Everyone is on the lookout for tactics and hacks that can make success easier. Chemists are no different. When it comes to dealing with chemical reactions, the one trick chemists have up their sleeves is to use what is known as a catalyst.
A catalyst is a substance that speeds up a chemical reaction. Basically, a catalyst lowers the activation energy and makes it easier for a reaction to occur. The catalyst is not consumed by the reaction itself. It’s just there to make the reaction happen faster.
Here’s a visual example:
When it comes to building better habits, you also have a catalyst that you can use:
The most powerful catalyst for building new habits is environment design(what some researchers call choice architecture). The idea is simple: the environments where we live and work influence our behaviors, so how can we structure those environments to make good habits more likely and bad habits more difficult?
Here is an example of how your environment can act as a catalyst for your habits:
Imagine you are trying to build the habit of writing for 15 minutes each evening after work. A noisy environment with loud roommates, rambunctious children, or constant television noise in the background will require a high activation energy to stick with your habit. With so many distractions, it’s likely that you’ll fall off track with your writing habit at some point. Meanwhile, if you stepped into a quiet writing environment—like a desk at the local library—your surroundings suddenly become a catalyst for your behavior and make it easier for the habit to proceed.
Your environment can catalyze your habits in big and small ways. If you set your running shoes and workout clothes out the night before, you just lowered the activation energy required to go running the next morning. If you hire a meal service to deliver low calorie meals to your door each week, you significantly lowered the activation energy required to lose weight. If you unplug your television and hide it in the closet, you just lowered the activation energy required to watch less television. The right environment is like a catalyst for your habits and it lowers the activation energy required to start a good habit.
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. An intermediate step needs to occur before we go from starting to finishing.
There are all sorts of intermediate steps with habits as well.
Say you want to build the habit of working out. Well, this could involve intermediate steps like paying a gym membership, packing your gym bag in the morning, driving to the gym after work, exercising in front of other people, and so on.
Each intermediate step has its own activation energy. When you’re struggling to stick with a new habit it can be important to examine each link in the chain and figure out which one is your sticking point. Put another way, which step has the activation energy that prevents the habit from happening?
Some intermediate steps might be easy for you. To continue our fitness example from above, you might not care about paying for a gym membership or packing your gym bag in the morning. However, you may find that driving to the gym after work is frustrating because you end up hitting more rush hour traffic. Or you may discover that you don’t enjoy working out in public with strangers.
Developing solutions that remove the intermediate steps and lower the overall activation energy required to perform your habit can increase your consistency in the long-run. For example, perhaps going to the gym in the morning would allow you to avoid rush hour traffic. Or maybe starting a home workout routine would be best since you could skip the traffic and avoid exercising in public. Without these two barriers, the two intermediate steps that were causing friction with your habit, it will be much easier to follow through.