The Three-Second Rule

Decades ago, in my thirties, I was reading Stephen Covey’s book The Seven Habits for Highly Effective People (who wasn’t), when I stumbled upon an important concept embedded in the description of one of his seven practices. I actually stopped mid-paragraph to read it again and again.

I’ve never forgotten this little idea, although, I found the practice of which almost impossible to execute. Don’t be discouraged, I’m slow but steady.

He said our life is defined in the seconds between stimulus and response, meaning, what we do in response to an impetus is how we create our future.

So all you millennial manifesters, it’s not thoughts that invoke a future, it’s your actions in response to those thoughts.

For example, when something or someone pisses you off, you have like three seconds to decide how you will respond. You can have a physical reaction to the person that has ignited your anger, you can lose your temper by cussing, yelling, and assaulting your victim verbally, or you step back, take a breath and consider a more appropriate response, and if you’re feeling magnanimous, one that benefits both you and the antagonizer.

I’ve done all three but I’m gaining on the more appropriate response as I age.

Road rage is a great example of how we exploit those three seconds to retaliate with the idiot who just cut us off. I believe I failed the three-second rule miserably less than a week ago. The thing is I can take a breath, reholster my wrath, stop signing through the window, slow the hell down, and put some distance between me and the nitwit causing all the ruckus.

In three seconds we can radically change our lives and the lives of those around us by redirecting our thoughts, recalibrating our attitude, and exhibiting some control over our response. It’s not easy and I’ll never be a hundred percent, but as if a synchronized swimmer, I improve with practice.

This is an equal opportunity credo, because it applies when something good happens too, maybe even more so.

For example, when good fortune visits a stranger, friend, or family member but you are unable to feel the joy because you are so caught up in your anger over how it affects you, how it will change the relationship, or how those feelings of jealousy, insecurity, resentment, and spite bubble up when our envy is ignited.

We all have those same three seconds that define not only who we are but can obliterate our ability to rejoice over the fortuity of others and sadly this influences the experience of those who happened to be caught up in the vortex of our diminished response.

The impetus to do better is when I consider how my loved ones will remember me, this drives my intentions as if a bat out of hell because I want to leave behind not only a more sanguine picture of myself but an example of living well for my children and grandchildren. As Thich Nhat Hanh says our own lives are the instruments with which we experiment with truth.

Hey, better late than never!

As the matriarch of a large family, I’m at the top of the organizational chart so to speak, I set the example for my constituents (Larry’s listed as my CFO and handyman). There is a trickle-down effect in families and organizations, those listed at the top of the chart decide what will, and will not be tolerated. If I want my clan to be generous, kind, and loving then I have to lead by example, check my ego at the door, or it’s all hogwash, and everyone knows it.

When I discovered the significance of reclaiming those three seconds for myself it was like taking back my own power. I’m no longer (most of the time, okay, occasionally) at the mercy of irrational emotions as if the tail wagging the dog. I know I make decisions in the blink of an eye, we all do, and recognizing we have the ability to create a more profound future by simply taking a deep breath, and allowing our more sublime nature to reign is a game-changer. As Glinda, the good witch, says to Dorothy, “You had the power all along, my dear.”

I utilized this technique just the other day when my husband said, “I signed us up for a bicycle ride through Europe but the event is full so they put us on a waitlist.”

I look up from my computer, glance over the brim of my glasses to see if this is actually my husband addressing me, and give myself a second to consider how a non-bicycle person would respond. I have the opportunity to ask more questions, demand equality when vacation planning, condemn his ingenuity or come up with my own idea for an exciting new adventure. All paths lead to a different future. I know, take the one less traveled, it makes all the difference.

I said, “tell me more.”

He goes on to enthusiastically explain that this is actually a river cruise in Europe, each day when you arrive at port you exit the boat with a tandem bike and the two of us head off on a prearranged excursion with options for beginner, intermediate, or advanced riders. Lunch is provided and when you complete your ride, the bike is stored for you on the ship, and you return to the pleasures of a river cruise.

