There is a concept in chemistry known as activation energy.
Here’s how it works:
Activation energy is the minimum amount of energy that must be available for a chemical reaction to occur. Let’s say you are holding a match and that you gently touch it to the striking strip on the side of the match box. Nothing will happen because the energy needed to activate a chemical reaction and spark a fire is not present.
However, if you strike the match against the strip with some force, then you create the friction and heat required to light the match on fire. The energy you added by striking the match was enough to reach the activation energy threshold and start the reaction.
Chemistry textbooks often explain activation energy with a chart like this:
It’s sort of like rolling a boulder up a hill. You have to add some extra energy to the equation to push the boulder to the top. Once you’ve reached the peak, however, the boulder will roll the rest of the way by itself. Similarly, chemical reactions require additional energy to get started and then proceed the rest of the way.
Alright, so activation energy is involved in chemical reactions all around us, but how is this useful and practical for our everyday lives?
Before we talk about how to get started, I wanted to let you know I researched and compiled science-backed ways to stick to good habits and stop procrastinating. Want to check out my insights
Similar to how every chemical reaction has an activation energy, we can think of every habit or behavior as having an activation energy as well.
This is just a metaphor of course, but no matter what habit you are trying to build there is a certain amount of effort required to start the habit. In chemistry, the more difficult it is for a chemical reaction to occur, the bigger the activation energy. For habits, it’s the same story. The more difficult or complex a behavior, the higher the activation energy required to start it.
For example, sticking to the habit of doing 1 pushup per day requires very little energy to get started. Meanwhile, doing 100 pushups per day is a habit with a much higher activation energy. It’s going to take more motivation, energy, and grit to start complex habits day after day.
Here’s a common problem that I’ve experienced when trying to build new habits:
It can be really easy to get motivated and hyped up about a big goal that you want to achieve. This big goal leads you to think that you need to revitalize and change your life with a new set of ambitious habits. In short, you get stuck dreaming about life-changing outcomes rather than making lifestyle improvements.
The problem is that big goals often require big activation energies. In the beginning you might be able to find the energy to get started each day because you’re motivated and excited about your new goal, but pretty soon (often within a few weeks) that motivation starts to fade and suddenly you’re lacking the energy you need to activate your habit each day.
This is lesson one: Smaller habits require smaller activation energies and that makes them more sustainable. The bigger the activation energy is for your habit, the more difficult it will be to remain consistent over the long-run. When you require a lot of energy to get started there are bound to be days when starting never happens.