Activation Energy: The Science of Getting Started

Activation Energy

How many times have you put off starting something? How many times did that same task end up being relatively easy, once you finally got started?

In chemistry, activation energy is the “minimum energy required to start a chemical reaction.” What is fascinating about the concept is that this initial energy typically far exceeds the amount of energy required to sustain the reaction.

In other words, it takes a lot to get started – but it is easier to continue something that has already begun. This same principle applies to humans and our motivations, as well.





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We Are Chemical Beings

Metaphysical suppositions aside, we humans are nothing more than one big chemical reaction. Trying to get started with a new task, especially one which does not seem fun, requires a certain motivational activation energy. It may be hard to get out of the bed in the morning, but once you do, it is generally much easier to stay awake.

Clearly the more boring / annoying the task, the greater the activation energy. Perhaps this analogy could also help explain a number of different personality traits. I’m more interested, though, in how to improve the reaction – to reduce activation energy in order to make tasks easier.


Prepare a Catalyst

In the chemical world, a catalyst reduces the activation energy required for a reaction (see the graph above). It is not that the reaction has fundamentally changed, but the addition of a new component facilitates the onset.

In the world of human beings, there are several things that can serve as effective motivational catalysts. One of the most effective is the simple use of planning. When you plan to do something ahead of time (and even rehearse it or set aside a specific time to do it), you make the task easier to get started.

To continue with the “getting out of bed” example from above, consider the difference between waking up with a task in mind and waking up on a lazy Sunday morning. In the latter situation there is no planning involved. In the former situation, though, each task leads into the next. You need to wake up to get your shower in time to have your breakfast in time to make the morning commute. You may not enjoy waking up any more (or even less), but each task is made easier because you have a plan in mind.

Furthermore, you harness the power of momentum in this scenario. When each task leads into the next one (the breakfast to the shower to the commute), it becomes a chain-reaction (to continue with the chemistry parlance). You hardly have time to think between each activity because each one flows logically from the last, the energy you had from the last task carrying you forward into the next one. As with a chemical chain-reaction, you do not need to add as much energy (motivation) to continue the process; the energy from the last reaction (task) carries over to make the next one easier.

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