Build Great Habits with the 20-Second Rule
Wednesday, April 12, 2023

Build Great Habits with the 20-Second Rule

To build positive habits, the smallest of steps can make a big difference.

20 seconds may not sound like much. But, these valuable seconds are make-or-break when it comes to deciding to do something or not. Luckily, the 20-second rule is here to help you alter your habits, get motivated, and make the right decisions.

Understanding the 20-second rule and using it on a daily basis is a potential life changer. From getting motivated to head to the gym before work to boosting productivity when you’re there, the 20-second rule makes good habits easier to pick up and helps you shake off the bad ones.

What is the 20-Second Rule?

The 20-second rule works on the principle that to make a new habit, you have to make it easier to do by reducing the amount of effort required to perform it. In other words, you have to decrease the activation energy. On the other hand, increasing the activation energy helps you give up bad habits.

The 20-second rule is the brainchild of Shawn Achor, New York Times bestselling author and advocate of positive psychology. In his book “The Happiness Advantage,” Achor outlines the 20-second rule, drawing on personal experience to explain the idea.

Achor wanted to get into the habit of practicing the guitar every day. However, he encountered the problem we all face: he couldn’t get motivated. Every time he thought about taking up his guitar, it was too much effort to get started. Achor writes,

“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?”

To try and combat this, Achor invested $2 in a guitar stand, which he positioned in the middle of his front room. Now, the instrument was within easy reach whenever he wanted to play. The outcome? Achor spent time playing the guitar for 21 days straight.

By eliminating the 20 seconds it took to fetch the guitar from the cupboard and set it up, Achor made the action quicker and easier to perform. He had decreased the activation energy and formed a new habit.

The Science Behind the 20-Second Rule

Unfortunately, our brains are lazy. It’s hard to accept, but it looks like human beings only have a finite amount of willpower and prefer to take the route of minimal effort. Swiss scientists studied the neuron activity of people who were given the option of taking part in physical activity or doing nothing at all.

Unsurprisingly, subjects opted for the latter, lazier option. It turns out that our brain is happier choosing the less active path than opting to expend more energy. The scientists put this down to primal instinct, passed on by our ancestors who needed to conserve energy for hunting and fighting off predators.

Hunting and fighting are not things the modern man or woman needs to worry about, so there’s no need for us to still avoid the more energetic path. But, how do we train our brains to change an inbred behavior?

Why You Should Incorporate the 20-Second Rule Into Your Life

The 20-second rule helps us create positive habits and eliminate negative patterns. Think about some of the things you do automatically when working instead of focusing on your to-do list:

  • Opening Facebook after checking your emails as the two apps are next to each other on your phone.
  • Looking at your phone every 5 minutes to see if you have any new notifications.
  • Reading the news on your favorite site as it’s the first URL that comes up when typing in the search bar.
  • Playing your favorite game (just quickly) while waiting for a phone call.

Increasing the activation energy and making it more difficult to automatically do these actions should help you focus on what’s important. It will reduce distractions and the temptation to procrastinate.

How about things you avoid doing, such as:

  • Not drinking water as it means walking to the kitchen.
  • Intending to read but switching on the TV as soon as you get home rather than fetching your book from the bedroom.
  • Failing to head to the gym before work as you didn’t have time to change into your workout gear.
  • Instead of cooking a healthy meal, you reach for a ready-made meal as it’s quicker and easier.
  • Eating a packet of Doritos rather than an apple as the chips are in your desk drawer.

Although these are non-work-related examples, you still need to stay hydrated, eat well, and keep physically and mentally active to keep your body and mind healthy. By decreasing the activation effort, you can rid yourself of these bad habits.

Reap the Benefits of the 20-Second Rule

Incorporating the 20-second rule into your life is a simple process but one that takes willpower. The key is to make unproductive activities 20 seconds more difficult to do and productive ones 20 seconds quicker to do.

Try some of these methods to help shake off bad habits and make good new ones.

At Work

blond woman working at her desk

Making a few simple changes in the way you work will put distractions out of reach and help boost productivity by letting you focus on what needs to be done.

Turn Off Your Phone

For many of us, switching off the phone during deep work sessions is a definite game changer. When you get the urge to check your phone, you need more than a simple thumbprint to unlock the screen. Adding the 20 seconds it takes for your phone to start up and update should be enough to deter you from switching it on in the first place.

Not everyone can switch off their phone while working. If you’re expecting an important call or need to be contactable, try placing your phone across the room — or even in a different room. Putting the phone out of reach increases activation energy and makes it more difficult to check it every 10 minutes.

Make Apps Difficult to Access

Social media is one of the biggest distractions and has a major impact on productivity. The average person spends around 2.5 hours on social platforms every day — 2.5 hours that could be better used for working, pursuing hobbies, or personal improvement.

The 20-second rule tells us that we need to make social media more difficult to access in order to break the habit.

Move the apps into a separate folder and place it in a random location on your phone. You instinctively know where Instagram, Facebook, and TikTok are located on your home screen, which makes your brain automate the action of opening and using these apps. Putting them in a different place means you have to search for them, adding an extra step or two to the process.

