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Activation Energy

Definition

The smallest amount of energy required for a chemical reaction to happen.

To produce a result, you need activation energy to go from an initial state, known as the minima, the smallest value of the reactants, to the final state, called the products.

Say you turn on a stove to the lowest setting, then attempt to fry an egg. The egg doesn’t have a sufficient amount of heat to cause a chemical reaction. You then decide to set the dial on high, and the egg starts to cook. At the microscopic level, it’s breaking weak chemical bonds, which changes how the proteins in the egg behave — the minimum amount of energy for an egg to produce a reaction.

Why Use It

When attempting to complete a task, the first step is the hardest to take. Whatever the action, a specific amount of energy is needed to overcome inertia. By perceiving how much is necessary to incite action, you can control outcomes more reliably. The principle can be used internally to introduce and keep habits or externally to motivate others’ behaviors.

When to Use It

The energy required to start something is more than subsequent actions, so it’s imperative to recognize your impetus to begin something.

Ever stared at a blank page or screen and wished you could skip to a completed page with your best work?

More challenging and complex behaviors require higher activation energy to get going. So, building habits to cultivate desired results is a process of discovery, experimentation, reinforcement, and it can short circuit that first and most challenging hurdle.

For example, writing one sentence that recaps your day requires little energy. However, writing 800 words in your journal is a habit with higher activation energy. What is needed to complete that task day after day? How much more motivation and fortitude will it demand?

How to Use It

A reaction might require so much energy in chemistry that it can be hard to control or cost too much. In those cases, it’s crucial to decrease what is needed. Lowering the activation energy is called catalysis, and all you need is an additional substance as a catalyst. A catalyst provides a way to have the same reaction using less energy.

Say you’re lighting a log on fire; it’s hard to do with one match, but set some kindling underneath, light that, and that’s enough of a catalyst to get the log aflame.

When an engineer writes code for an app, it requires energy to begin, especially at the outset of a new feature. Using a catalyst can decrease the barrier to productivity: for one person, it’s caffeine, someone else might meditate, another might read for inspiration — it varies.

Incentives are also a fantastic catalyst for getting yourself or others to take action. For example, a child might not want to do their homework, and incentivizing them with a television show afterward will motivate them to start.

The most powerful catalyst in life is your environment. Ensuring it’s designed for the desired outcome is the best way to stay disciplined. Trying to write a novel in a noisy room with family and friends will likely make authorship an out-of-reach dream. Finding a quiet space for a set period can structure your surroundings and invite better habits.

Complex chemical reactions can have an in-between step known as a reaction intermediate. Similarly, in life, there can be a step between commencing and completing a task. Getting to work on time in the morning might require several steps before you arrive. So, not only do you need the activation energy to get out of bed, but you also need to get dressed, make breakfast, get in the car, wait in traffic, find parking, and walk into the job. Eliminating one or more of those steps increases the likelihood of being on time, particularly if you cut out the ones with the highest activation energy, like needing to drive to work.

How to Misuse It

Mistaking a catalyst can cause problems as it won’t lower the activation energy required to get going. So, if you think coffee helps in the morning, but after an hour, you’re morose and no closer to beginning a big project, then perhaps you’re misjudging the situation.

Next Step

When reviewing a wanted habit, it’s important to note possible catalysts and reaction intermediates. Take the time to assess what can reduce the amount of energy required and whether there are intermediate steps you can remove to improve your chances of completing an action. Finally, optimize your environment to ensure the habits and outcomes you need to occur do occur.

Where it Came From

Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius coined the term in 1889, providing a mathematical equation to calculate activation energies. That said, ancient philosophers such as Plato wrote about it more generally thousands of years before.

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Mental models are thinking tools that help guide and shape our perceptions of the world. They simplify complexity so we can understand life better, make decisions confidently, and solve problems.

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