The quick and dirty 20 Second Rule

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Over the course of stumbling around the Internet, I recently came across a quote from the longly-titled book, The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and Performance at Work about a rule Shawn Achor calls the ’20 Second Rule’:

…those 20 seconds of extra effort it took to walk to the closet and pull out the guitar had proved to be a major deterrent. I had tried to overcome this barrier with willpower, but after only four days, my reserves were completely dried up. If I couldn’t use self-control to ingrain the habit, at least not for an extended period, I now wondered: What if I could eliminate the amount of activation energy it took to get started?

Clearly, it was time for another experiment. I took the guitar out of the closet, bought a $2 guitar stand, and set it up in the middle of my living room. Nothing had changed except that now instead of being 20 seconds away, the guitar was in immediate reach.

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. 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.

The thing about willpower is that it runs out, so we often have to play small games with our minds to get them to do what we want. The ’20 Second Rule’ is a great trick to save your willpower for bigger and better things.

Question of the day: What things can you move closer to where you work to make you more productive?

An example of something I have moved closer to me is the ‘Writing’ folder on my computer. I usually only have two or three items on my desktop, and so most days I notice my writing folder staring at me from the corner of my screen. Not having to sift through a bunch of nested folders truly reduces the friction to writing every day. It may seem like a small change, but it’s one that has been worthwhile. It may even be the reason this blog post exists.

Screen Shot 2013-09-03 at 12-1.22.12 PMI think the opposite works, too. What distractions (that deplete your willpower reserve throughout the day) are within 20 seconds of your desk? Is there a snack table right outside of your office? Or a candy jar on your desk? Or a bag of chips in the next room?

20 seconds may not seem like a lot of temporal distance when it comes to derailing distractions, but it is. Taking the candy jar off of your desk, or moving the bags of chips in your kitchen cupboards to the basement are both very simple, and very positive changes you can make to your life.

Awesome clock photo by Timothy Valentine.

  • Ha, I’m actually the opposite of you when it comes to the writing folder. The articles I tossed in the writing folder I’ve never touched since the day I put them in there. The ones I go through, write, and edit obsessively are the ones I put all around my Desktop.

    • Even better! For me, I love the clean look of only having one or two icons on my desktop. And to be honest, I usually keep my “Writing” folder open all day long anyway! ;)

  • Ha, I’m actually the opposite of you when it comes to the writing folder. The articles I tossed in the writing folder I’ve never touched since the day I put them in there. The ones I go through, write, and edit obsessively are the ones I put all around my Desktop.

    • Even better! For me, I love the clean look of only having one or two icons on my desktop. And to be honest, I usually keep my “Writing” folder open all day long anyway! ;)

  • Ellen Symons

    I’m aiming for a low-stress, streamlined environment, so I like the idea of putting out of sight the things that distract me. As I look around, I have a long way to go (even though I feel as though I’m constantly decluttering). But I can also see the benefit of making things easy to get at, like my workout clothes in the morning. So my task now is to combine these two. Good food for thought, Chris.

    • Happy you found the rule valuable! It’s one of those insights that, once you realize it, you’ll never be able to get it out of your head. I’ve found that it works especially well with food. We have junk food in our house, but it’s more than 20 seconds away almost all of the time (while the healthier food isn’t!)

      • Ellen Symons

        Clever! And you’re right, this idea is now stuck in my brain.

  • I’m aiming for a low-stress, streamlined environment, so I like the idea of putting out of sight the things that distract me. As I look around, I have a long way to go (even though I feel as though I’m constantly decluttering). But I can also see the benefit of making things easy to get at, like my workout clothes in the morning. So my task now is to combine these two. Good food for thought, Chris.

    • Happy you found the rule valuable! It’s one of those insights that, once you realize it, you’ll never be able to get it out of your head. I’ve found that it works especially well with food. We have junk food in our house, but it’s more than 20 seconds away almost all of the time (while the healthier food isn’t!)

      • Clever! And you’re right, this idea is now stuck in my brain.

  • Karen

    Trash cans. Put them everywhere. My teenagers can’t be bothered to walk to another room, let alone across the room, so putting trash cans near places where things clutter up has helped. One stays right below were we bring the mail every day. One on EACH side of our bed, one in the closet where we empty pockets… you get the idea.

  • Karen

    Trash cans. Put them everywhere. My teenagers can’t be bothered to walk to another room, let alone across the room, so putting trash cans near places where things clutter up has helped. One stays right below were we bring the mail every day. One on EACH side of our bed, one in the closet where we empty pockets… you get the idea.

  • Nick Snapp

    I like the idea of burying the Outlook icon so it’s hard to jump on email at a whim, or subscribing to SelfControl or an app that disables social media during would-be times of focus.

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