The Love to Ride Blog

Creating a more bike friendly world

What is the '20 Second Rule'?

  • by: Thomas Stokell

If you want to take up a new habit, look to make it easier to initiate the habit by 20 seconds.

If you want to give up a 'bad' habit, look to make it harder to initiate by 20 seconds.

This small shift can make a big difference to whether you do the habit/behavior.

See the story below from Harvard happiness expert Shawn Achor about how just moving his guitar to the living room increased how often he practiced.

Via The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and Performance at Work:

It wasn’t far out of the way, of course (my apartment isn’t that big), but just 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. Three weeks later, I looked up at a habit grid with 21 proud check marks.

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. In truth, it often takes more than 20 seconds to make a difference—and sometimes it can take much less—but the strategy itself is universally applicable: Lower the activation energy for habits you want to adopt, and raise it for habits you want to avoid. The more we can lower or even eliminate the activation energy for our desired actions, the more we enhance our ability to jump-start positive change.


What does this mean for encouraging riding?

This '20 Second Rule' has interesting applications for cycling.  For example, take someone who has a bike, but they keep it at the back of the garage/shed, their basement, or on their back balcony - generally place that mean extra effort to get their bike out so they can ride it.

This is classic '20 Second Rule' territory.

How can we apply the rule? Encourage people who own a bike, but don't use it much, to put their bike in an place that makes it very easy to get to.  Even for a week or two.

We often to get people to take 'baby steps' - small steps/elements of the overall behavior that people perceive as easy to do (especially when compared to the bigger behavior people are working towards, e.g. riding to work).  Thus getting people to put their bike in their main hallway by the front door for a week will be an easier sell than getting them to make that place a permanent home for their bike from the start (although it may well end up being the permanent home for their bike once they realise how great it is to have their bike that much easier to ride).

So we are going to be integrating this messaging to some people who do have a bike, but don't use it much, and we'll measure to see if applying this '20 Second Rule' has an impact on their riding behavior.

Your thoughts and ideas for other applications of this rule to encouraging cycling are always welcome, so please feel free to comment below or get in touch.

Published on: 26, Jun 2022

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