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How the ‘5-Second Rule’ Can Help You Make Better Decisions Faster

Give yourself a specific amount of time, and then make a decision. For some decisions, the time might be longer, but the idea is to give yourself a deadline.

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Source: /Jason Aten

Science has shown that you shouldn’t eat food off the floor, but what if you could use the same idea to get more done?

You’ve probably heard of the five-second rule. You know, the rule that says if you drop food on the ground, as long as you pick it up within five seconds, it’s fine to eat. Apparently, at least according to this rule, germs are slow and as long as you’re fast enough, everything will be fine.

I tried to figure out where this rule came from, and while it seems to have been around a while, no one really wants to take credit. That should probably be the first sign that the rule is of dubious scientific value.

Regardless, I’m pretty sure five seconds is arbitrary. I mean, what if the food falls in a puddle? Certainly, the rule doesn’t apply then, does it? Never mind that there are plenty of bad places I can think of that something you plan to put in your mouth might land.

For what it’s worth, science has shown that bacteria clings to food dropped on the floor instantly, so really, the five-second rule is basically a myth. It has little value beyond making ourselves feel better about doing something that we probably shouldn’t.

Of course, setting time limits–even if completely arbitrary–can actually be a powerful tool in terms of making decisions and being more productive. After all, one of the things that keep us from getting things done is that we get stuck at the decision phase.

To help solve that problem, I’m going to borrow the five-second rule as a framework for making better decisions faster. The rule is pretty simple. Anytime you have to make a decision, give yourself a set amount of time to make the decision–hence the “five seconds” in the name of the rule.

Sure, there are plenty of things that take longer than five seconds to decide. I get it. There are many decisions you shouldn’t make in haste. There are decisions that require thought and care, and for those, you should take more than five seconds.

On the other hand, there are also a lot of decisions that take almost no time at all, but we put ourselves through a drawn-out process when we really should just decide and move on. In those cases, five seconds is probably enough.

The thing is, just like with dropping your food on the floor, the time really doesn’t matter. Unlike your food, however, where there’s basically no amount of time that makes it okay to pick it up and put it in your mouth, using a time limit in making decisions can be useful.

Give yourself a specific amount of time, and then make a decision. For some decisions, the time might be longer, but the idea is to give yourself a deadline. Even if the deadline is arbitrary, our brains are wired in a way that we are more compelled to act when there is a countdown ticking.

For some decisions, that might be a few minutes. It might even be a day or a week. Your job is to give yourself a deadline and stick to it. Otherwise, you know what happens. You’ll just continue going back and forth between options, agonizing over which choice to make.

Once you’ve reached the time limit, commit to making a decision.

By the way, if you’re someone who often procrastinates, or waits until the last minute to make decisions, give yourself less time. If you don’t need a day to make a decision, why not make it now and move on.

Not only will you find that you make decisions faster, giving yourself a time limit actually helps you make better decisions. Having a time limit gives you a way to structure your decision.

If you tell yourself that you have a day to decide something important, now you’re on the clock. That means you’re a lot more likely to devote the time needed to gather information, research the best options, weigh the risks and benefits, and come to a decision.

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