Activation Energy: The Science of Getting Started

How many times have you put off starting something? How many times did that same task end up being relatively easy, once you finally got started?

In chemistry, activation energy is the “minimum energy required to start a chemical reaction.” What is fascinating about the concept is that this initial energy typically far exceeds the amount of energy required to sustain the reaction.

In other words, it takes a lot to get started – but it is easier to continue something that has already begun. This same principle applies to humans and our motivations, as well.


We Are Chemical Beings

Metaphysical suppositions aside, we humans are nothing more than one big chemical reaction. Trying to get started with a new task, especially one which does not seem fun, requires a certain motivational activation energy. It may be hard to get out of the bed in the morning, but once you do, it is generally much easier to stay awake.

Clearly the more boring / annoying the task, the greater the activation energy. Perhaps this analogy could also help explain a number of different personality traits. I’m more interested, though, in how to improve the reaction – to reduce activation energy in order to make tasks easier.

Prepare a Catalyst

In the chemical world, a catalyst reduces the activation energy required for a reaction (see the graph above). It is not that the reaction has fundamentally changed, but the addition of a new component facilitates the onset.

In the world of human beings, there are several things that can serve as effective motivational catalysts. One of the most effective is the simple use of planning. When you plan to do something ahead of time (and even rehearse it or set aside a specific time to do it), you make the task easier to get started.

To continue with the “getting out of bed” example from above, consider the difference between waking up with a task in mind and waking up on a lazy Sunday morning. In the latter situation there is no planning involved. In the former situation, though, each task leads into the next. You need to wake up to get your shower in time to have your breakfast in time to make the morning commute. You may not enjoy waking up any more (or even less), but each task is made easier because you have a plan in mind.

Furthermore, you harness the power of momentum in this scenario. When each task leads into the next one (the breakfast to the shower to the commute), it becomes a chain-reaction (to continue with the chemistry parlance). You hardly have time to think between each activity because each one flows logically from the last, the energy you had from the last task carrying you forward into the next one. As with a chemical chain-reaction, you do not need to add as much energy (motivation) to continue the process; the energy from the last reaction (task) carries over to make the next one easier.


  1. Avatar
    Anonymous -  September 23, 2011 - 5:38 pm 626


    Good post. I’ve been interested in the psychology of motivation and starting something recently and this was helpful to read.

    Rock the world!

    • Avatar
      Zane the Experimenter -  September 24, 2011 - 4:59 am 627

      I’m glad you find it useful! Motivation psychology is a tricky beast and there are lots of ways to explain it, but I find that the very act of thinking about it helps to improve it (a form of metacognition, I suppose).

  2. Avatar
    Anonymous -  September 27, 2011 - 7:09 am 628

    Hi Zane,
    I’ve been following your blog for quite some and now and it’s about time I wrote a comment. I really enjoy reading your blog. I think partly because we have some of the same interests (programming, business, travelling and languages).
    Concerning getting things started: I usually start out with something easy or fun. For example when programming I often start out with the design, before I do any coding. This gives me a sense of initial accomplishment and motivates me to dig into the code.

    • Avatar
      Zane the Experimenter -  September 27, 2011 - 5:45 pm 631


      Thanks very much for dropping a comment here – it really makes my day to see people get something out of the blog.

      I like your approach a lot – to apply it to the graph, it seems like you’re extending the X axis, giving a smoother ramp-up in terms of activation energy (so you can apply it little by little over time, using excitement to propel you forward). It also sounds like a good way to combat ego depletion 😉

  3. Avatar
    max_hydrogen -  September 27, 2011 - 4:39 pm 630

    Voici mon problème “in a nutshell”…

    • Avatar
      Zane the Experimenter -  September 27, 2011 - 5:48 pm 632

      Es que tu a essayé las ideas dans cette “post” pour reduir l’energie que es necessaire? Tu as autre ideas pour cette probleme? 

      • Avatar
        Max hydrogen -  September 28, 2011 - 2:04 pm 635

        Pas encore. Ça fait des années que je tente de changer. C’est pourquoi je t’ai envoyé un courriel concernant le déterminisme génétique il y a deux mois: Pouvons-nous se libérer du comportement conditionné par nos traits génétique?

        Je posais cette question car j’ai le TDA (ADD) et j’ai besoin de changer mon comportement “pronto” pour avoir une chance de vivre et le manque d’énergie activatrice compose une grande partie de mes défauts et je vais me concentrer sur se problème en particulier. Pour moi, le problème c’est le sédentarisme: quand je ne bouge pas, ça devient extrêmement difficile d’entamer quoi que se soit.

        Je te jure que c’est contre ma volonté; même si je sais que je dois faire quelque chose et que je me châtie psychologiquement, je suis physiquement INCAPABLE de commencer; il me faudrait un catalyseur du genre “red bull for the soul”. J’ai commencé un traitement (yet another one) pour le TDA; j’espère que ça m’aidera avec ma déficience d’énergie activatrice. Mais en fait, comme tu as écrit, le simple fait d’y penser; de savoir que “the first hurdle” est le plus difficile, aide à bouger son cul.

        Cet article effectuerait bien une osmose avec celui du “ego depletion”.

  4. Avatar
    ElPolaco -  January 22, 2012 - 8:14 pm 675

    Very interesting article. When studying engineering I always found it astonishing how
    many similarities exist between the laws that govern physics and human behaviour. 

    About your example, I used to think about human actions as a friction associated with moving an object. Say you want to move your wardrobe to another side of the room… then you would also have to overcome the initial resistance which, however, depends on the friction factor of the floor (which might vary greatly!).

    I think in life certain tasks might have different friction coefficient and we need to push accordingly. 

    • Avatar
      Zane the Experimenter -  January 22, 2012 - 8:55 pm 676

      Thanks! Certainly, the coefficient of friction (such as it were) will vary from task to task, and person to person. What I find difficult to motivate myself to do, you may find easy. Interestingly, I think we might call this coefficient of motivational friction “enjoyment.” That is, perceived enjoyment is the thing that describes how easy it is to motivate yourself to do something.

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