Motivation and emotion/Book/2017/Bias to action

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Bias to action:
How can adopting a bias to action increase productivity and reduce procrastination?

Overview[edit | edit source]

Figure 1. A bias to action can be used to increase productivity and reduce procrastination

Imagine you are in your final semester of your university degree. You have one final essay to write that is due in two days, but you are struggling to find the motivation to sit down in front of your computer and start writing. It is 4pm and you are yet to begin; you woke up at 9 am and promised yourself you would start at 10am after breakfast, but instead you have been watching TV and playing video games. At this exact moment you decide to try out an approach a classmate recently told you about which they found effective. It is called “The 5 Second Rule.” You count 5,4,3,2,1 and push yourself to take action and just start. To your surprise, it works and you open up a word processing document and finally begin. What is the psychological process behind what you have just done? How has taking a physical action by walking into the study and opening your laptop instantly increased your productivity and finally ended your procrastination?

It is possible that adopting a "bias to action" has never been as important as it is today, due to the sheer abundance of potential distractions that we all face. So what is a bias to action? Simply put, it means that you take a physical action in a given situation (Robbins, 2017).

The aim of this chapter is to demonstrate how adopting a bias to action can increase productivity and reduce procrastination. It is hoped that you will gain the skills to get more done during your day - be it at work, school or life in general. You may also learn how to stop putting off those tasks you know you should do, such as assignments, homework or even cleaning the house.

What is a Bias to Action?[edit | edit source]

As human beings we have an innate tendency to take the less demanding course of action when faced with two or more different possible actions (Wouter et al., 2010). The data is conclusive that when it comes to exerting physical effort we adopt this principle, often referred to as the "law of less work". According to a study by Wouter et al. (2010), this principle was shown to also apply to tasks that involved a cognitive effort.

According to Bruch and Ghosal (2004), people who take purposeful action and overcome this innate tendency to take the easier approach possess two key traits: energy and focus. Energy involves the level or personal involvement and effort a person undertakes, with purposeful action being defined as "self-generated, engaged and self-driven behaviour" (Brusch & Ghosal, 2004). Brush and Ghosal also say that purposeful action requires focus, which they explain as the discipline to resist distraction, overcome problems and persist in the face of setbacks. In other words, this the opposite to impulsive behaviour.

According Mel Robbins (2017), a highly-sought after public speaker who specialises in this area, when you adopt a bias towards action you physically move against your inclination to inaction. For example, when you get out of bed when your alarm sounds rather than hitting the snooze button.

Example: The 5 Second Rule[edit | edit source]

Mel Robbins' (2017) 5 Second Rule is an example of a bias to action strategy that encourages physical action. Put simply, the rule is: "If you have an impulse to act on a goal, you must physically move within 5 seconds or your brain will kill the idea". The rule can be used to:

  • become more influential at work
  • become more productive
  • step outside your comfort zone and become more effective at networking
  • self-monitor and control your emotions
  • help reduce addiction, depression and anxiety.

The 5 Second Rule addresses the constant battle between what you know you should be doing and what you feel like doing (Robbins, 2017).

How Does it Work?[edit | edit source]

Figure 3. Location of the Prefrontal Cortex.

Robbins' (2017) rule works through a number of psychological mechanisms such as cognitive bias, the paradox of choice, the psychological immune system and the spotlight effect: the moment you want to change, break a habit, or do something hard or scary, your brain goes to work to stop you.

For example, one study by Press et al. (2014) shows that our brains are not always working in our favour. The study was on the influence of action on the perception of the time it took to complete a task - known as "duration perception". Their study found that duration perception is frequently distorted[explain?][for example?], and it highlighted the importance of temporal information in the generation and perception of how long you expected a task to take.

Robbins' (2017) 5 Second Rule is a form of metacognition, meaning that it is a method of tricking your brain in order to achieve a desired goal. According to Robbins, most of us spend about 40 per cent of our lives on autopilot. Autopilot mode can be described as operating out of habit (Robbins, 2017).

The science behind the 5 Second Rule is that you are actually losing the functioning of the part of your brain called the prefrontal cortex when you feel you are lacking control over your life (Robbins, 2017).

Studies by Amy Arnsten from Yale and researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder found that the prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain that is activated during decision making, planning and working towards goals. Robbins (2017) attributes the success of the 5 Second Rule to the practice of counting backwards from five to one, where you are not only taking deliberate action but you are also turning on your prefrontal cortex to push your mind out of autopilot.

