'Activation Energy' Is Your New Hack For Changing Your Habits
May 28, 2019
Welcome back to Chemistry class.
But one chemistry principle is actually valuable to your everyday life: the idea of activation energy.
The legit textbook definition is "the minimum amount of energy that must be available for a chemical reaction to occur."
But what it means for your habits is the minimum amount of energy that must be available for you to get stuff done.
"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."- James Clear
As James Clear writes, "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."
The good news is this can act as a little guide to your habits—how to start the good ones, break the bad ones, and keep up with the ones that benefit your life the most.
Here's how activation energy works in practice.
Break Down Each Habit Into Steps
You might want to start a new habit like "journal for a half hour every day" or "go to ballet class once a week." These are great! But each habit actually takes a small series of tiny steps and actions.
To start journaling every day, you're not only writing—you're going through a bunch of steps, including:
●︎ Picking a time
●︎ Gathering the right tools (i.e. journal, computer, etc.)
●︎ Having a quiet space
●︎ Opening up a fresh page
And so on. These seem tiny, but look how quickly you can get derailed—maybe you go to open your journal doc but decide to quickly check a blog hanging out in your bookmarks, because the icons are right next to each other. Or you do start writing, except you get stuck on finding the perfect word, so start searching around the Internet to find it.
Each of these steps require their own energy—the force you need to get them going.
Write down all the steps that come with your habit, and notice the actions that might have higher activation energy (actually stepping away from your day to journal) and which ones have lower activation energy (physically opening your journal once you’re ready to write).
Lower the Activation Energy For Habits You Want to Keep
What you want is for each new habit and the steps within it to have the lowest activation energy required to start it.
For example: When I wanted to start reading more, I knew having to walk over to my nightstand to grab my current book when I had a free moment was too much effort. Instead, I kept an open book in my kitchen so I would be tempted to pick it up in the few minutes I was waiting for the microwave to finish or my coffee to percolate. Activation energy = lowered!
Say you want to make a habit of spending more time with your friends, but the back and forth of texting to figure out where to go for dinner and when exhausts you.
Take this brilliant advice to make it as easy as possible: Look at your calendar, pick a night you're free, then reach out to a friend you want to see. If they can't make it or don't respond, make plans with someone else! Keep that activation energy lowww.
You can also keep a list of restaurants or activities you want to try, that way it's less complicated to make plans since you already have a whole host of things you want to do.
Raise the Activation Energy For Habits You Want to Break
If lowering your activation energy makes certain habits easier, it holds true that raising your activation energy for other habits will help you break them.
If scrolling on your phone at night keeps you up later than you should, you can raise your activation energy in a couple ways:
●︎ Hide apps on your screen
●︎ Pick a time to delete the app—say, after dinner
●︎ Store your phone for the night in another room
●︎ Give yourself two staggered bedtimes: a phone bedtime, and a person bedtime (when you're actually drifting off)
Own Your Activation Energy
Sometimes figuring out what you need to activate a habit is more complicated than it looks, so it pays to think logically and literally about each task.
Say you want to call home more often—seems easy! Just pick up the phone! But think about the actual details:
●︎You need to find a quiet time, when you're not rushing around
●︎How much time you'll need to be on the phone
And so on! The same holds true for any other habit you want to pick up. If you want to start taking improv classes, think about timing (will you have energy after work on a Thursday? Maybe! Or maybe a Saturday afternoon would be a more realistic time), and location (will it involve you having to cross town during rush hour?) and accountability (do you want a friend to enroll with you, too?)
Because that's the thing about activation energy—once you start to think about it, you see it everywhere. Maybe you've mastered chemistry after all.
Today's recommended meditaition: