 2- 1, then act brave.
If you’re afraid, count down, 5- 4- 3- 2- 1, then act brave. At the heart of everyday courage is a choice. Five seconds at a time you make a decision to do, say or pursue what’s truly important to you. That’s why there’s such a tight bond between courage and confidence. Every time you face doubt and 5- 4- 3- 2- 1 right past it, you prove to yourself that you are capable. Every time that you beat fear and 5- 4- 3- 2- 1 to do it anyway, you display inner strength. Every time you 5- 4- 3- 2- 1 and smash your excuses, you honor the greatness inside of you that wants to be heard.
That’s how confidence grows—one small, courageous move at a time.
This article originally appeared in the February 2017 issue of SUCCESS magazine and has been updated. Photo by @dbpicado/Twenty20