I recently wrote an article on Motivation is Garbage! I’m not just making that up. There’s a science behind why we can’t rely on “motivation” to get things done. It has to do with something called “habit loops.” But more about that later.
You have these incredible ideas. And what you think is missing is motivation. And that’s not true. Because the way that our minds are wired, and the fact about human beings, is that we are not designed to do things that are uncomfortable or scary or difficult. Our brains are designed to protect us from those things – because our brains are designed to keep us alive. Mel Robbins
Outsmarting Your Brain
The 5-Second Rule (counting backwards, 5-4-3-2-1) helped Mel Robbins get her life back on track. But she wasn’t sure why such a simple concept started getting her out of bed in the morning. So she did a lot of scientific research and found the basis for its success. She discovered that when you think about doing something, you have about a 5-second moment in which you can move into action or your brain will sabotage everything.
The 5-Second Rule is a form of metacognition. That’s a fancy term that basically means knowing what you are thinking AND regulating what you are thinking. Metacognition is a strategic, higher-level way of thinking.
In short, you can outsmart your own brain by tricking it into doing things that you don’t feel like doing. These are things that you are not motivated to do, but that need to get done!
Metacognition Interrupts Habit Loops
So, here’s an example of how metacognition works. Let’s say you intend to start writing a college essay that is due in only one week. Then you get a call from friends who are getting together to watch a football game on TV, just as you were starting to write the essay.
Your mind is telling you, “I could just put off starting this essay one more day.” You’re used to this kind of thinking. You did it a lot your freshman and sophomore years in college. In fact, you got into a bad habit of putting things off – homework, studying for tests, doing the laundry, paying bills – lots of things!
But because you are aware that waiting too late to start essays resulted in poor grades in the past, you hit the pause button. You regulate your initial thought by substituting a new thought.
I really need to start writing this essay tonight. It took me twice as long to write the last essay as I expected. I can miss watching the game with my friends. I’ll feel a lot better after getting started on this essay.
By not only thinking about hanging out with friends, but then regulating that thought, you are using a higher-order thinking skill (metacognition). In doing so, you interrupt what researchers call “habit loops.”
How the Brain Forms Habit Loops
Habit loops are encoded as closed loop patterns in your basal ganglia. That’s the part of your brain where feelings and emotions create habits that you repeat without even thinking about what you are doing.
When you interrupt your habit loops by counting backwards (5-4-3-2-1) – or using another “pause” strategy – you awaken your pre-frontal cortex. That’s the part of your brain that controls your executive functioning and allows you to change behavior and learn new things.
When you awaken your pre-frontal cortex, you no longer need to wait on motivation to make a decision and get started! Pausing to say 5-4-3-2-1 works because it requires you to focus on something different than “I don’t feel like it. I’m not motivated.”
At first, pausing to say 5-4-3-2-1 (or another starting ritual) won’t be a habit. But, as you do it more and more, it will become a habit. A great habit!
Spotlighting – An Unhealthy Habit Loop
Essentially, all of us hesitate to some extent when things are difficult, uncertain, or scary. Micro-moments of hesitating send stress signals to our brains. Then our brains go to work to protect us.
But here’s the catch – hesitating can easily become problematic. That’s when it kills desire – or motivation – to get things done.
A fairly common example of an unhealthy habit loop is a phenomenon called the “spotlight effect.” People who experience the spotlight effect tend to believe that others are noticing them more than they really are. When they encounter risk, their brains magnify it to pull them away from something that they perceive as a potential problem.
The spotlight phenomenon can be especially problematic for people with social anxiety. One of my college coaching clients who had social anxiety hesitated to speak up in class, to reach out to his professors, and to contact his teammates when he got stuck on his part of a team assignment. Unfortunately, when I started coaching him, his grades were already so low that he decided within a few weeks to drop out of college for the rest of the semester. He couldn’t progress in coaching without intensive therapeutic help for his unhealthy habit loops.
Stopping Unhealthy Habit Loops
Within a tiny moment, indecision, fear, and procrastination can take control of your life – OR you can shift your emotions and make good things happen.
The key to getting “unstuck” isn’t to wait until you’re motivated. The key is to learn how to replace hesitation thoughts with “I can do this” thoughts – and then take action!
One of the best ways to create healthy habit loops is to develop daily rituals. Rituals serve as a 5-4-3-2-1 strategy of sorts. They get you going. Daily rituals remind you of what you need to do to get moving and get stuff done.
Do you have a ritual for starting your day? How about for ending your day? And getting things done in-between?
We’ve helped hundreds of people stop their self-defeating thoughts and change negative habit loops. If you would like to try the coaching approach to make changes in your life, contact us today for a 30-minute free consultation. We look forward to hearing from you!