May 13, 2023




How to Use Activation Energy to Master Procrastination

At a glance

Today’s Fast Summary:

  • Activation energy is the amount of energy needed to start a reaction or process.

  • Once a reaction has enough activation energy, the reaction can sustain itself.

  • In the context of motivation, activation energy is the effort or time it takes to complete a certain task.

  • The greater the activation energy, the easier it is to procrastinate. So the less energy needed to prepare for a task, the better.

  • Breaking down a task, using a catalyst, and rethinking the task itself are all ways to lower activation energy.

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How to Use Activation Energy to Master Productivity

Everyone procrastinates—even the most productive people you know.

There are different types of procrastination. Not all are created equal. Bad procrastination is the habit of trading a beneficial task for one that doesn’t serve you.

Telling yourself you’ll get started on your work pitch tomorrow and watch TV instead is an example of bad procrastination.

Good procrastination is trading a beneficial task for one that’s even more beneficial. Conducting market research before writing the pitch is an example of this.

Here, we’re going to cover how to handle bad procrastination.

The biggest key to conquering bad procrastination came when I discovered activation energy. I’m going to share what it is and how you can use it to help you too.

In chemistry, activation energy is the amount of energy needed to start a reaction or process. The amount of activation energy varies, but it’s how things get started.

However, once a reaction has enough activation energy, the reaction itself is self-sustaining.

In other words, once there’s energy to get started, the reaction will proceed on its own with little input from you.

For example, if you’re camping with friends and need to light the fire you built, the lighter supplies the reaction’s activation energy. But once the fire is lit, you can enjoy the nice, warm flame.

Check out this graphic. The resting energy (‘A’) is lower than the energy needed to start the reaction (‘B’). Once the energy is present, the reaction proceeds, and the energy needed decreases (‘C’).

But what does this have to do with motivation and procrastination?

In the context of motivation, activation energy is the effort or time it takes to complete a certain task.

The greater the activation energy, the easier it is to procrastinate.

In other words, if a task requires more preparation, like getting dressed, putting on sneakers, heading to the gym, and working out, the easier it is for us to lag.

On the other hand, once we get enough energy to get started, the task itself is easy.

You’ve likely experienced this yourself: Have you ever put something off until the last minute, done it, then realized it wasn’t so bad after all?

That’s activation energy at work. Once you gain the motivation to complete something, it becomes effortless.

So how do we apply it?

Lower the Activation Energy

The less energy needed to prepare for a task, the better. If you lower the activation energy, getting started becomes much easier.

Simplify your preparation process.

What do you really need to do this task? In all likelihood, much less than you think.

Consider emails for example. You don’t need to get up, get dressed, have coffee, boot up your computer, and type long, exquisite sentences to send important emails.

All you need is you and internet access. So, in theory, you can send those emails wearing PJs in bed, right?

When you simplify the preparation process, you lower the activation energy necessary to get it done.

Break Down the Task

Decomplicating a task—breaking it down into its simplest form—is another way to lower the activation energy needed to get it done.

Think about exercise. If you haven’t run in months, it would be unwise to imagine yourself running a marathon a week from today.

Instead of saying, “I have to run four miles today,” break the task into smaller steps.

Run one today, and walk the other three. Or, you can run one, walk one, and run another.

There are many ways to break down tasks. Don’t psych yourself out.

Use a Catalyst

In biology and chemistry, catalysts speed up processes by lowering the activation energy needed to spur the reaction.

In life, catalysts are a bit different. A catalyst can be something like a post-it note reminding you to do the task or an upcoming beach vacation that jumpstarts your spring fitness routine.

Partners, mentors, friends, or family can be catalysts: Someone who can provide you with a little guidance and encouragement can help you tackle your tasks. They lower the activation energy needed for you to get started.

You can be your own catalyst:

  • Make post-it notes

  • Set reminders

  • Form long-term goals

  • Plan for a task or project

Lower your own activation energy.

Hack Your Psychology

You are your own worst enemy.

Luckily, you have the power to change your habits.

Think of all the times you missed a workout. For most people, it is one of two reasons:

  1. You haven’t mentally defined what you’ll do during your exercise.

  2. The exercise you planned requires a lot of energy—energy you don’t have.

‘1’ requires mental effort: You needed to plan what you’re going to do during your workout session. Mentally, you made a mountain out of a molehill.

Planning not only requires activation energy, but it increases it. You overcomplicated the task entirely.

‘2’ requires physical effort, and that physical effort increases the task’s activation energy.

So—what do you do?

  •  Simplify it. You can clearly define the exercise you want to do that day before you head to the gym. When it comes time to step onto the machine, you’ll only have one barrier to overcome: Physical exertion. If you don’t define what you’re going to do, you’ll face planning and a physical hurdle.

  •  Break down the task. Instead of an hour-long exercise session, try exercising for fifteen minutes. Doing so lowers what you perceive the activation energy to be: Fifteen minutes sounds much less tiring than an hour, right? And, in all likelihood, the fifteen minutes will feel easy, and you’ll try for another ten.

  • Use a catalyst. A supportive workout buddy, family member, or friend can help motivate you to get to the gym. You can be your own catalyst too. Consider why you want to exercise in the first place. Maybe you have a big party coming up or want to feel your best. You too can be your own catalyst.

Take this habit and apply it to all areas of your life.

Say you’ve got a daunting, fuzzy project that you need to complete next week.

You’re facing two issues:

  1. The mental effort needed to define the project’s steps.

  2. The effort of completing the project.

So, how can we reduce the activation energy?

Once again, explicitly define what is necessary to complete the project. In other words, write before action.

Separate the project into smaller parts, and tackle them independently: Planning is one, and doing is another. Breaking it down makes the problem far less gruesome.

Lowering the activation energy needed to get started is your first step. The next is to do it—it’ll be much easier than you think.

This week, I ask you to think inwardly and apply the concepts of activation energy to your procrastination habit on paper. Consider what you’ve been putting off, grab a pen and some paper, and take a few moments to reflect on energy.

  1. Define what you’ve been putting off.

    a. The first step to solving a problem is to say it out loud, and this is no exception. Define the problem—write down what you’ve been putting off in large, bold letters.

  2. How is activation energy holding you back?

    a. Consider what’s been hindering you from getting started on the task or problem. Why are you apprehensive to get started? Is it internal, or something external that’s holding you back? Write down your answer.

    b. What is needed to prepare? Consider all the steps you feel you need to complete to get started. What’s involved? Write these down also.

    c. Think about which steps can be eliminated. What is necessary to tackle the task at hand? With your pen or pencil, scratch out the steps you deem unnecessary.

  3. Consider how you can lower the activation energy needed to tackle the problem. You slashed out some of the steps already, but what else can you do?

    a. Can the problem be broken down into smaller, more manageable parts?

    b. Can you find a catalyst—a person of support—to help motivate you?

  4. How can you be your own catalyst?

    a. Post-it notes, motivational apps, reminders, and notes are all examples of ways you can be your own catalyst. What can you do to get started solving the problem?

    b. Visualize the best possible outcome. What does it look like? How do you feel? This in itself can be a catalyst.

Take a look at what you’ve written, and use it as a catalyst to change your behavior. It’s high time to lower your activation energy and conquer your most daunting tasks.


I’d love to hear from you:

  • What is your procrastination habit? What have you been putting off?

  • How can you lower your activation energy today?

  • How do the principles of activation energy relate to your life?

Tweet at me (@_alexbrogan) or respond to this email — I’ll try to respond to everyone.

Have a wonderful, Wednesday all.

Until next time,


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