The Surprising Power of 20 Seconds

Estimated reading time: 8 minutes

In what direction do you want your life to go? 20 Seconds can make a surprising difference. Here’s how.

The 20-Second Rule

In his book, The Happiness Advantage, Shawn Achor describes a simple life-hack that he uses to facilitate positive behavioral change: The 20-Second Rule. This principle states that if you make something just 20 seconds easier to do, you’ll be more likely to do it, and if you make something just 20 seconds harder to do, you’ll be less likely to do it.1

The implications for starting good habits and quitting bad habits are worth considering. When working on behavioral change, most people know that they should address the big things: environments that actively encourage bad behavior and other major obstacles to success. The big things are obviously important, but few people think to address the little things. The 20-Second Rule holds that those little things matter too.

If I’m struggling to start a good habit, I should look for ways to make it 20 seconds easier to do. Are there ways I can set up my environment to make the behavior slightly easier? Are there minor obstacles I can remove?

If I’m struggling to quit a bad habit, I should look for ways to make it 20 seconds harder to do. Are there ways I can set up my environment to make the behavior slightly harder? Are the minor obstacles I can deliberately put in the way?

Sometimes these go hand-in-hand. Achor uses the example of trying to simultaneously watch TV less and practice guitar more. He realized that his normal routine after a long day of work was to immediately flop down on the couch. And what was on the couch? The TV remote. And where was his guitar? In the closet. So, not surprisingly, he watched TV more often than he practiced guitar, that is, until he applied The 20-Second Rule.1

One day, before heading to work, Achor took his guitar out of the closet and put it on the couch. 20 seconds easier. Then, he removed the batteries from the remote control and put them elsewhere. 20 seconds harder. When he got home from work and flopped down on the couch, he instinctively grabbed the remote and discovered/remembered that it didn’t work. Glancing to his side, he noticed the guitar, picked it up, and began to play.1 Watching TV had become too much of a hassle, and practicing guitar had become the path of least resistance.

Seemingly trivial adjustments to the way your day-to-day life is set up can make it slightly easier choose what’s best for your future selves.

Everything Counts

The 20-Second Rule is a catchy name, but we don’t need to get hung up on that particular length of time. 20 seconds is really just a guideline. You might find a way to make something good a few minutes easier, and that’s all the better. And if you can only find a way to make it a few seconds easier, that still helps. Every little bit counts.

Make Good Choices Easier

I try to make it as easy as possible to make healthy choices. This means making those choices visually obvious and easy to access. This does not mean I always do what’s best for me. It just means that I design my life to increase the likelihood that I’ll do what’s best for me.

By eliminating obstacles to good behavior, I’m not only reducing the list of potential excuses, I’m also providing less time for my mind to think of excuses. By reducing the start-up time for healthy activities, I’m giving myself less opportunities to change my mind.

Let’s look at some examples of how I’ve applied The 20-Second Rule to good habits.

Some people love going to the gym, and if that works for them, fantastic. Personally, the prospect of driving through traffic and finding parking just to get a workout is daunting. That’s 30 minutes of hassle I’ll gladly use as an excuse to avoid working out. So, instead, I have exercise equipment in my apartment: weights, bands, balls, and a stationary bike. As I type this, I am just steps away from my home gym. In fact, I paused before writing this paragraph and did a set of bicep curls.

If my exercise equipment were stored in this hut, I would never use it:

Another tactic I like is laying out my exercise clothes the night before. I exercise almost every morning, first thing, but I’m also about as far from being a morning person as I am from being Mr. Universe, so I need all the help I can get. It might seem ridiculous that just having my workout clothes laid out would help since my dresser is just two steps away. But having to open a couple of dresser drawers and make choices is 10 seconds of labor my early-morning brain would prefer to avoid.

I’m really big on eating healthy, home-cooked meals, but I also work 60 hours per week. It’s unlikely that I’ll get home after a 10-hour day and have the energy to cook, but I usually don’t have to. Why? Because I prepare healthy food in bulk. About once a week, I sacrifice a few hours to make bulk curry, cook meat in bulk, and prep salad in bulk. So when I get home exhausted and open the fridge, healthy food is instantly available.

