Activation Energy: The Secret to Getting Started and Getting Finished

July 16, 2020  in 

Activation energy is a term used in chemistry and physics that’s defined as the energy you have to put into a system for a chemical reaction to occur.


That may sound perplexing, and admittedly, it took me a while to fully wrap my head around it.


But it’s actually pretty simple and boils down to just a few basic principles.


Understanding activation energy and how to reduce it can be a real game changer for revving up your productivity and can make your life a heck of a lot easier.


Here’s everything you need to know about activation energy and how it can turn you into a productivity ninja.

Activation Energy in Simple Terms

Perform research on this topic, and things can get intense in a hurry.


You’ll find a lot of scientific literature, featuring graphs with complex molecular equations like this.

activation energy - the science


For a guy who struggled to get a B in high-school chemistry, this looks intimidating.


But when you break it all down, activation energy is simply the minimum amount of energy you have to put into something for a chemical reaction to occur.


One of the best examples involves rolling a large stone up a hill.


The initial energy you use to roll the stone up the hill is the activation energy.

activation energy illustrated

It’s the hardest part of the process.


But as you can see in the diagram above, once you get the stone over the top of the hill, the rest of the reaction takes place, and the stone rolls down the hill, propelled by its own momentum.


This is a critical concept to understand when it comes to getting started on important tasks and being more productive.


By efficiently reaching the activation energy threshold, you can quickly get started on whatever you’re working on and use natural momentum to carry you through until completion.


From there, you can basically coast without having to overexert yourself.


It’s complete zen.


For the full rundown on activation energy, check out this video from Bozeman Science.

Lowering Activation Energy and Forming Productive Habits

Author, entrepreneur, and habit expert James Clear wrote a fascinating article on activation energy.


One of his key points was taking the science behind this chemistry concept and applying it to forming better habits.


He explains that whenever you’re attempting to build a positive habit, there’s a certain amount of energy you must put forth to make it a reality.


“In chemistry, the more difficult it is for a chemical reaction to occur, the bigger the activation energy,” Clear writes. “For habits, it’s the same story. The more difficult or complex a behavior, the higher the activation energy required to start it.”


He uses pushups as an example.


If you’re working on strength training, doing one pushup a day would require very little activation energy.


But if you were doing 100 hundred pushups a day, it would require a much higher level of activation energy, especially if fitness isn’t really your thing.

gipsytime to do list

This graph illustrates the correlation between more habit progress and more activation energy.

activation energy of new habits

This bottom line is this — the more activation energy a habit requires, the harder it is to stick to.


While you may be able to keep up a hardcore regiment of 100 pushups a day for a little while, you’ll likely lose steam and lack the energy to keep it going for the long run.


That’s why having overly ambitious goals often backfires.


There’s simply not enough energy to sustain it over time, and we eventually give up.


I know I’ve fallen into this trap more times than I can count.


But if a positive habit requires little activation energy, the easier it is to stick to, and the odds of succeeding increase.

Using Catalysts and Removing Intermediate Steps to Lower the Need for Activation Energy

An article from Khan Academy notes that “the process of speeding up a reaction by reducing its activation energy is known as catalysis, and the factor that’s added to lower the activation energy is called a catalyst.”


Long story short — a catalyst helps lower the need for activation energy, making it easier to develop a positive habit.


Here’s a graph from James Clear that shows the difference between adding a catalyst and not adding one when trying to start a new habit.

activation energy and catalyzing new habitsThis is something that largely boils down to optimizing your environment so that you need less activation energy to keep moving forward.


If you structure your environment in a way that makes good habits more likely and bad habits less likely, it puts you on the fast track for progress.


It also involves removing unnecessary “intermediate steps,” which are actions that require their own activation energy.


And these are the two points I want to talk about for the rest of this post — how to use catalysts and remove intermediate steps to lower the amount of activation energy needed, so you can get “over the hill” and ride the wave of momentum.


It’s all about getting here with greater ease, enabling you to get started and get finished with least amount of friction.

activation energy scienceA Real Life Example – Distraction Blocking

One of the biggest hindrances to being productive is distractions.


Research has found that distractions are at epic proportions, with the average time spent on a task being just a minute and 15 seconds before an interruption occurs.


That’s crazy!

What’s worse is that it takes over 25 minutes, on average, to get back in the groove after being distracted.

So, that’s why I want to focus specifically on blocking distractions for this example.


If you can develop a framework for keeping distractions at bay, you can lower the activation energy needed to complete tasks and stay on track.


Optimizing Your Environment to Block Distractions


The first thing you need to do to boost your productivity is optimize your environment in a way that weeds out distractions and requires minimal activation energy.


This involves a two-pronged approach.

  1. Set up your physical environment so that you’re not barraged with needless distractions
  2. Optimize your tools and technology so they’re distraction free


When it comes to setting up your physical environment, this could include:

  • Working in a home office with plenty of natural light and a view of nature
  • Adjusting your workday so that you’re spending time on critical when it’s most quiet (e.g. your kids are at school)
  • Closing the door to your home office, indicating that you’re in serious work mode
  • Using noise-cancelling headphones
  • Getting rid of clutter that drains your cognitive resources


When it comes to optimizing your tools and technology, I have two main suggestions.


