Activation Energy and Effective Catalysts

Do you ever find it hard to get out of bed in the morning, even when you had a hard time getting yourself to go to bed the night before? A hard time putting down your book when hours before you had to be forced to pick it up? Or running 17 miles when you had to drag yourself out the door to do 12? (Maybe that last one’s just me).

What’s common in all of these situations is that even if the end state is desirable (getting out of bed to have breakfast, stopping the mental effort of reading, or ending the run), there is still resistance to the state change. You have to deliberately engage System 2, your conscious will, your ego, whatever you call it, to make the switch.

This reminds me of the idea of an activation energy that was discussed in my highschool and college chemistry classes. The jist of it is basically this: chemical reactions convert a group of molecules into a different arrangement of molecules. Sometimes these reactions are thermodynamically favourable: the end result of the reaction is more stable or increases the entropy of the universe than the starting chemicals. Sometimes the reverse is true. However, pretty much all of these reactions, even those that are thermodynamically favourable (i.e. the ones that release energy), some initial input of energy, the activation energy, is required. Even the gasoline in your car requires a spark to start burning.

Sometimes you can reduce this required input of energy through the addition of a third chemical called the catalyst. The catalyst is not consumed by the reaction, but helps form more stable intermediates, reducing the cost of the activation energy. Our society has discovered many metal-based catalysts for industrial chemical production, starting with the early-iron catalysts used in the Haber-Bosch process. Yet there are many more catalysts in our own bodies, facilitating the trillions of chemical reactions that make us tick. I’m sure I’ll write about them sometime.

What if there was a way to catalyse our actions so that the activation energy wasn’t so high?

I’m pretty convinced that there is, and the crux of it relies on habit formation. Human activation energy comes from the engagement of System 2, from having to think and make a conscious decision. Although the exact concept of ego depletion has been debunked(will look into it more for the Thinking Fast & Slow effortpost review), the fact that decisions take more energy than instinctual reactions from System 1 has not been. Sometimes you want to avoid the use of System 1, but not when trying to engage in pre-planned activities. You already engaged System 2 when you decided that you were going to get up when you woke up the next morning. What a waste of energy to engage it again!

I’m no expert on habit formation and there are some great books (Atomic Habits and The Power of Habit for example) that do a better job than me of explaining exactly how to form good habits and catalyse your activation energy. Below however, I’ve bulleted a few tips that may be helpful.

  • Schedule your day: This prevents you from having to make too many decisions about what to do with your time. Many people avoid doing this because they feel like schedules trap them. However, it’s important to recognise that a). you made this schedule and you are free to break it whenever you want and b). Your schedule is just you deciding in advance what is important. If you really feel trapped by things you want to, you should maybe think about what you’re doing with your life some more.
  • Give yourself at least half-hour chunks to focus on things: Even people with the best catalysts have to overcome some amount of activation energy. By reducing the amount of task switching you engage in, you can reduce this wasted time even further.
  • Extreme commitment: Create activation energy in the direction opposite to your goals. Tell your whole family that you’re going to learn Spanish. Pay your friend when you start writing your novel and ask him to pay you back every time you finish a chapter.
  • Do things with a friend: Nothing else helps me get out the door to run on a wet and cold day more than knowing that I won’t be alone. A little harder in times of COVID, but still doable.

That’s all for this week.

Deus ex Vita



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Deus ex Vita

Deus ex Vita

“To the contrary, that the very genes do not lose a miRNA that has not been brushed away by the finger of God.” Musings about biology, learning and literature