Remember the last time you had a task that you had to do, but just couldn’t get started?
How was it when you finally did it?
Usually for me it isn’t so bad when it gets going – the hard part is getting started.
I recently discovered how an idea from high school chemistry can help fix this.
The idea is Activation Energy.
For our purposes, activation energy can be defined as the minimum amount of energy required to start a chemical reaction.
It can also be thought of as a potential barrier or threshold, in the sense that if you can get just enough energy to make it over the activation energy, the reaction will then drive itself.
The equation governing the rate of a reaction (which you can geek out on here if you are so inclined) shows that the rate depends on both activation energy and on temperature. In fact, the rate of the reaction increases exponentially as the temperature increases or as activation energy decreases.
Now, think of the task as the reaction, the rate of the reaction is your general productivity at tasks of this type, and the temperature is your mental “energy,” and the activation energy is your psychological resistance to starting the task.
The analogy works nicely, since it’s usually easier to do stuff when you’re energetic and motivated (temperature is high) and/or you don’t have much psychological resistance to starting the task (activation energy is low).
Also, most of the time, once you start a task, the task itself – or the positive feeling of getting work done – provides the energy to finish or at least continue for a good while. This fits with the the idea of making it over an energy barrier.
“Temperature” i.e. physical energy, motivation, sense of well-being, etc. is an important topic, but we’re going to wait until the next post to discuss it further.
The thing about the energy barrier is that it isn’t necessarily set in stone. It can be decreased with the addition of a catalyst – a substance that expedites the reaction without being consumed by it.
In our case, it’s most useful to think of the energy barrier as being the inherent energy barrier of the task plus some number of unnecessary external factors that make it harder.
For example, if you need to cook but your kitchen is dirty, the energy barrier to starting is the energy barrier of cooking PLUS that of cleaning your kitchen up – which can be really high if you or one of your roommates isn’t naturally tidy.
I hasten to add that this is purely a hypothetical – obviously neither I nor anyone else associated with The Focus Formulas would even DREAM of being so untidy as to put themselves, their roommates, or their parents in such a situation.
Similarly, if more subtly, your physical surroundings can contribute.
If your desk or writing area is cluttered, poorly lit, or otherwise not a place that makes you feel good to be in, you’ll find yourself making excuses not to sit down and write.
Note that this is in addition to any tendencies you have towards procrastinating.
The “catalyst” is deliberately cutting away those small things that make starting harder.
You know on some level that if you kept your desk, kitchen, or whatever relevant work space clean, you’d probably be more productive.
But you probably think you’d only be a little more productive, so you’re not that motivated.
But what if you weren’t just a little more productive?
What if you were exponentially more productive?
You’d be motivated to make those improvements right away, wouldn’t you?
There are two related ways I look at productivity in this activation energy framework, both of which supply a ton of motivation.
With regard to a specific task, for every “unit” of difficulty I can decrease the difficulty of starting, my probability of procrastinating is cut in half. I get the same result for every “unit” that I can increase my personal energy and motivation.
For a type of task – something I will do repeatedly – this means that even a small but consistent improvement to the ease of starting will make me exponentially more productive over time – a “unit” decrease in average starting difficulty will double my productivity.
Now, think about that for a minute.
It really does mean that keeping your workspace tidy and pleasant may make the difference between never finishing that novel and finishing it in the next six months.
This fits right into The Focus Formulas playbook of developing a simple model that a) captures some key truth about the world and b) inherently motivates you to take productive action.
It’s generally not enough to know that something will help. There’s tons of things that might be helpful and you don’t have the time or mental energy to try more than a fraction of them.
On a subconscious level, you know this, which is part of the reason it’s easy to procrastinate on improvements.
However, once you realize that it won’t be just a small improvement, but a very large one for your effort, motivation will be a lot easier.
This is the first of a four part series. In the next two posts we’ll be going into a lot more detail about how to decrease the activation energy of tasks, and in the fourth post, we’ll revisit the idea of temperature and how you can make it work for you.
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