Have you been paying attention?

What is...

1 Metacognition

A phenomenon in which people tend to believe they are being noticed more than they really are.
An awareness and understanding of one's own thought processes.
A theory that outlines the drawbacks of having an abundance of choice.

2 The role of the Prefrontal Cortex

Receives information from the sensory systems, the spinal cord, and other parts of the brain and then regulates motor movements.
Part of the limbic system within the brain, which is responsible for emotions, survival instincts and memory.
Assists with planning, personality expression, decision making and moderating social behavior.

Activation Energy[edit | edit source]

Figure 4. Activation Energy[explain?]

Research shows that people with a high internal locus of control are happier, in better health and are more productive throughout their day, and have lower levels of anxiety and depression (Robbins, 2017). When a bias to action approach is used, such as the 5 Second Rule, over time it becomes easier to keep using the approach and continue to develop a sense of control over your life.

This is due to the "principle of momentum", which is the scientific principle that the initial amount of energy to start a reaction, the "activation energy", is greater than the energy required to continue it (Robbins, 2017). By adopting a bias to action approach, over time the behaviour you are wanting to change – getting out of bed earlier, starting your assignment, going to the gym etc. – will become easier because, once you push past the initial feelings of resistance, the energy required to continue the activity is significantly less than the energy it took to begin it.

Increasing Productivity[edit | edit source]

Charles Lee (2011) has identified that adopting a bias to action can have a significant impact on increasing a person's productivity in a given number of different tasks. Lee's 2011 book "Good Idea. Now What? How to Move Ideas to Execution" explains that by taking action he has directly increased his business's productivity. For example, he says he no longer calls meetings that are not necessary, rather than calling them because they are scheduled in his calendar. Lee (2011) believes in taking a bias to action in regard to meetings, so if they do not generate a meaningful action which furthers the mission of the company then they should not go ahead. Secondly, he advocates that every team member should take notes in a meeting as he believes productivity is a result of identifying tangible steps for a specific task. In his model, each person must listen and then write down their own action steps (Lee, 2011). Lee (2011) found that this simple approach of taking a bias to action significantly increased both the engagement and productivity of his employees.

In their 2004 paper, "A Bias to Action", researchers Bruch and Ghosal identified an area they call the "productive zone" (similar to a state of flow) in which employees work with a sense of urgency, and have enthusiasm, excitement, joy and pride in their work. By acting with a sense of urgency and taking action, the employees demonstrate a bias to action that allows them to process information and utilise resources at a fast past (Bruch & Ghosal, 2004). In their research, Bruch and Ghosal also observed that organisations that have high levels of productivity typically also have leaders who direct their staff towards a common purpose or goal by aligning the company's "collective perception, emotions, and activities to pursue business-critical activities" (Bruch & Ghosal, 2004).

Mel Robbins' (2017) 5 Second Rule is also a highly effective tool in increasing productivity. She says that productivity comes down to one word: FOCUS (2017). There are two types of focus needed to master productivity that her 5 Second Rule (2017) identifies: managing distractions and focusing on what is truly important in the big picture.

Managing Distractions[edit | edit source]

In a nutshell, Robbins' (2017) guide to managing distractions involves identifying and deciding that distractions are not good and then taking action to remove them. Again, through taking a bias to action approach using the 5 Second Rule, she advocates for counting backwards from five and then physically removing the distractions. Examples of this may be: placing your phone in another room, avoiding social media or clearing out clutter from your home when you are trying to undertake an important task.

Owning Your Morning[edit | edit source]

Robbins' (2017) 5 Second Rule can also be used to increase productivity through taking control of your mornings by developing and sticking to a morning routine. According to Duke University Professor Dan Ariely, the first two to three hours of the day, once you fully wake up, is the optimal time for your brain's functioning (Robbins, 2017). Using the steps below, Robbins (2017) used the 5 Second Rule in her own life to transform her mornings from panic and chaos to the most productive period of her day:

