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 required. It is that threshold that is holding us back.

The 20-second rule takes care of that. It makes initiating (or breaking) a habit as pain-free as possible.

Learn about the mechanics of the 20-second rule and how you can apply it to different areas of your life.

What Is the 20-Second Rule?

The 20-second rule states that it shouldn’t take longer than 20 seconds to get started with an important habit. For example, if you want to start a reading habit and typically read in bed, then you should place your book right next to you on top of 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 prevent 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 cheap guitar stand and placed the 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 previously 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 how you can use 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 various paleo delivery services that are now available in most cities. This way, you eliminate all resistance — no grocery shopping, no cooking. The activation energy to eating healthy becomes minimal.

Working Out

If you want to condition yourself to go to the gym first thing in the morning, place your packed workout bag right in front of your front door. To be able to leave the house, you will literally have to pick it up. Once you are carrying it, 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. You will be less likely to resist going there.

Hydration

Many people struggle with staying hydrated. Here, too, the 20-second rule can help. Just always 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

In the same vein, put your medication or your vitamins next to your bed, so you take them first thing in the morning.

Studying

If you are studying for a big exam, leave your textbooks open on your desk. You can start as soon as you sit down; no getting up, getting your textbooks, opening them in the right place, etc.

Reading

In case you want to establish a reading habit, put your Kindle right next to your bed or next to the couch (or wherever else you like to read). Have the book you are currently reading already open at the right position. If you need glasses for reading, 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 in yet another room. Pull the wall plug of your TV. Move your couch, so that it is not facing the TV anymore. Put a large towel over the TV screen.

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 have to plug in the TV, move the couch, and remove the towel.

Facing this prospect, you will think about turning on the TV. What used to be a form of mindless consumption has now become a chore.

Of course, you can 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 snacking, throw all snack foods and sweets away. Next time you get the cravings, you will have to go to the store first. That’s a lot of hassle to get some Twinkies. Chances are you will just stay at home.

If you are not ready to throw away the junk food, you could ask your neighbor to store it for you. Now, every time you want some sweets, 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 shame. Your neighbor is now a spectator to your lack of impulse control. This will further make it difficult for you 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 even in the trunk of your car. This way, you first have to get up, get a bottle, put it in the fridge, and wait for it to chill.

Or, you could dispose of whatever liquor you have currently at home. This way, you would have to drive to the store first, before you can have a glass (same ideas as with the sweets).

Quitting Social Media

Getting over your social media addiction is hard. That’s because the activation energy required to indulge in this bad habit is so low. You just have to reach for your phone and tap on the Instagram or the TikTok icon. After that, it is one quick dopamine hit after another. Of course, 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, easy 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 right after waking up. You will at least reduce your social media time somewhat by not engaging with it first thing in the morning.

The next, more radical step is to delete all the apps from your phone. In conjunction, you should get a browser blocker, both for the browser on your phone and the browser on your desktop. Because even if you can’t use the apps anymore, you can still log in via the web interface. The browser plugin will take care of this.

But even this is not enough yet for most people. They can still download whatever app they previously deleted and be online again in a few minutes. To prevent that, I recommend storing your various social media passwords in a secure place, but out of your reach. For example, you could give them to a trusted friend for safekeeping.

Now, when you install the apps again, you at least won’t right away have all your contacts in place. You will have to add them all manually again. This will create further resistance.

All of these are pretty good, but they are not perfect. With some effort, you can still get around them. And since our social media addiction is so deeply ingrained, at some point you probably will.

But you can take it even further (and most people should). 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, no social media, no browsing.

For this to work, leave your smartphone with a trusted friend. Tell them to not give it back to you for two weeks, no matter what excuses you come up with. Now, you are cut off from social media. Of course, you could still go to the store and buy a new smartphone, but you are looking at a couple of hundred bucks (at least), just to check your DMs. Chances are, you will refrain from that.

Quitting Smoking

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

For example, move into an apartment building where smoking is strictly prohibited. There should be severe monetary penalties in place in case you smoke. They should even be able to kick you out of the apartment if you do. Best yet, there should be a sprinkler in your room. Also, make sure there is no balcony that you can use to smoke.

