Everyone Should Know the “20-Second Rule” for Breaking Bad Habits

Updated: May 10, 2023

Make nasty habits a little harder to follow, and your brain will do the rest.

01_Everyone_know_20_second_habits_smirartiStock/smirartHarvard happiness researcher Shawn Achor has some very good news for you: Laziness may be the key to breaking bad habits and building positive ones—and all it takes is 20 seconds.

Habits, good or bad, begin with willpower. In his book The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and Performance at Work, Achor recounts his trouble building a habit of practicing guitar after a long day’s work. He knew that practicing would make him happier and more fulfilled by the end of a short session—but the 20 seconds of effort it would take to remove his guitar from the closet and return to the living room proved to be a major mental barrier. After a few days of forcing himself to play, he couldn’t make the habit stick; he just perceived it as too much of a pain. Twenty seconds of annoyance was all it took for Shawn to convince himself that the great rewards of playing guitar were not worth the minor effort.

We can blame our weary brains for this shortsightedness. Like a gas tank we fill first thing in the morning, our brains burn willpower throughout the day until we’re left running on fumes (it’s a phenomenon called “decision fatigue”). As Shawn point out in his popular TED talk on happiness (one of the most viewed of all time), the problem is not with our hectic lives, but with our perception of them—90 percent of a person’s long-term happiness is linked to how they view the world, not what their external world actually looks like. Knowing this, could perception be altered to make good habits easier to forge, and bad habits easier to break? The answer, happily, is yes. Find out how long it takes to break a habit.

Shawn’s solution was simple: Remove that 20 seconds of effort keeping him from picking up his guitar. He bought a $2 stand, moved the guitar from the closet to the living room, and left it in immediate reach. Three weeks later, he had practiced 21 days in a row.

“What I had done here, essentially, was put the desired behavior on the path of least resistance, so it actually took less energy and effort to pick up and practice the guitar than to avoid it,” Shawn writes in his book. “I like to refer to this as the 20-Second Rule, because lowering the barrier to change by just 20 seconds was all it took to help me form a new life habit.”

Armed with this knowledge of his own habits, Shawn turned this same 20-second logic to his negative habits, and found the same results: Making negative activities 20 seconds harder to carry out made them less desirable, and therefore easier to cut out of his life.

Determined to break his habit of turning on the TV as soon as he got home at the end of the day, Shawn removed the batteries from his remote control and stored them in another room. “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,” he writes. “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 can you apply the 20-second rule to your own life? Think of a habit you’d like to break, then think of what is allowing you to so easily indulge in it. Move that bag of Doritos to the top shelf of the cupboard, accessible only by the stool you keep in the other room. Keep cigarettes locked in your car’s glove compartment instead of chilling in your purse or kitchen cabinet. Remove social media apps from your phone, or download an app that limits off-task Internet browsing.

As for forming good habits, it all starts with perception. Going to the gym, for example, will always take more than 20 seconds—but putting on your running shoes won’t. Refocus your willpower onto that first task (usually as simple as getting off the couch) instead of the mentally-fatiguing end result, and you will soon find yourself making smarter decisions, 20 seconds at a time.

01_Everyone_know_20_second_habits_amazoncourtesy of amazon.com

Learn more about Shawn Achor’s happiness tips and buy his book The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and Performance at Work.

Reader's Digest
Originally Published in Reader's Digest