How To Build Better Habits With the 20-Second Rule

We often struggle with building the right habits. The problem is the initial activation energy. It is this threshold that is holding us back.

The 20-second rule takes care of that. It makes habit-building as pain-free as possible.

Learn about the mechanics of the 20-second rule, pitfalls to watch out for, and best practices for implementing it.

What Is the 20-Second Rule?

The 20-second rule says it shouldn’t take you longer than 20 seconds to initiate a habit. For example, if you want to build a reading habit and typically read in bed, then you should place your book on your nightstand. This way, you just have to reach for it. The activation energy will be minimal.

Vice versa, if you want to break a bad habit, you should increase the activation energy. For example, if you want to watch less TV, remove the batteries from your remote control and place them in the next room. Now you have to get up, walk to another part of the house, get the batteries, and put them back in the remote control before you can turn on the TV. In many instances, this will stop you from doing the bad habit. It will be too much of a hassle.

The term “20-second rule” was coined by researcher Shawn Achor in his book The Happiness Advantage. In one chapter, Achor talks about how he couldn’t bring himself to practice the guitar regularly. To overcome this, he bought a guitar stand and placed his guitar in the middle of his apartment. This way, he didn’t have to get up and walk to the cabinet where the guitar was normally stored — he just had to reach for it. The result — during the next 21 days, he didn’t miss a single practice session.

Ideas for Installing Positive Habits

Here are several examples of using the 20-second rule to install positive habits.

Eating Healthy

Order healthy, readymade meals that you just need to warm up. For example, order from one of the paleo delivery services that are now available in many cities. This way, you eliminate all friction — no grocery shopping, no cooking, and no doing the dishes.

Working Out

If you want to bring yourself to go to the gym first thing in the morning, place your workout bag in front of your front door. To leave the house, you will have to pick it up. Once you are carrying your bag, you will most likely end up at the gym.

You can take this even further. You can move into an apartment that is right next to a gym or in the same building as a gym. This way, there is no commute. It means even less friction.


Many people struggle with staying hydrated. Here, too, the 20-second rule can help. Just keep a water bottle next to your desk and your bed. This way, you just have to reach for it. No getting up, walking to the kitchen, getting a glass, opening the fridge, etc.

Taking Your Pills

Put any medication or your vitamins next to your bed, so you can take them first thing in the morning.


If you are studying for a big exam, leave your textbooks open on your desk. This way, you can start reading as soon as you sit down. No getting up, getting your books, opening them, etc.


If you want to establish a reading habit, put your Kindle right next to your bed or next to the couch (or wherever you typically read). Have the book you are currently reading as your start screen. If you need reading glasses, make sure to place them right next to your Kindle.

Ideas for Breaking Bad Habits

Here is how to use the 20-second rule for breaking bad habits.

Watching TV/Netflix

If you want to cut down on your TV or Netflix time, remove the batteries from your remote control and place them in another room. Put the remote control in yet another room. Pull the wall plug of your TV. Move your couch, so that it is not facing the TV anymore.

Now, to start watching, you have to get up, walk to the next room, and get the batteries. Then you have to walk to another room and get the remote control. Now you have to put the battery inside. Next, you must plug in the TV and move the couch.

Facing this prospect, you will think twice about turning on the TV. What used to be an easy distraction has now become a chore.

Of course, you could also just sell your TV. This would be the most effective option. You cannot use what is not there. However, many people won’t be ready to do so yet. For them, gradually weaning themselves off the TV is the better option.

Losing Weight

If you are prone to junk food, throw away all snacks and sweets. Next time you feel like stuffing yourself, you will have to drive to the store first. That’s a lot of hassle for a box of donuts. Chances are you will just stay at home.

If you are not ready to throw away all your junk food yet, you could ask your neighbor to store it for you. Now, every time you want to indulge, you must get up, get dressed, leave the house, walk over to your neighbor, and knock on their door. On top of that, there is an element of peer pressure. Your neighbor is now a spectator to your lack of impulse control. This will make it even harder to pig out.

Drinking Less

To consume less alcohol, consider the following strategies.

Store your beer outside the fridge and somewhere far away from it, e.g., in the garage or the trunk of your car. This way, you first have to get up, leave the house, get a bottle, put it in the fridge, and wait for it to chill.

Or, you could dispose of whatever liquor you currently have at home. This way, you would have to drive to the store first.

Quitting Social Media

Getting over your social media addiction is hard. That’s because the required activation energy is so low. You just have to reach for your phone and tap on your preferred app. After that, it is one quick dopamine hit after another. No wonder we are all social media junkies at this point.

To overcome this, you must increase the activation energy as much as you can.

The first option is to place your phone in a different room at night before you go to bed. This way, you won’t instinctively reach for it after waking up. That’s a start.