One is to use a distraction blocking tool like KosmoTime to help you stay in the zone.


Here’s how it works.


Start a task from the URL you’re using to get a project done.

gispytime taskKosmoTime will then close down your other tabs once you begin the task.


That way you’re instantly insulated from distractions like email, notifications, or the temptation to constantly check Facebook.


Whenever you try to open a new URL, you’ll get this screen where KosmoTime, asking if the website is part of your task or if it’s a distraction.


If it is in fact part of your task, you simply click “Yes, let me in.”

GipsyTime distraction blocking to do list

Otherwise, click “Cancel,” and you’ll be whisked away to the URL you should be using, allowing you to focus 100%.

gipsy time distraction blocking featureThis way there’s zero drama. Whenever you’re done, KosmoTime will reopen all of your tabs and notifications.

gipsytime ai todo list

This should stop you from getting sucked down the black hole of internet distractions, while at the same time preventing context switching, where you mindlessly jump between unrelated tasks.


My other suggestion is ensuring your phone is an asset and not a liability.


Maybe, for example, when used responsibly and strictly for business purposes, your smartphone helps you be more productive.


But when used irresponsibly, where it’s left to ring during intense periods of concentration or you check it compulsively, it creates a distraction that ends up doing more harm than good.


Stuart Gentle of online recruiting platform OnRec says that a seemingly small distraction like this can have a surprisingly huge impact on productivity — and not in a positive way.


Even checking your phone during lunch breaks can leave you feeling emotionally exhausted.


So, in this case, it would be considered an intermediate step that increases the need for more activation energy.


Taking it out of the equation by turning it on silent or putting it away in your desk during times where you’re trying to hit peak productivity means you’ll need less activation energy, which takes a lot of friction out of the positive habit forming process.


Optimizing your environment like this creates a catalyst for reducing distractions and creating deeper focus, which in turn, should lower the amount of activation energy you need to be productive.

Removing Intermediate Steps to Block Distractions

James Clear also adds that “chemical reactions often have a reaction intermediate, which is like an in-between step that occurs before you can get to the final product. So, rather than going straight from A to B, you go from A to X to B.”


And this is something that also applies to habits.


Many times when we try to develop good habits, we end up shooting ourselves in the foot with unnecessary intermediate steps that require additional activation energy.


When your goal is to become more productive and focus on a specific area, like blocking distractions, it’s important to identify any steps that are stopping you from developing this positive habit.


Say, for example, you’re using a collaboration app like Slack, which as a whole, contributes to better overall productivity.


However, getting pinged every five seconds whenever there’s an update creates distractions, which throws you off your game.


Coming up with a way to properly utilize a collaboration app and extract the full benefits without the unwanted side effects, like excessive notifications, should help lower the activation energy required to stay productive and increase your output.


And that’s another notable feature of KosmoTime — automatically turning off your Slack notifications whenever you need to focus.


This allows you to create a framework where you use it to improve collaboration without falling victim to endless pings.

Putting it All Together

Let’s recap.


Every positive habit you try to form requires activation energy.


The harder the habit is, the more activation energy you need to develop it.


Once you get to “over the hill,” things get a lot easier, and you can basically ride the wave of momentum.

activation energy scienceThe trickiest part is simply generating the initial activation energy needed to get you to that point.


But there are two key strategies that can help reduce the activation energy, so you can develop good habits, like being more productive and staying focused from task conception to completion.


They are:

  1. Using catalysts to optimize your environment
  2. Removing intermediate steps that get in the way


Once you figure those out, you can move toward achieving greater productivity with much less effort, thereby increasing your odds of getting the results you want.


It’s just a matter of knowing which catalysts to use and which intermediate steps to eliminate.


Every situation is different, but spending some time objectively analyzing things should produce the insights you need.

Activation Energy FAQs

Where did the term activation energy originate?

Chemistry and physics.

What’s the definition of activation energy?

It’s the energy you have to expend in order for a chemical reaction to occur.

What are the benefits of reducing the amount of activation energy?

It makes it easier for a chemical reaction to occur, meaning you can exert less effort to achieve your goal.

What’s the practical application of lowering the need for activation energy?

It helps you develop better habits, and in the context of this article, boost your productivity.

What are some specific strategies that lower the need for activation energy?

Optimizing your environment and eliminating intermediate steps.

Becoming a Productivity Sage

The concept of activation energy sounds pretty brainy and esoteric.


But it’s simply based on a natural law of 1) producing a chemical reaction and 2) riding the wave of momentum once that reaction has taken place.


The ultimate goal is to develop better habits and become more productive by reducing the amount of effort needed to start.


Once you do this, you can get more done without even breaking a sweat.


Learn more about how KosmoTime can help you block distractions and feel great while knocking tasks off your to-do list.