There could not be a better time to write this article. Do you want to know what I am doing? I am staring at a blank page. Here is what I should do: working on a freelance assignment for a client. I am freelancing full-time for more than four months now. It was in August 2019 when I quit my “safe” agency job in Berlin and left my whole life behind. With a handful of clients from previous jobs, two books on Amazon and a sealed deal with a renowned German publishing house I was able to provide for myself. After all those years, my sleepless nights and part-time freelancing assignments paid off. First of all, I quit my apartment lease (“Andrea, how can you leave THIS apartment? Are you crazy?”). I shipped all my belongings to a storage container somewhere near Berlin (“Are you sure they won’t damage or steal anything?”) and I started to work as a freelance copy writer and author (“What? Do you really think you are ready for that?”).
My little family – meaning my boyfriend, my dog, and myself – started a road trip throughout Denmark, Germany, Italy, Switzerland and Austria. Each morning I would set an alarm at 7 a.m. and work on my assignments at some random Airbnb desk. Most of the time, I was able to finish before 2 p.m. and I could conquer the world… or at least a picturesque vineyard in Tuscany. My dog was jumping into Lake Como and we strolled through amazing cities such as Rome and Trier. We went hiking in the Swiss mountains and played with our dog in Southern Tirol’s winter wonderland. We saw the beauty of untouched nature on this beautiful continent – even in Germany. I realized that I traveled so much in my life, but it took me 30 years to recognize the beauty of my own country. The whole time it was right at my doorstep. I just had to open my eyes.
Cinque Terre, Italy
Cinque Terre, Italy
And here comes the trouble…
However, it did not matter in which country we were: the constant struggle of getting work done was my trusted companion. My inner monologue often went like this in the morning: Get up and get your shit done. Force yourself, start now and get in the flow. You have to work because you have to make money. This is an important client. Hello, earth to Andrea?!? - The funny thing is that I knew exactly what had to be done. I knew how to get there, and my brain knew all the steps: do the research - set up a text structure - gather information for each chapter - get an overdose of caffeine - play my MacBook keyboard like a piano. I knew how to get there. I just didn’t do it.
I noticed that every now and then there was a time window when I actually got up and finished everything way too early. It happened in Denmark, Italy, Switzerland... and I was wondering what this tiny spark was about. There was still some resistance, but I could magically overcome the voice in my head, saying “Nooo, this is too hard”, “It’s too early”, “I could fail”, “I am too tired”, “I don’t trust this”, “I cannot control the outcome”, “How uncomfortable, no, no, no, please…”. Does this sound familiar to you?
When you are on the edge of doing something
As a freelancer, I am confronted with a fear that I got to know in my first corporate job: sometimes a shitty task has to be done. Now? Now! Okay… hmm! I really don’t feel like doing it, but somehow it has to be done. Hmmm…. Jesus Christ, fine, I’ll do it!!! -- In my corporate lifetime, I would go to my desk and force myself to tackle the job with pain and resistance. Ouch! When the task was really hurting me inside, I suddenly understood all these women who dreamed of having babies because they “needed a break”.
And honestly, nowadays I question this kind of corporate work environment because nobody should be forced to do something that feels kind of pointless, dumb, wrong or empty. You should at least feel attached to the energy that this task may produce some day in the future. I wish somebody had told me this when I worked for Amazon’s headquarter in Munich a couple of years ago – but don’t cry over spilled milk. It has been a while, I grew up and I quit. Fine. I left the corporate environment behind me… perfect… but wait, now there is this new dilemma!
The problem is that nowadays nobody forces me to do my work. I am my own boss. I love it and I struggle with it. I am responsible for my insurance, my pension fund and my assignments. There is no supervisor who puts me under time pressure nor an Amazon colleague who gives me a bad performance review. My teeny-tiny bosses pop up on WhatsApp, Slack and Google Mail, saying: “Andrea, it would be great if we can have the copy before 11 am”. Well, sure! I mean, I love writing and I love all sorts of text. I even landed my first editorial job with the words: “Let me write something, anything, and I am super happy” (who knew that I would end up writing product descriptions!?) Now I have finally freed myself from corporate slavery, but the problem is that I cannot motivate myself 24/7. During my Europe trip I was confronted with an issue that is much bigger than a freelancer's time management: it is about getting stuff done.
Wherever we were staying, I would eventually get over my I-cannot-do-this-attitude by simply sitting down and doing it. Phew, where did that motivation come from? I realized that there are little cracking moments when you are on the edge of doing something – such as making an important phone call, speaking up in a meeting, realizing a business idea, building a portfolio website, fixing a problem with your spouse, clean out your overflowing closet – but you simply won’t do it. You know exactly what do to, but you cannot take any action. You know that it is good for your health, for your relationship, for your career, or for your personal development. However, you simply don’t do it.