Glad I asked.

Recently my friend Nancy Slomin Aronie took this radical concept to a whole new level. She wedded it with our current reality, our inherent nature, and ultimately our freedom.

Nancy makes this holy grail available to anyone with potent examples, inherently life-changing ideas, as she gently leads us to a notion of freedom that borders on our intrinsic purpose as prescribed by God. She says we have the ability to procure a life not imprisoned by our innate biases, our formative experiences, our rush to judgment, or our alienating opinions, but informed by the inherent joy that surrounds us.

Holy Moly.

In a recent article, Let Your Opinions Go (full article linked here), she said, “Freedom is the time between your perception and your opinion.” She started to notice how her initial joy to a stimulus was held hostage by her overarching opinions that sabotaged her preliminary delight.

It’s as if two people were observing the same beautiful sunset but instead of enjoying the marvelous kaleidoscope of color dancing before their eyes, one of the participants was focused on a dilapidated dock that was maring the view. She couldn’t get past it and in the meantime, she missed the beauty of a spectacular sunset, the intimacy of a shared experience, and quite possibly she polluted the moment for the other person.

“I started to make a practice of noticing how often I would be experiencing something interesting or pleasurable and suddenly stop the curiosity or pleasure and slip into some kind of weird judgment. Once I started catching myself, I made a new practice of switching back into the original feeling of joy before I got into the negativity.” ~ Nancy Slomin Aronie

I do this all the time without realizing I’m actually convicted by opinions that sabotage my joy. I’m sort of an introvert and often allow my desire for time alone to conflict with my desire to gather and celebrate with others. For me, socializing with large groups is exhausting, sometimes I find myself sitting alone observing how others are easily conversing with each other, enjoying the camaraderie, actually feeling energized by these encounters.

I’m confounded by large gatherings and I allow my appreciation, joy, pleasure in communing with others to be diminished by my own thoughts. I’ve decided on three things that can enhance my enjoyment of socializing. First, set a time limit for the event that doesn’t terrify me, second, don’t dampen my anxiety with excessive alcohol, and thirdly, instead of allowing every conversation to apprehend me, try and engage in one on one conversations that ground me.

Honestly, redirecting the chatter in my head is imperative, instead of thinking when can I go home and put on my sweats, I can focus my thoughts on talking with people of interest, how I might add to the conversation, elevate discussions instead of withdrawing. None of this comes naturally to me.

“But it was hard to keep this practice up. I had to ask myself, Do I really have an opinion about absolutely everything? And the answer was yes. So if freedom is the time between my perception and my opinion, it turns out I’m a prisoner of my preconceived notions. In a flash I assume, I react, and I jump to conclusions that have nothing to do with factual information.” ~ Nancy Slomin Aronie

I’m not a Black Friday fan. I never have been. And I would take bets that I never will be but that doesn’t mean it’s not a special tradition for many and something anticipated with great joy and excitement, even hopefulness for thousands of eager shoppers.

I’ve been very judgy about Black Friday participants in the past, today I say, “You do you,” and “I share in your joy of searching out and claiming the best deals in town.”

For me, the idea of fighting crowds of energized shoppers for limited supplies of trending items in stores and malls randomly attacked by looters. No thank you. I’ll be home, sipping coffee, watching sappy Christmas movies, reading Nancy Solmin Aronie’s new book. Memoir as Medicine: The Healing Power of Writing Your Messy, Imperfect, Unruly (but Gorgeously Yours) Life Story. Pre-order here.

Nancy nails it when she says, “Little kids don’t judge. They’re in awe of everything! They’re wide-eyed and completely in the moment, with no stories attached, no emotional baggage. They’re innocent. I want my innocence back.” Amen sister.

Heaven has been described as available to those who change and become like little children, meaning this is available to us now, heaven on earth so to speak. So I say, this Christmas season give yourself the gift of three seconds, reclaim your joy, you had the power all along, my dear.


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