How to Commit to Your New Habits Using the 20 Second Rule?

Most Leaders we talk to are extremely interested in Mindfulness but struggle to embed it into their daily lives even though the practice requires 10-20 min a day only.

It is all about creating a new habit. It usually takes 40 days for our brain to create and establish a new neuropathway that will support and activate this  habit.

The happiness researcher Shawn Achor discusses how he wanted to make practicing guitar a daily habit.

However, he encountered a problem that plagues everyone: He couldn’t motivate himself to do it. No matter how much he tried to motivate himself, his guitar remained in his cupboard. Achor recalls:

“The guitar was sitting in the closet, a mere 20 seconds away, but I couldn’t make myself take it out and play it. What had gone wrong?”

The Problem with Willpower

If you want to change a habit in the long-term, in the beginning, you have to rely on willpower. But willpower is a finite resource and can’t be relied on.

In other words, the more decisions you make on a daily basis – the more likely you are to experience what psychologists call decision fatigue.

Once you experience decision fatigue, improving habits – especially at the end of a stressful day – becomes less of a priority. Habitual, negative behaviours, like forgoing the gym in favour of easier ones like watching television, become routine. It becomes an almost inescapable rut.

Given a choice, disempowering habits almost always trump behaviours that stretch us. They offer us a path of least resistance and, when regularly forged, become the easier choice.

But what if you we had a tool to reshape that path entirely? A tool that made positive habits more accessible?

What You Need To Focus On

A common problem people have with changing their habits is learning how to start.

If you think of a habit, you tend to think of the habit in its entirety. All habits are comprised of multiple steps, tiny actions required to necessitate it, and thinking about it is enough to overwhelm anyone.

For example, when you think about going to the gym, you don’t focus on the routine part of The Habit Loop (exercising); you focus on everything else you need to do to do the habit.

You think about packing your gym bag, travelling to the gym, changing into your gym clothes, warming up, exercising, showering, warming down and travelling home.

That’s a lot!

You don’t need to think about all of that. Simply focus on the first action you need to take (in my case, when going to the gym, I only focus on picking up my gym bag, which is placed by my front door).

However, what if we redirected our focus from not only what we needed to do to start our habits, but also how we could make that start as easy as possible?

Using Activation Energy

Activation energy, as Achor explains, is that spark you need to start:

In physics, activation energy is the initial spark needed to catalyse a reaction. The same energy, both physical and mental, is needed of people to overcome inertia and kickstart a positive habit.

In Achor’s example, he realised that having to remove his guitar from his closet to practice increased the effort he needed to practice – even if that effort only cost him an extra 20 seconds.

Those 20 seconds meant the difference between doing his habit – and not.

He came to a resolution: put his guitar in the centre of his apartment.

The results?

He practiced guitar for 21 days straight without exception.

Achor called this The 20 Second Rule. He comments:

Lowering the barrier to change by just 20 seconds was all it took to help me for a new habit.

Using the 20 Second Rule to Replace Negative Habits

The 20 Second Rule can not only be used to build new empowering habits, but it can be used to ease the transition between negative and positive ones as well.

Achor’s next experiment was to replace watching television when he returned home from work with reading and writing his book.

This time, he took the batteries out of his remote and moved them – you guessed it – 20 seconds away in another room.

Here were his findings:

The next few nights when I got home from work, I plopped down on the couch and pressed the ‘on’ button on the remote – usually repeatedly – forgetting that I had moved the batteries. Then, frustrated, I thought to myself, ‘I hate that I do these experiments’. But sure enough, the energy and effort required to retrieve the batteries – or even to walk across the room and turn the TV on manually – was enough to do the trick.

How You Can Use the 20 Second Rule

There are multiple ways you can experiment with the 20 Second Rule. Just remember, as a rule of thumb:

You need to decrease the activation energy you need to do positive habits and increase it to do negative habits.

If you want to replace a bad habit like drinking alcohol after work with a better one, consider moving your pint glasses to another room in your house or leaving alcohol that’s best served chilled unrefrigerated (no one wants to drink a beer or white wine that hasn’t been chilled).

If you’d like to minimise the number of hours you spend online, delete the social media apps on your smart phone (one I’m currently experimenting with) or install a plugin for your browser that limits your Internet usage. You can’t disable this plugin because it requires extra effort – and activation energy.

If you want to eat more healthily, consider doing one weekly shop for the whole week. Prepare your lunch and dinner meals in advance or leave your credit/debit card at home to minimise the temptation of ordering takeaways on your journey home after a stressful day.

A Final Word

There’s no doubt about it: Changing habits is difficult, but by understanding activation energy, we can replace negative behaviours with better ones – and all in under 20 seconds.


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