TIME career

What Small Lifestyle Changes Have the Biggest Impact?

Answer by Evan DeFilippis, Reporter and manager at Innovations for Poverty Action, on Quora.

Twenty Minute Rule — Whenever I would come home from a long day at work or school, I was so tired the only things I could find energy to do were mindless life-negating nonsense — television, Netflix, Reddit, Facebook, whatever.

Every night I would somehow find hours of time to do these things (despite being extremely tired), suddenly get a burst of energy towards midnight, stay up way too late, and then get extremely tired the next morning. This cycle would repeat until the weekend, where I would stay up too late on Sunday, and be tired the following Monday. Wash, rinse, repeat.

Several years ago, I replaced this nightmarish routine with the twenty minute rule. Now, the moment I get home, I force myself to do at least twenty minutes of one of the following — write an article, read a book, practice chess, learn another language with DuoLingo (I try to do this on my phone, not laptop to minimize the risk of distraction), practice guitar, meditate, work on a computer programming language, or improve flexibility with stretching. Customize the activities to suit your interests, but this should generally not involve any computers.

Once you get past that twenty minute commitment, you will find that you have the energy to keep going. Over the course of a couple weeks, you will have finished a book — which, for many people, will be the first time they have done so in a long time.

If you simply don’t have energy to continue past twenty minutes, or to even start the twenty minutes — GO TO SLEEP. There is precisely no benefit to watching Netflix until you pass out from exhaustion, only to be tired the next day. You need to make it a habit: don’t have energy? Go to sleep. Do have energy? Spend it making yourself better.

Addendum:

The key to progress is recognizing that any forward movement brings you closer to your goal. Humans reliably fail to set aside time to do the things we really want to do, and reliably succeed at finding time to do the things we know won’t make us better.

When I wake up every morning, ask me what things will make me happy today, and I will tell you: being with my family, eating good food, having rewarding, meaningful conversations with friends, learning interesting things about the world, going on adventures, and so on. Now ask me at the end of the day how I spent my free time, I will tell you: Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, responding to angry internet comments.

Ask any parent and they will tell you the same thing, “I honestly don’t know what I did with all my free time before I had kids.” The answer is you did nothing, and now you filled that nothing with a kid….and if you have another kid you’ll see that there is a lot of time you’re still wasting. When people don’t plan, they aren’t ready to take advantage of opportunities that avail themselves, and so they play Angrybirds and watch Netflix because it takes less energy than figuring out something to do at that moment. I call this the “path of least resistance problem.” To make ourselves more sensitive to opportunities that can decidedly improve our lives, we need to structure our routines to make the path of least resistance difficult. One way to do this is the twenty minutes rule.

If we want to do something trivial, something that likely won’t matter in the grand scheme of our lives, like meeting a colleague for lunch, we will pencil a time in our calendars and get it done. But when we want to do something important and enriching, something we know will matter greatly in the grand scheme of our lives, like writing a book or learning a language, we say “I’ll get around to it.” We don’t pencil in the twenty minutes a day necessary to become the person we really want to be. And so we need to challenge the impulse to relegate our passions and our ambitions to something our future self will do down the line.

This question originally appeared on Quora: What small lifestyle changes have the biggest impact? More questions:

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