Limit Notifications and Off-Task Browsing

Notifications draw your attention away from what you’re doing. Even if you don’t click on them when they pop up on your phone or laptop, your instinct is to immediately check what’s been updated or arrived in your inbox. Switching off notifications during your working day, or even just during deep work times, will put this bad habit to bed.

Likewise, limit your internet usage on sites that have nothing to do with work. Use the Do Not Disturb function on your devices, or install an app or browser extension that blocks distracting websites.

Alternatively, use a productivity tool such as kKōono to automatically do both during deep work sessions and prevent interruptions that fuel your social media and off-task browsing habits.

Keep Information, Notes, and Tools Close at Hand

Before starting your working day, declutter your desk to remove any distractions that you automatically find yourself drawn to. Instead, ensure you have everything required for the day ahead, saving you the effort of finding everything needed for the next task on your to-do list. This will help decrease the activation energy, getting you into the habit of moving seamlessly from one task to the next.

At Home

Woman doing Yoga

The 20-second rule isn’t just great for improving your working methods and productivity. You can also implement it in other areas of your life to ensure you keep mentally and physically fit and healthy.


If you find getting ready for the gym or a run in the morning is too much effort, try sleeping in your workout clothes so you’re ready to get going when you wake up. Is the drive to the gym too much to think about? Try exercising at home instead.


Remove the temptation to reach for the chips in the desk drawer by placing them on the highest shelf in the kitchen (ideally the one that requires a stool from the bathroom to reach). Stay hydrated by keeping a refillable insulated water bottle next to you so it’s always convenient to take a sip when you want to.


If you’re anything like Shawn Achor used to be, then the TV automatically gets switched on when you get home. Follow his example and overcome this bad habit by removing the batteries from the remote and placing them 20 seconds away, making it too much of an effort to fetch them.

Instead, make it easier to do something else to stimulate your mind after work or on the weekend. Whether your intention is to study, read a book, take up a new hobby, or practice the guitar, decrease the activation energy required by moving the guitar next to the sofa or placing the book or study material on the coffee table. Use the 20-second rule to your advantage.

Embrace Change

20 seconds is the difference between making good decisions and bad ones. Unfortunately, our brains are lazy and constantly fall into the habit of taking the easy (and often the worst) option.

Changing behaviors is hard, but you can do it if you put your mind to it. Make things you need or want to achieve that little bit easier to do, and put the things you should avoid doing further out of reach. This little life hack could help you break bad habits and make it easier to create new, more useful habits.

Incorporate the 20-second rule into your day and make small adjustments to change both your personal and work life for the better.

Jackie Smart
LinkedIn Profile

Build Great Habits with the 20-Second Rule FAQs

What is the 20-Second Rule?

The 20-Second Rule is a concept from behavioral psychology suggesting that by reducing the effort it takes to start an action by 20 seconds, you can enhance the likelihood of forming a new habit. This concept was popularized by Shawn Achor in his book "The Happiness Advantage."

How does the 20-Second Rule work?

The 20-Second Rule works by minimizing barriers to change. By making it easier and quicker to start a positive habit, or harder to engage in a negative one, you can gradually shift your behavior towards more desirable outcomes.

How can I use the 20-Second Rule to build a new habit?

Identify a habit you want to develop, then find ways to reduce the effort or time it takes to start that habit by 20 seconds. For example, if you want to exercise in the morning, prepare your workout clothes the night before to make it easier to get started.

Can the 20-Second Rule help break bad habits?

Yes, by increasing the effort or time it takes to start a bad habit by 20 seconds, you can make it harder to engage in that habit. For instance, if you want to cut down on social media use, logging out of your accounts after each session might make it less tempting to quickly check for updates.

Does the 20-Second Rule actually work within 20 seconds?

The "20 seconds" is more of a metaphorical figure than an exact measure. The key idea is that by reducing the effort it takes to start a habit, even by a small amount, you can significantly increase the likelihood of engaging in that habit.

What kind of habits can I form using the 20-Second Rule?

The 20-Second Rule can be used to form a wide variety of habits, such as regular exercise, healthy eating, daily reading, consistent sleep schedules, mindfulness practices, and more.

Can I use the 20-Second Rule for complex habits?

Yes, although complex habits might require more planning and incremental changes. The 20-Second Rule can still be effective in making it easier to start each step of the process.

Is the 20-Second Rule backed by scientific evidence?

The principle underlying the 20-Second Rule—that reducing the effort required to initiate a habit can improve adherence—is supported by research in behavioral psychology. However, the "20 seconds" figure itself is more of a heuristic than a scientifically proven amount of time.

How does the 20-Second Rule relate to the concept of "environment design"?

The 20-Second Rule is essentially a form of environment design, as it involves modifying your physical or digital environment to make good habits easier to start and bad habits harder. Research shows that our environment can strongly influence our behavior.

Can the 20-Second Rule be used in conjunction with other habit-forming methods?

Absolutely. The 20-Second Rule can complement other techniques such as habit stacking (where you pair a new habit with an existing one), goal setting, or using habit-tracking apps. It's just one tool in your toolbox for habit formation.

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