How to Get Out of a Rut: The 20-Second Rule

I’ve been stuck in a rut many times in my life. 

I feel deeply unmotivated to do anything that’s proactive. I stop exercising and meditating and I become less productive at work.

If constrained to a short period of time, this is okay! We can’t be our best selves all the time. But if left unchecked, getting stuck can be harmful.

And as one continues to fall deeper and deeper into a rut, the energy required to get out of it increases.

I have learned a framework that helps me in these situations. It’s called the 20-second rule.

It is inspired by James Clear, who wrote the best-selling book Atomic Habits. In his book, Clear’s third law for effective habit building is: make it easy. He argues that when building a new habit, you should start really small. The thinking is that one of the most important parts of building a new habit is just showing up. And if we can master that piece first without making the habit itself too difficult, then we are setting ourselves up for success.

And so I came up with the 20-second rule as a way of getting out of ruts.

The idea is that for 20 seconds every day, you try to do something that is outside of your comfort zone. It might be approaching a stranger to start a conversation or making a reservation for a solo meal at your favorite restaurant. It just needs to be short and somewhat uncomfortable.

The point of the 20-second rule is to push you to be proactive, but it takes away the difficulty of the task itself. It’s just 20 seconds, anyone can do it.

And once you get started, then you can see the benefits of what James Clear talks about in his book. You will start to get more comfortable with the idea of being proactive. As a result, you are rewiring your brain to take a more active approach to difficulty and eventually this will help you get out of a rut.

A little while ago, I was stuck in a rut. I didn’t have much motivation but I used the 20-second rule. I would start my day with 20 seconds of freezing cold water in the shower. It was incredibly uncomfortable but it worked. Eventually I was able to get back to my other habits such as exercising, meditating, and connecting with friends.

I hope the 20-second rule can help you the way it helped me.

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