The next, more radical step is to delete all social media apps from your phone. In addition, you should get a blocker plugin, both for the browser on your phone and the browser on your laptop. Because even if you can’t use the apps anymore, you can still log in via the web interface. The blocker plugin will prevent that.

Often, even that is not enough. You can re-install whatever app and be online again in a few minutes. To prevent that, store your social media passwords out of reach. For example, you could give them to a trusted family member or friend for safekeeping. Now, when you re-install the apps, you at least won’t have all your contacts in place. You will have to add them manually. This will create further friction.

All of these are pretty good, but they aren’t perfect. With some effort, you can still get around them. And since our social media addiction is so strong, at some point you probably will. But you can take it even further. Consider getting a phone that has no internet connection. There are various models on the market; just google “dumb phones.” With these phones, you can only make phone calls and send messages — no apps, social media, or browsing.

Quitting Smoking

Smoking is one of the hardest bad habits to break there is. But even here, the 20-second rule can help. Place yourself in an environment so opposed to smoking that it becomes a real pain in the neck.

For example, move into an apartment building where smoking is strictly prohibited. They should be able to kick you out in case you smoke. Make sure there is a sprinkler in your room and no balcony.

Also, move to the top floor, so it takes you longer to get down. If you live on the 28th floor and the elevator stops every couple of floors, every trip up and down becomes excruciating. Best yet, move to the top floor of a non-smoking building with no elevator. That will take care of it.

Why Does the 20-Second Rule Work?

If you implement the 20-second rule in different areas of your life, you will notice huge positive changes. I think the word “hack” gets overused, but the 20-second rule comes close.

Why is that? Why does a simple action like removing the batteries from your remote control make such a big difference?

The reason is willpower — or rather, our lack of it.

Let’s say you want to lose weight. So, you schlepp yourself to the gym and get on a treadmill. That requires willpower.

But willpower is a limited resource. We only get so much of that stuff each day. Once it is used up, you are done. You start making bad decisions like ordering that pizza.

However, willpower is mostly required early on. You need it to jump-start the engine; once the engine gets going, much less energy is required to keep it running.

You have experienced this yourself. For example, maybe you didn’t feel like cleaning your apartment one day. But once you made it over the initial hurdle, you got into the groove. Before you knew it, your apartment was shining.

The 20-second rule utilizes this dynamic. By bringing the initial willpower cost down, you get to ride that momentum.

Best Practices

Use these best practices to get the most out of the 20-second rule.

1. Repeatedly Set the Stage

Let’s say you are trying to lose weight. To increase the activation energy, you throw away all the sweets you have lying around. This way, you now have to drive to the store first.

This works pretty well. The next two times you feel like nibbling, there is nothing around to nibble on. The urge passes. But the third time around, you give in. You get in the car and buy a bag of sweets.

It’s not ideal, but it happens. Still, progress was made. But to keep that positive trend going, you must now do the same thing as before — you must set the stage again. Right after pigging out, take all the leftovers and throw them away.

It has to happen right there and then. If you just store them away, you will be tempted to eat them later.

2. Combine Several Hassles

When you want to break a bad habit, combine several handicaps.

For example, don’t just place the batteries for your remote control in the next room. Also place them on top of your wardrobe, where you cannot reach them. Now, you also need to get the small ladder from the closet first.

The more of these hassles you combine, the less likely you will give into temptation.

3. Pair Bad and Good Habits

When you try to break a bad habit, you should combine it with a good habit. Otherwise, you risk replacing one bad habit with another one.

Let’s say you want to watch less Netflix, so you place the batteries of your remote control in the next room. Laying on your couch, you are now too lazy to get up to get the batteries. Great. But what do you do instead? You reach for your phone and start doom-scrolling.

The right thing would be to have your Kindle close by so that you just have to reach for it. And ideally, there should only be educational, growth-inducing titles on there.

4. Apply the 20-Second Rule to Your Digital Life

Make sure to also apply the 20-second rule to your digital life. Here are a few ideas:

Reduce clicks. To make it more likely you work on important tasks, reduce the number of clicks it takes to get there. This could mean placing a folder or a document on your desktop. Or it could mean bookmarking certain websites or tools in your bookmark toolbar.

Reduce the number of choices. If you place all documents that you regularly use on your desktop, you have now defeated the purpose. You should only create a shortcut if the associated project requires a lot of willpower to get started. Every other item, you place inside your regular folder hierarchy.

Unify materials. When we are digitally procrastinating, it is often because the project materials are spread all over the place — your hard drive, email inbox, cloud space, etc. This will increase the activation energy. Therefore, bring all of the materials together in one place, e.g., in one central notion file. Then create a shortcut to that file.

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