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Just 20 Seconds to Change a Habit

I suspect there is not one single human being who doesn’t know that if they just dropped some habits, or adopted others, their life would improve. So why are people not doing this?

Many years ago, not long after I started my private practice, I realised that helping clients to make lasting changes was not about giving them more knowledge, more potential skills, or new ideas. The difficult part was about taking those ideas out of the conversation with me and making them into part of their lives.

There is much received wisdom around how to help people build new ‘good’ habits or drop old ‘bad’ ones. Giving a reward is a common strategy. Interestingly, researchers have found that reward is relatively ineffective, and can often make things more difficult. If someone was rewarded for going to the gym, then when the rewards stopped, not only did they stop going to the gym but they were even less likely to do so.

What research has shown is a more effective way to make lasting changes in your habits. And it takes just 20 seconds, whether you want to get rid of old habits or acquire new ones.

If you want to get rid of a habit, make it 20 seconds harder for yourself. If you want to put a new habit in place, make it 20 seconds easier. Let me give you a couple of examples that will explain.

Let’s take the example of late-night snacking. I’ve seen a lot of recommendations, but I’d encourage you to try this one. Put the snacks right on top of the kitchen cupboard so you need to get the steps to reach them. Now put the steps in the hallway cupboard away from the kitchen. It’ll take you an extra 20 seconds to get to the snacks; not enough to stop you going for the snack, but over a relatively modest timescale, perhaps a few weeks, people generally report less desire to follow through on the bad habit.

Let’s look at a ‘good’ habit you want to adopt. Say you want to learn to play a musical instrument, or practise more often. Instead of having it locked away in a box, in a cupboard, so that you have to make an effort to take it out, leave it out on the side, together with anything else you’ll need to use it. If it’s 20 seconds easier to get to it than it was before, then it’s far more likely you’ll do it. It’s not a guarantee; however it has been shown to be very helpful.

Twenty seconds seems to be a bit of a magic number for us humans. Delaying something by 20 seconds or making it 20 seconds quicker seems to be a sufficiently large amount of time to start our brain changing how it thinks about these habits.

What habits would you like to change? How can you make them 20 seconds longer? How can you shave 20 seconds off doing the new habits? We’d love to hear your examples!