5139 NE 94th Ave., Ste C, Vancouver, WA 98662 info@projectpatch.org 360.690.8495

The Power of a Three-Second Pause

Three seconds doesn’t seem like too long.   Yet, there are certain times that it seems like an eternity.  I’ve never ridden a bull, but imagine those 3 to 8 seconds feel like an eternity.  Tyler Bradt set a record when he kayaked off of Palouse Falls, which is 189 ft.  It took him about 3.7 seconds to make that fall, but that fall felt short compared to the length of time it took to escape the undertow below the falls.

Why am I talking about three seconds?  Because three seconds can be all it takes for you to make better decisions, especially when you are being asked to do something and you aren’t sure how to respond.

I recently read, Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown.  The book specifically talks about how easy it is for us to get over committed, try to do too much, and live lives which are driven by pleasing other people at the expense of living out our calling.  He recommends taking three seconds to think before responding when someone asks you to do something.   Three seconds typically results in three things:

  1. You decide that it is a great opportunity and you figure out how you can take advantage of it.
  2. You decide it may be a good opportunity, but you have better options that won’t be possible if you say ‘yes’, and so you say ‘no’.
  3. The person who is asking you is so insecure with silence that they withdraw their request.

What is the power of three seconds?  Actually, three is more of a minimum.  It really doesn’t give you enough time to make a decision, but it does one thing really well.  It helps move the decision from the limbic part of the brain (impulsive memory, emotion,  and habit part of our brain) and moves it toward the frontal lobe, which powers cause-and-effect thinking.

This is a big deal.  When our limbic system is in charge, we react rather than act.  This system is great because it allows us to drive and listen to the radio, chew gum and walk, play a guitar and sing.  It allows us to react in helpful ways.  It also jumps into action and protects us when we are in perceived danger.  The problem is that our limbic system also makes bad connections and we react in negative ways, too.  For example, teens sometimes react really negatively to a new teacher because that teacher reminds them of someone who hurt them; or in the case of others, the subject (math, reading, writing) carries some negative emotions.  The teen goes into self-protective mode and pushes away someone who is really trying to help them.

Three seconds, especially if you are focused on counting slowly, provides enough time for the limbic system  to panic, react, and in a sense, hand off the problem to the thinking brain.

Waiting three seconds can keep us parents from doing and saying things that we regret.  All of our discipline that we do as parents should wait at least three seconds to make sure we respond with wisdom rather than react in a fit of anger, fear, or panic.

Our kids also need to be taught how to wait for three seconds when they are making decisions.  Actually, I don’t have any science to back this up, but maybe they should count a bit higher since their limbic system is much more dominant than their frontal lobe.  His frontal lobe needs all the help it can get.

This skill, like the majority of things our kids learn, is taught and caught rather than natural.  Model it for them and talk about why you paused when someone asked whether you could help with something at church.  Let them know when you are angry that you need a few seconds or minutes to make sure you are responding using your whole brain rather than just how you feel like reacting.

Also, take time to affirm your kids when you see them pausing before committing to a request or responding to a situation.

[reminder]Have you experienced the power of waiting three seconds?  How do you remind yourself to count when you want to be responding?[/reminder]


Listen to our 1-minute Podcast based on this blog post.

Can you help get the word out about our Podcast?

  1. Subscribe at iTunes by following this link.
  2. Rate the podcast on iTunes.


One Comment on “The Power of a Three-Second Pause

  1. This is excellent information, especially as you talk about the limbic system of the brain. This is especially relevant to teenagers and young adults, whose brains are largely controlled by an especially active and developing limbic system. When parents get frustrated (and need to take 3 seconds to pause) because they are frustrated with teens who are reacting with emotions instead of acting on logic (which is due to an underdeveloped prefrontal cortex), we often see conflict! Thanks for the article! It is wonderful to see more people recognizing the brain and how it relates to everyday behaviors.