I don’t know how often YOU are in this ungrateful mess, but I am one of the regular victims. Fortunately, I found a way to overcome the crucial point. Let me tell you how it goes.
Five second rule: How I discovered Mel Robbins
When we arrived in Vienna in early January, the problem was still there – until a couple of days ago. When that little black beast approached me again, my gut feeling told me to search YouTube for “self-motivation”. I typed in the words and clicked on a random video by US author Mel Robbins. Suddenly, I was one hundred percent awake because I recognized myself in her speech. That woman knew exactly what to do to improve her situation, but she simply did not do it. Yes, thank you! I am not the only one! Robbins explained a brain hack that I unintentionally used during the last few years, and she called it the “five second rule”.
Rodengo, South Tyrol
Robbins said that the mind is designed to magnify risk and to avoid everything that is unsafe, unknown or uncomfortable (such as getting out of bed when it is cold and dark). Most importantly, she said that you are never going to feel like doing something that is uncomfortable. This simple fact was an important realization for me: there will never be a fairy who blows excitement into my heart and magically makes me finish a task. Nobody is coming to help me. I am all alone here. I have to get my shit done. When my boyfriend is having a beer at 12 p.m. and enjoys the Italian landscape, I have to sit down in the kitchen and finish my assignment. Surely, I felt like joining him. It was very uncomfortable to open my laptop.
However, it gets much easier with Mel Robbins’ five second rule. It’s very simple: from the moment you realize that you have to do/act/say/change/approach/quit a project, you have five seconds until your mind will make up all kinds of excuses. Wait more than five seconds and they’ll stream in your consciousness like waterfalls. You have a maximum of five seconds until your brain convinces you to avoid unknown situations, risks and possible danger. That is why you have to act before the system in your head can stop you. Count from five backwards and get up before your nagging instincts come alive.
Robbins gives an example that everyone can relate to. When the alarm rings in the morning, she used to hit the snooze button for months over again and over again. One morning, she “pretended that NASA was there” and counted backwards from five to one. She went like “five, four, three, two, one” – and then she got up. This struck me because there was clearly no time for self-manipulation. No discussion needed. It was done. Mel Gibson stood in her dark, cold room and was in total control.
Try it yourself and count backwards (loud!) before approaching a difficult task. The more often you do it, the easier it gets. You replace old behavior patterns with new ones. The five second ritual is your tool to get there: five, four, three, two, one – and up!
How you can motivate yourself to do anything
Most of the time, we intentionally know what to do. We just cannot bring ourselves to actually doing it. Let me give you an example: a dear friend from Berlin left me a voice message recently. She said that she felt trapped in her career. In fact, she knew that she had to change her situation due to psychosomatic symptoms. Her body was telling her to slow down. My friend knew that she was on the wrong path and that it was time to leave the company. After hearing her message, I hoped that she would actually act on it and really slow down. Of course, I told her to quit that nerve-wracking job. With her experience she could easily find a position that is less stressful. She said she would admire me for just doing stuff, like quitting jobs or driving through Europe. I have to admit that it is risky after all.
I thought about her words for a while. Then I realized that all my major decisions after 25 came in short cracking moments. In these seconds I felt that I had to do, say, change, implement, start or write something. I trained myself to trust my decisions and to follow them as quick as possible. I learned that I have to be vulnerable and intuitive to follow my path. Basically, I went ahead and did what felt right to me. People around me loved and praised me or they said horrible things about me. I trained myself not to care so that my decisions could evolve from within.
For example, I decided to start my first book within a few seconds. It was done. I started with the first page in the most unsuitable situation: after a fight with my boyfriend. My whole body was trembling. I felt the resistance, but I did it anyway. I used the five second rule without even knowing it. Most of the time, I would tell my friends about my plans and projects. Once an idea was made and spoked out loud, I had no option of pulling back (side note: I haven’t always been this secure. Before 25 I would wrack my brain over the smallest details and regularly analyzed tragedies that never happened. I can guarantee you that a lot of trial and error shaped this now very useful characteristic.)
Let me summarize my thoughts: you can instrumentalize your mind and get your stuff done, no matter what it is. You can observe your boyfriend having a beer in the sunlight and open your damn laptop to be productive for the next five hours. You can get shit done. Even if you have a long-term goal and feel the sparkle right now, you can use that fire. Just count five seconds backwards and launch the rocket: grab your phone (now!) and tell a good friend about your idea. Go through your email contacts and approach people that could help you. Update your CV. Make that phone call. Get an admission form. Schedule a meeting with your supervisor. Open a word document and draft your resignation letter. When the next project comes to your mind, just count backwards and pretend NASA is there. 5…4…3…2….1. It is time now, and you know exactly what to do.
Denmark, random car stop
Teutoburger Wald, Germany
Want to read more? You can find inspiration about minimalism and a lighter life in my book Perlen statt Plunder (English version here).