Now, make a point to move to the top floor of your building, so it takes you longer to get down. If you live on the 40th floor in New York and the elevator stops every couple of floors, every trip up and down becomes excruciating. Alternatively, move to the top floor of a non-smoking building that has no elevator. That is the best one.

Why Does the 20-Second Rule Work?

If you implement the 20-second rule in different areas of your life, you will notice tremendous positive changes. I am usually not a big fan of the word “hack” that is constantly being thrown around in the productivity world. But in all fairness, the 20-second rule comes close.

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

The reason is willpower.

Willpower is when you use your rational mind to overcome your emotional and/or physical laziness. Let’s you want to lose weight. So, even though, you dislike working out, you schlepp yourself to gym and get on a treadmill. 

The problem is that willpower is a very limited resource. We only get a certain amount of the stuff each day. Once that fuel is used up, you are done. You start making bad decisions again like ordering pizza and watching Netflix.

However, there is something particular about willpower. It is primarily required in the beginning. 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 at some point or another. For example, maybe you didn’t feel like working on a certain project one day. But once you made it over the initial hurdle, you got caught up in the work. Before you knew it, two hours had passed and you had gotten a significant chunk of work done.

The 20-second rule accounts for this dynamic. It focuses on reducing the required activation energy. By bringing the willpower cost down as much as possible, you get to make more progress than usual in various areas of your life. Once you get going, the momentum will carry you along, with little cost to your willpower reservoir. The result — your productivity will skyrocket.

Best Practices

There are several best practices you should be aware of to get the most out of the 20-second rule.

1. Repeatedly Set the Stage

Let’s say you are trying to lose weight and are employing the 20-second rule. To increase the activation energy, you throw away all the sweets that you have lying around at home. This way, you now have to drive to the store first to get your sugar fix.

This works pretty well. The next three times you feel like nibbling there is nothing around to nibble on. The urge passes. But on the fourth time, you give in. You get in the car and drive to Kroger to get a bunch of different sweets — M&M’s, Twinkies, the whole shebang. And then you pig out.

It’s not ideal, but it happens. Still, overall, progress was made. Only one out of four times did you indulge. But to keep that positive trend going, you must now do the same thing as before — you must set the stage again. Right after your piggery, when you are still stuffed, you take all the leftovers and throw them away.

It has to happen right there and then. If you just store these leftovers away, you will now be tempted to eat them later. For the 20-second rule to work, you must keep the activation energy consistently high.

2. Combine Several Hassles

When you want to break a bad habit, always make sure to combine several artificial 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 for them. Now, you also need to get the small ladder from the closet first to get to the batteries. The more of these hassles that you combine, the less likely you will give into temptation.

3. Pair Bad and Good Habits

When you try to break a bad habit using the 20-second rule, you should combine it with installing a good habit. Otherwise, you will end up replacing one bad habit with another bad habit.

An example. 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 doom scroll through Instagram.

The right thing to do would be to have your Kindle close so that you just have to reach for it. And ideally, there should only be titles on there that spark growth. Think literary classics and business books instead of the newest John Grisham.

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

A large part of our lives now take place online, both when it comes to work and play. That means we must think about how to apply the 20-second rule in this context. Here are a few ideas:

Reduce clicks. To make it more likely, you work on an important project, 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 right there in your bookmark toolbar.

Reduce the number of choices. This principle is connected to the previous one. If you just place all documents that you regularly use on your desktop, you have now defeated the purpose. By cluttering your desktop with a million choices, you have now increased activation energy again. Understand — if a document gets preferred treatment depends on the willpower cost associated with it. If the willpower cost is high, make the way to get there as short as possible. If it’s just a document that you open all the time but that doesn’t cost you much, place it inside your regular folder hierarchy.

Unify materials. Oftentimes, when we are digitally procrastinating with an important project, it is because the project materials are spread all over the place. There is an email in your inbox that is relevant. Then there is a document on your hard drive that you need to consider. On top of that, you have a couple of files in your Google Drive that you also need to look at. This will increase the activation energy manifold; you will not touch the project. To overcome this, bring all of these different components together in one place, e.g., in one central notion file. Then create a shortcut to that file, so you can access it with one click and start working.

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