The 20-Second Rule
From Bill Palladino:
I’ve been leading workshops and providing coaching on positive psychology in the workplace for a few years now. After months of telling my wife, Jen, about some of the exercises and vital elements of the program, it seems at least one of the lessons has made its way home.
In The Orange Frog Workshop™, based on The Happiness Advantage* from Shawn Achor, we talk about one of the fundamental principles that can help people move toward positive action.
The 20-Second Rule is a simple lesson with many layers for potential impact on individuals and organizations. Sometimes, the only thing standing in the way of accomplishing what we want to do is our own inertia. In business, we might refer to this as opportunity cost or lack of engagement. At home, we’d likely say we’re “in a rut.” The 20-second rule suggests that we need to trick ourselves into overcoming what is known as the “activation energy” of the task at hand.
After months of telling my wife, Jen, about some of the exercises
and vital elements of the program, it seems at least one of the lessons has made its way home.
While science is still looking to unlock the mysteries of how our brains work, we know that electrical and chemical processes are at work. And much like a chemical reaction in any science experiment, there is a catalyst requirement for our brains to overcome inertia, especially when we’re learning new habits. This investment in energy to accomplish a new task is highest at the beginning of the process.
You see, our brains require a boost to overcome the ruts we get ourselves into. I live in northern Michigan, so for me, the analogy is getting my car stuck in a snow bank. The wheels on my car will just keep on spinning unless I can get those wheels out of the rut and moving. And that act takes a lot more energy than merely rolling down the road.
In practical terms, if I want to start a new habit, I would need first to spend some energy to ensure that there are no obstacles in the way of getting that habit started. If, for instance, I wanted to write for two hours every night before going to bed, I might set an alarm that helps me remember to do it. Or, I might have one spot in the house where I leave my notebook and pen sitting there, ready to go, out of sight of other distractions.
If I wanted to get out on my bike every morning before work, I’d want to set out my cycling clothes and shoes next to the bed. No excuses! The science of it is that the first 20 seconds of making a decision are where your brain can turn itself towards that new habit or away from it. That’s the most effective time frame within which your brain can overcome that activation energy. Spend those 20 seconds early on, and the rest is easy.
The fascinating thing about the 20-second rule is that it also works in the opposite direction. If there is something that you do not want to do, find a way to put that action at least 20 seconds out of reach. If access to the Internet is causing strife in your home and you want to limit how much time your family spends surfing, buy a $10 electric timer and plug your router into it. If you're going to use the Internet, you’ll have to turn the timer on for one hour. Put the router and the timer in the basement or the garage. That 20 seconds of decision-making, “should I walk downstairs just to turn the Internet on?” should be enough to convince your brain that it’s easier to pick up that book instead.
Which brings me back to my wife, Jen. After talking to her about these lessons from my workshops, I came home one day to find a surprise. We’d been struggling with easy access to TV screens in the house. Like many homes in America, we have a massive television in plain view sitting directly above our fireplace. The typical pattern in the house was to sit on the couch, grab the remote, and BOOM, there go four hours! No talking, rarely looking at each other. It had become far too easy to turn on that TV.
“Jen created a brilliant 20-second rule solution.”
Jen created a brilliant 20-second rule solution. She stacked between 75 and 100 books directly in front of the screen atop the mantle. The message was clear. Sure, we can watch the TV... if we wanted to move all those books and be prepared to replace them all later.
My wife had figured out on her own the inverse reaction to the 20-second rule. She had created a significant enough obstacle that it took longer than 20 seconds to do the thing she was trying to prevent us from doing. Remember too, that she chose to create that obstacle with books; a subversive plot for sure. She was making it much easier for us to pick up a book to read than it was for us to move all the books and veg-out.
For us at home, Jen’s tactic succeeded in the long-haul too. We haven’t watched that TV in the living room for many months. We’ve been speaking lately about getting rid of it altogether.
A 20-second rule is a simple tool in our arsenal of positivity and productivity. Find that habit you want to start and create a method to overcome the motivational hurdle standing in your way. Learn the trick of applying the right kind of activation energy to get yourself rolling. Or take Jen's example and create an obstacle that puts a harmful habit at least 20 seconds out of reach. You will quickly realize the benefits for you, your home, and even your organization.
*FULL DISCLOSURE: Krios Consulting is a strategic partner with Shawn Achor through Bill Palladino’s work with The International Thought Leader Network. Click here for more information about Shawn’s book, The Happiness Advantage and its companion, The Orange Frog Workshop™.