20-Seconds or Bust: Changing Habits

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Habit runs our lives. Habit frees our brain-space to do other more important things – like look up silly cat videos to fill that ridiculously empty brain-space. Our brains love habit. They simplify life. Do you know how to change a habit? If you guessed will-power, or worse, declared it’s will-power with great gusto, you’ll be stuck paddling upstream. Try hard enough, and, sure, you could quite possibly get somewhere! However, I’m here to suggest an easier way.

If you have never read the book The Happiness Advantage by Shawn Achor, I first want to tell you that you’re seriously missing out. Next, I’d like to tell you of a very useful tool Achor discusses in this book that he calls the 20-Second Rule. The idea behind the 20-Second rule is this: If you want to form a new habit, such as eating a piece of fruit every day, you need to make that piece of fruit accessible in 20 seconds or less. Why? If it takes more time and effort than that, our habit-loving brains are more likely to let that opportunity pass us by. Now, with will-power, you might be able to go through a few days of opening the refrigerator, taking out an apple, washing the apple, drying the apple, maybe you peel it and slice it, and then finally eat the apple. If this was already a solid habit, this would be fine. If this is a new habit, that process takes too much mental inertia to get it going. Now, if you placed a batch of apples, all washed and ready to eat, in a nice fruit bowl on the kitchen table – you might just grab an apple and start eating it on your way out the door in the morning. From table to first bite, it only takes 5 seconds.

This tool is helpful in just about every aspect of life. Here are some habits to try setting with the 20-Second Rule in regards to wellness:

  • Get to the gym more: Have your gym clothes organized and in the most convenient dresser drawer – not tucked away in the back of the closet. If you want to make going to the gym after work a habit, place a bag of gym clothes and sneakers in your car the night before.
  • Eat a more balanced diet: Slow-cookers and Tupperware can be some of your greatest friends in the kitchen. At the end of a long day at work, wouldn’t it be nice to come home to a steaming crockpot of high-protein chili? Or to a Tupperware full of macro-friendly stuffed chicken breast, sautéed vegetables, and seasoned brown rice that just needs to be reheated? Plan it out and do the work in advance and you’ll love your past-self for it.
  • Practice Yoga or Meditation in the morning: Before you go to sleep, roll out your yoga mat right next to your bed and sleep in your yoga pants. Unless you have a dog. I don’t know about anyone else’s dog, but mine will immediately start using my yoga mat as a bed. Child’s pose into muddy paw-prints is not my favorite.
  • Jog your brain: Your brain needs exercise too. Learning something new can help keep it functioning well. Try downloading a podcast or an audiobook to listen to on your commute. Turn off the radio and turn on your brain! Unless, of course, you still want to use your commute time to listen to that new Nicki Minaj song over and over and over and over….
  • Drink more water: Have a bottle of water in the fridge, ready to grab in the morning. I recommend trying a liter-sized bottle of water. Make it a goal to finish it by the end of your work day.

This magical habit-forming trick can also work in the reverse. Do you have a habit that you want to break? Make it take longer than 20 seconds to start your habit.

  • Stop watching so much TV: Take the batteries out of your remote. Place them somewhere, out of sight, out of reach – particularly a 20-second-reach – and leave them there. Sure, you can turn the TV on manually, but, seriously, who in our instant-gratification-era does that anymore?
  • Stop binge eating: Now, no foods are “bad” foods or should ever be called completely off-limits. It’s alright to indulge from time to time. However, if you know that having a bag of dark chocolate peanut butter cups in front of you means you’re going straight to the bottom of it, you might want to use this rule. You could try not buying them, because then that would require a trip to the store. Even better, to ease your craving; still have them in the house. You can have them whenever you would like. You just first must grab your foot stool, climb to the cabinet above the fridge, move everything off of the fridge to open the cabinet, reach to the back of the cabinet, and take out your treat…You get it. Make it take work to get to.
  • Cut down on alcohol: This is a habit you might want to stop if you find yourself “needing a beer” every night after work. Especially if that one beer easily turns into 3…then 4…and so on. Stop buying alcohol for your home. Reserve drinking for a night out or for dinner with friends.

Your application of this rule doesn’t have to be exactly one that was listed. Take this 20-Second rule and apply it to one or two habits to start. Don’t overload yourself with too many habit changes. Give your top 2-3 habit-changes a try for 30 days before adding another one. Soon, you won’t even think about going to the gym, eating some fruit, or whatever your new habit may be, because it will be just that – a habit!

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