The 20-Second rule: A simple Technique for Better Habits

You probably know the feeling. You planned that today was the day that you would start working out. But before you’re ready, you have to go home, pack your bag, eat, and then head out again. As you come home, you feel overwhelmed by it all. Staying home seems easier and is the most likely outcome here. The 20-second rule aims to reverse this.

Let’s have a look at what the 20-second rule is and how you can use it to break and form better habits.

A sum up of a post about the 20-second rule
The 20-second rule

What is the 20-second rule?

The 20-second rule was created by Shawn Achor in his book The Happiness advantage. It was created to make habit formation easier and less dependent on willpower.

It does so by minimizing the steps between when you have to start your new habit and actually doing it. By either priming your environment or preparing, you can reduce friction and the need for willpower to start. Preferably, you wouldn’t need more than 20 seconds to start. Hence the name of the 20-second rule.

Depending on the habit, and if you’re breaking or forming it, that’ll look different. But more on that further down.

Why does it work?

You can’t form a new habit without willpower. You have to give yourself a push to get started. But the problem with willpower is that it’s a finite source. The more you use it throughout the day, the less you’ll have later.

The more effort a task requires, the more willpower you’ll have to exert. And if you have to go through multiple steps before a high-effort behavior, it’ll seem impossible.

The 20-second rule urges you to prepare in advance. This has several benefits.

  1. You have won’t have to use your willpower as often. You’re already ready, and you won’t have to force yourself through the preparations.
  2. The task will seem to require less effort and less willpower is necessary to get started.

The 20-second rule works by making access to good behavior easier. Willpower won’t be as needed, and you’ll be more likely to succeed.

A bonus to preparing in advance, is that it can serve as both a reminder and an accountability tool.

Related: How to determine if a habit is good for you

How to use the 20-second rule

The 20-second rule is simple with some practice. All you have to do is make the good option require the least effort. Let’s have a look at how you can use it to form and break habits.

You might consider combining this technique with the 2-minute rule, to make it even easier.

Related: How to use the 5-minute rule to beat procrastination?

How to use the 20-second rule to form good habits

To use the 20-second rule to build habits, you have to find a way to remove friction. To minimize the effort needed to start the behavior. You do this by preparing in advance or changing your environment.

This will look different depending on the behavior and your current routines. Let’s have a few examples of what this could look like.

Related: Habit stacking

Going to the gym

Pack your gym bag the night before. Bring it with you to work along with a small pre-workout snack. This way, all you have to do is go to the gym. Going is now as easy as going home.

Related: Can you break a habit in 21 days?


Leave your books, computer, and what else you need to study ready on your desk. All you have to do now, is open your book/computer and get started.


Even a small behavior drastically decreases the chance of doing a behavior. Leave the book out where you’re going to read. Make sure that all you have to do is open the book.

How to use the 20-second rule to break bad habits

You have to find a way to increase friction to use the 20-second rule to break bad habits. To make the habit as difficult as possible. The extra effort required might be enough to put you off doing it.

Let’s have a look at a few examples with different habits.

Related: How to create better habits with a habit scorecard

Watching too much tv

Remove the batteries from your remote, put it away, and unplug the TV. To turn the TV on, you have to go through several steps. It requires more effort, and it’ll be easier to not do it. This works on consoles as well.

Reduce screentime

Remove your apps from your dashboard so you have to actively search for the one you want to use. Combine this with an app such as one sec. It’ll require effort to search, and one second gives you time to reconsider your intentions.

Reduce binge eating

Removing all snacks from your home is a great way to reduce binge eating. You might still have the cravings, but rarely so much that you’re willing to go to the shop and pick some up.

Finishing thoughts

Make bad habits so difficult that it isn’t worth it and good habits so easy that it isn’t worth it not to. That’s the essence of the 20-second rule.

The rule might take some practice. But when you get used to it, it’ll be easy.

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