  1. Get up when the alarm rings: Scientists have discovered that when you hit the snooze button it has a negative impact on brain function and productivity which can last for hours (Robbins, 2017).
  2. Put your phone in another room overnight: Keep it close enough so you can hear the alarm but somewhere that forces you to get out of bed and physically walk to turn it off. A recent study from Deloitte reported that one third of adults and half of those under 35 actually wake up and check their phones in the middle of the night (Robbins, 2017).
  3. Brush your teeth and focus on the day ahead: Consciously collect your thoughts and think of one or two things you might not feel like doing but you must do in the day ahead. Researchers calls these SMART goals (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, Timely) (Robbins, 2017).
  4. Get dressed, make your bed, walk into the kitchen and pour a cup of coffee: By this time you should still not have checked your email or phone, and this is because when you do, you lose focus due to someone else's priorities jumping ahead of yours (Robbins, 2017).
  5. Write down 1 to 3 "musts" and why they are important: According to research by Dominican University of California psychology professor Gail Matthews, by simply writing down your goals you are 42 per cent more likely to achieve them (Robbins, 2017).
  6. Plan your day and take 30 before 7:30am: Take 30 minutes to plan out your day and either start working on some of your "musts" or schedule a time to get them done. Professor Sune Carlsson studied how top executives get so much accomplished and found that they worked at home for 90 minutes before going in to the office, because "there was some chance of concentration" as opposed to at work where they reported being interrupted every 20 minutes (Robbins, 2017).

What do all of these steps involve? The adoption of a bias to action.

Finally, the principle of Parkinson’s Law says that work expands to fill whatever time you give it (Robbins, 2017). So, give your work a deadline each day, even if this means using the 5 Second Rule to physically stop working when you have reached your preset end time (Robbins, 2017). By putting your priorities ahead of your usual daily activities, you will feel more in control because you own your own actions from the minute the alarm rings (Robbins, 2017). So go on, 5,4,3,2,1 and take action!

Reducing Procrastination[edit | edit source]

Procrastination can be seen as one of our most self-destructive behaviours as we are deliberately putting off achieving what we desire. According to Joseph Ferrari, a leading international researcher into procrastination, "everyone procrastinates, but not everyone is a procrastinator" (American Psychological Association, 2010). While Ferrari’s research has found that 20 per cent of men and women in the United States are "chronic procrastinators", he describes America as a nation of “doers” but also a nation of “waiters” (American Psychological Association, 2010).

Robbins (2017) found that there are two types of procrastination: productive and destructive.

Productive Procrastination[edit | edit source]

If you are undertaking a creative or innovative project, research shows that procrastination can not only be a good thing, but it is indeed important (Robbins, 2017). Leaving a task aside for a period of time allows the subconscious creative process to develop. Have you ever been stuck on something and come back to it the next day to find that you can easily identify the problem? This is an example of productive procrastination which assists in the creative process.

Have you been paying attention?

What is one benefit of productive procrastination as discussed by Robbins (2017)?

Tasks gets completed more quickly.
It allows the subconscious creative process to address the problem.
You can watch TV guilt free.

Destructive Procrastination[edit | edit source]

Figure 6. Destructive procrastination is the type of procrastination we want to avoid.

Destructive procrastination (also referred to as chronic procrastination) can be defined as "when we avoid the work we need to get done and know there will be negative consequences" (Robbins, 2017). Destructive procrastination means many of us have a long list of things we never get done, such as:

  • updating photo albums
  • analysing a spreadsheet
  • finishing a proposal
  • cleaning
  • working on a to-do-list

Connection to Stress[edit | edit source]

According to a Timothy Pychyl (2011), a professor at the University of Cambridge who has been studying procrastination for 20 years, procrastination is not driven by avoiding work but by avoiding stress. He defines procrastination as "a subconscious desire to feel good right now so you can feel a little stress relief" (Pychyl, 2011). Pychyl (2011) asserts that procrastination is often counterintuitive, such as when students procrastinate on their exam preparation and their parents interpret this as their child being lazy. However, the student is most likely to be seeking stress relief from an alternative stressor, such as his financial worries or because he is stressed from his relationship breakup.

The catch with procrastination is that the more often you procrastinate the more likely you are to repeat this behaviour. This is because when you surf Facebook or laugh at online cat videos you get a short-term boost of the chemical dopamine (Robbins, 2017). However, by getting a small amount of relief by watching cat videos, over time the work you are supposed to be doing builds up and this creates more stress, thus creating a vicious cycle of procrastination (Robbins, 2017).

Using a bias to action approach (such as the 5 Second Rule), there are three simple actions you can do to reduce procrastination and ultimately stop procrastination once and for all.

Table 1.

