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Unlocking the Power of the Three-Second Rule for a Joyful Workplace

Unlocking the Power of the Three-Second Rule for a Joyful Workplace

Years ago, I went to a concert where the musician, Greg Alan Isakov, paired his folk guitar with the symphony orchestra. The music was compelling, but there was something else that moved me that I couldn’t figure out.

  • Ande Noktes

  • June 2, 2023

Days later it hit me—I enjoyed the music, but what I loved more, what really sang to me, was watching the artist doing what he loved and manifesting his potential in the world. That’s when my purpose crystallized for me. I live for human potential—it’s why I started schools, it’s why I support ambitious entrepreneurs, it’s why I parent the way I do and love the way I do and why I am. 

If you had asked me before the concert, I would have told you that my purpose, my why, was making sure that everyone had opportunities to learn and grow. I would have shared stories about how many parents had come up to me saying that they feel like they have their child back after just a few weeks at the school, or how teachers told me every year after orientation that they feel like they finally have a home where they can do what they love and make a difference for their students. I would have shared all of those stories to make sense of it, because I didn’t yet have my purpose articulated in my own mind. 

The Three-Second Rule

As early as the 1950s, psychologists were beginning to understand the challenges of making decisions when our brains could only access limited amounts of information at a time. In legendary studies that have now become ingrained in pop psychology lore, researchers uncovered that the number seven was a magical one for memory. It represented the number of items we could hold in memory at a time—numbers, letters, single-syllable words. This capacity of our brains to hold information that we can use in the moment to perform a task is called working memory. 

As psychologists began to delve into the capabilities and nuances of working memory, they discovered that it isn’t just seven pieces of information that your brain can hold, it’s really seven chunks of information. For example, “courage” is one word, but two syllables and seven letters. When we are asked to remember the word “courage,” we don’t use up all of our working memory by thinking of the seven letters as discreet and unrelated bits of information. Instead, our minds chunk the letters together and store them as one. That’s why you can have peanut butter, coconut milk, coffee creamer, cat food, and paper clips all on your shopping list and manage to make it out of the store with everything, even if you didn’t write it down. 

Working memory isn’t just for shopping lists, though. We use working memory almost every time we make a decision. One kind of working memory is echoic memory, which is just what it sounds like: an “echo” of things you’ve heard that stick in your mind. Echoic memory is really fascinating because it can be used to hack all kinds of behaviors and decisions. In business, researchers have found that pithy phrases that you can say in three seconds or less “stick” in a different way than shopping lists: echoic memory jumps in and echoes back these phrases when we make decisions. 

Using the Three-Second Rule as a Leader

So what does this mean for work, for your business, for leading a rock star team? Sum up your why, or your business’s why, in a phrase that echoic memory can handle—one that takes three seconds or less to say out loud. At my last school, this was where no one waits to learn. Everyone knew they should make decisions with this “rule”—a teacher with a student moving faster or slower than others in the class can ask for support, because no one waits to learn. A student in third grade who needs algebra class—yes, because no one waits to learn. A student in third grade who needs extra help with reading because of dyslexia—yes, because no one waits. Parent education? Of course, every week, because no one waits to learn. And teachers’ professional development? Yes, always. Because 

I’m sure other three-second rules come to mind. Nike’s Just do it. Apple’s Think Different. Disney’s Happiest Place on Earth. As their “rules” rolled out, the employees of these companies knew what was expected of them, what culture and vision they were tasked with creating with their every interaction and decision. 

A few tips on uncovering your organization’s why:

  • Ask people for stories about wins—why were they celebrated more than other achievements? 
  • If something moves you or your team, ask why—what was it about that experience that was more emotional than other experiences?
  • Ask yourself and your team what the company stands for. What is its promise to customers? To employees? 

Collect these stories, anecdotes, promises, experiences and see if there are any themes or categories that emerge. Use those themes as the basis for brainstorming your three-second rule. Spending some time distilling your why into a three-second rule empowers your team to own the culture and can give meaning and purpose to a workplace. 

Be brave. Try it!

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