Changing Behavior and the 5 Minute Rule

I have a new rule for myself about exercise:  I only have to work out for 5 minutes.  In fact, the real rule is that I don’t have to exercise at all.  What I commit to doing however, is putting on my exercise clothes.  If I’m going running, I put on my running clothes.  If I’m going to a fitness class, then I just have to get dressed and arrive at the class.

If I get all ready, if I show up and I really don’t want to follow through at that point, then i don’t have to.  I get a guilt-free pass.  I have achieved my goal!  I can just turn around and go home.  Or, I can just change back into my regular clothes.  I have succeeded.  I have accomplished my mission.  In other words, my new goal for working out is not to work out for a certain number of minutes.  My new goal for working out is to make it to the front door.  That’s it.  After that, all bets are off.

What I have found though is that in nearly every case, if I go as far as getting myself ready, I end up following through.  I do go running.  I do stay for the class.  But somehow it feels like so much less of a burden when I know I don’t have to.

This approach has worked for me many times now, and it can be applied to all sorts of new behaviors.  Want to eat healthier foods?  Just start buying them.  You don’t have to eat them.  Just buy them.  Want to have that difficult conversation with your low-performing employee?  Just prepare for the conversation.  You don’t have to follow through.  But prepare for it–map out what you will say, and role play the conversation with someone.  You don’t have to actually have the conversation.  Want to finish that paperwork you’ve been sitting on for 3 months?  Get the work organized, and start.  You’re off the hook once you have started.

I believe what makes this approach work is that it increases your feeling of choice, decreases your feeling of burden and challenge, and makes the positive feelings of success much easier to achieve.  It also acknowledges that the real challenge is often the inertia of getting started–not the task itself–even though it seems like it’s the task that is the challenge.  So, instead of thinking and feeling “Oh no, now I have to do this thing which is going to be really hard, which I don’t feel like doing right now, and I have failed if I don’t do it….”, the thought process is more like “Well, I actually don’t have to do the hard part.  I can just do the easy part.  Sure, I can manage putting on my running clothes.  That much I can do.”  It’s a reframe.  It’s a trick.  But it works.