I know it would be better for me to read or learn something than to watch TV on my computer, so there are books on my desk and educational resources on my browser’s favorites bar. I still watch TV, but I’m sure I choose reading and learning more often because I’ve made those options visually obvious and readily available.

When I needed a new apartment, I jumped on the opportunity to live next to a big, forested park because I knew that meant I would go for more nature walks. Previously, I lived in a busier part of Seattle, and the nearest park was a 10 minutes’ drive. I went often, but not nearly as often as I do now. It’s just so much easier when the park is right across the street.

Make Poor Choices Harder

Now let’s look at some ways you could set yourself up for success by deliberately placing obstacles between you and whatever you’re trying to avoid.

The first kind of obstacle is visual. Temptations that we can see are harder to resist. The solution is to hide them. This mostly applies to things like junk food, which we might leave on the kitchen counter. We’ll automatically consume less when it’s in a cabinet because, if it’s out of sight, it’s more likely to be out of mind.

The second kind of obstacle is distance. If temptation is within arm’s reach, it will be harder to avoid. We should at least have to stand up and walk a few steps to retrieve that which is unhealthy. If you keep candy at your desk, this one’s for you.

My personal solution for junk food is to put a great deal of distance between it and myself by not buying it in the first place. I exercise willpower just once – at the store – and then there isn’t any junk food in my home, so it’s really easy to avoid. If I really want some, I have to go 7 blocks to get to the nearest store and another 7 blocks to get home. So far, I’ve never felt like this would be worth it.

The third kind of obstacle is a physical barrier. This could mean storing that which is tempting in a padlocked container or safe. I have the key, so I can still access it, but it’s a hassle. It could also mean just putting some stuff in the way, so that if you want to access the temptation, you have to move a bunch of junk first.

For example, if my doctor has asked me to drink less, and there is liquor in my house that I’m unwilling to get rid of, I can employ The 20 Second Rule by moving the liquor out of its current, easy-access location. I can put it in a box in the garage, behind another box that’s full of heavy things. The exact place I choose doesn’t matter, as long as I make it a pain in the butt to go get the liquor.

I even apply these principles to electronic temptations.

Like many modern humans, I compulsively check my phone too often. My solution? I’m in airplane mode whenever possible. Now, when I robotically pull my phone out to check email or whatever, I discover that I’m in airplane mode. There’s an obstacle in the way. If I really want to check something, I have to go into settings, deactivate airplane mode, and wait a few seconds for the phone to come back to life. Most of the time, I just put the phone back in my pocket.

I was also prone to spending too much time on Facebook because, in part, I would visit Facebook too often. So I removed Facebook from my favorite places. Now it’s not visually grabbing my attention by sitting on the favorite’s bar at the top of my browser. And I’ve told it to not keep me logged in and to not remember my password. It used to take just one second to open Facebook and begin wasting time. Now it takes about 30 seconds, so I do it much less.

The point of all these barriers is not just to make it a pain in the butt to do the things you’re trying to avoid doing. It’s also about creating a moment to think about what you’re doing. It’s about getting out of autopilot. 20 seconds is long enough to realize what you’re doing and remember that you don’t really want to do that thing. 20 seconds is long enough to change your mind and make a better choice.

Whom Will You Become?

If 20 seconds’ difference can influence the choices you make each day, then it can affect the direction of your entire life.

The power of The 20-Second Rule might be a little disturbing; it might feel like an affront to your free will. But recognizing its power is actually an opportunity to exercise your free will and be an active agent in the design of your life.

You get to choose how to use The 20-Second Rule to your advantage. You get to decide how to set up your environment. You get to decide whom you will become.


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Works Cited

1 Achor, Shawn. The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and Performance at Work. Crown Business, 2010.

Image Credits

Title Image: Creative Commons Public Domain. Courtesy of Pixabay.

Clock Men: Creative Commons Public Domain. Courtesy of Pixabay.

Hut in Maze: Creative Commons Public Domain. Courtesy of Pixabay.

Liquor Safe: Creative Commons Public Domain. Courtesy of Pixabay.