The 20-Second Rule

Recently I read about a simple trick called “The 20-Second Rule” to build good habits and break bad ones in the book Barking Up The Wrong Tree by Eric Barker. The trick originally comes from a Harvard happiness researcher Shawn Achor.

Achor mentions that he was struggling to play the guitar every day. And by just moving his guitar in immediate reach instead of 20 seconds away made him practice it more.

By lowering the barrier to change your behavior by just 20 seconds will help you to form a new good habit or break a bad one.

As you experience every day, you have to take many decisions throughout the day. The more decisions you have to make — the more likely you experience decision fatigue. And the more you experience decision fatigue, the less likely you have enough energy to work on your goal — especially at the end of a hectic day.

The most common mistake we do with building or breaking habits is – we think in its entirety as a giant goal. Instead, if we consider habits are a series of multiple tiny actions and steps, then it won’t overwhelm us as much. If we simply focus on the first tiny action, then it’s a lot easier to get started. Once you do the first step, then think about the second step, and so on.

Achor explains this happens because of activation energy – the spark you need to start:

In physics, activation energy is the initial spark needed to catalyze 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 realized that having to remove his guitar from his closet to practice increased the effort to practice – even if that effort was just extra 20 seconds.

And then by putting his guitar in the center of his apartment he practiced guitar for 21 days straight without exception.

The 20-Second Rule is not only applicable to build good habits, but it can also be used to break the bad ones.

In Achor’s another experiment to replace watching TV with reading and writing his book, he took the batteries out of his remote and moved them – 20 seconds away in another room.

And sure enough, the effort required to walk across the room and get the batteries was enough to do the trick to not watch TV.


You need to decrease the activation energy if you want to build good habits and increase the activation energy if you want to break bad habits.

While the rule says 20-seconds, I have experienced similar results even if I make certain things a few seconds easier or harder.

One of the things I have done to build a habit of reading more books is – at any given time, I read 3-4 different books. I keep one book next to my bed, one book next to the couch in the living room, another book on my work desk, etc. So by keeping these books easily accessible, whenever I’m sitting next to these places, if I have some idle time, I pick up these books and read a few pages. And it’s helping me finish reading more books.

Another thing I have done to break a habit of spending more time on social media is – i) turn off all the app notifications, ii) uninstall most native apps and check respective services from the browser, and iii) for the important apps you care, keep them on the second screen (not on the home screen) and in a folder (not as independent apps). By making it a little difficult to access these apps in one-touch, I consume social media a lot less.


Building good habits and breaking bad ones isn’t easy. Hopefully, implementing this little trick will make it easier for you.

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