Three ways to reduce procrastination

Action Description
Forgive yourself for procrastinating Dr Pychyl’s research (2011) found that students who forgave themselves for procrastinating were less likely to procrastinate on their next test. A bias to action can be used to forgive yourself when you experience feelings of failure because you are falling behind.
Channel "future you" Dr Pychyl and his team (2011) compared viewing ourselves in the "present" with viewing our "future self". They found that when we picture the "future you" it provides objectivity to push yourself in the present moment. For example, in these experiments the researchers showed people their own pictures digitally aged, and found that they more likely to save for retirement (Pychyl, 2011).
Just get started This is Dr Pychyl’s most important advice that encompasses a bias towards action. According to research (Pychyl, 2011; Robbins, 2017), one of the most powerful ways to establish a habit is to create a starting ritual. The 5 Second Rule is an example of this. For example, if procrastination is a habit you have developed, according to Robbins (2017) you have to replace the bad behaviour pattern (avoidance) with a positive one (getting started).

Case Study

Scott is a PhD student doing research in a physiological lab, is married and has a newborn baby. This is how he describes his life:

“Everything at home is incredible despite lots of financial stress which would be expected considering I am in school. My issue is that in my daily life, and branching into school/lab work, I have trouble fulfilling obligations which is starting to become a problem. Basically I put things off continuously until it reaches the point where I’ve either missed a deadline or it upsets someone. I have very high expectations for myself and I literally go to sleep every night telling myself that tomorrow is going to be that fresh start that I need and I’m going to tackle everything with a lot of energy. But then I fail day after day and that confidence in overcoming this by myself is starting to fade. Basically I don’t feel like I’m living anywhere near my full potential and it's frustrating."

Figure 7. The first thing Scott can do to help his situation is to forgive himself.

Advice to Scott

  1. Scott needs to break the procrastination cycle by forgiving himself. He should count backwards from five - a bias to action technique - and forgive himself for upsetting people, falling behind and not working to his full potential. By recognising that his stress about his finances is contributing to his procrastination he now has the ability to take control.
  2. Scott could create a vision board or a mental image of what his life would look like when all his university stress is behind him and he becomes a professor.
  3. Scott can then use the 5 Second Rule to push himself to work on his university research for short periods at a time.

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

It can be seen that by adopting a bias to action approach, such as Mel Robbins' 5 Second Rule, productivity can be dramatically increased and procrastination significant reduced. By taking action and focusing, productivity can be improved by managing distractions and developing a strong morning routine where you can focus on what is really important. By adopting a bias to action approach and forgiving yourself, by imagining the "future you" and by just getting started, you will find that you procrastinate less which, in turn, will increase your productivity. 5,4,3,2,1 let's go!

Take home message
  • A bias to action means that you psychically take action in a given situation.
  • Mel Robbins' 5 Second Rule is an example of a bias to action technique.
  • The adoption of a bias to action can increase productivity by enabling you to manage your distractions and establish a productive morning routine.
  • By forgiving yourself, imagining a "future you" and just getting started, a bias to action approach can reduce procrastination.

See Also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

American Psychology Association. (2010). Psychology of Procrastination: Why People Put Off Important Tasks Until the Last Minute. Retrieved from

Bruch, H. & Ghosal S. (2004). A Bias for Action. Retrieved from

Kolowich, L. (2017). The One Cognitive Bias That Could Be Derailing Your Productivity [Blog post]. Retrieved from

Lee, C. (2011). Good Idea. Now What? How to Move Ideas to Execution. New Jersey: Wiley Publishing.

Pennington, R. (2017). A Sense of Urgency and Bias for Action [Blog post]. Retrieved from

Press, C.,Berlot, E., Bird, G., & Ivry, R. (2014). Moving Time: The Influence of Action and Duration Perception. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 143, 1787-1793.
doi: 10.1037/a0037650

Pychyl, T. (2011). Solving the Procrastination Puzzle: A Concise Guide to Strategies for Change. New York: Penguin Group.

Robbins, M. (2017). The 5 Second Rule: Transform Your Life, Work, and Confidence with Everyday Courage. United States of America: Savio Republic.

Robbins, M. (2017). Why The 5 Second Rule Works: The Science Explained. Retrieved from

Rozental, A., & Carlbring, P. (2014). Understanding and Treating Procrastination: A Review of a Common Self-Regulatory Failure. Psychology, 5, 1488-1502.
doi: 10.4236/psych.2014.513160

Wouter, K., McGuire, J., Rosen, Z., & Botvinick, M. (2010). Decision Making and the Avoidance of Cognitive Demand. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 139, 665-682. doi: 10.1037/a0020198

External Links[edit | edit source]