Activation Energy

Activation energy is the minimum quantity of energy required for a reaction. The activation energy idea shows up every day in our lives in the form of the minimum amount of energy required to build momentum toward what we want/need to do.

Activation energy is why its hard to get to the gym on a cold morning. It is why getting started on something important is painful.

But, for those of us who have (at least on occasion) managed to make it to the gym on a cold morning, we have likely experienced that is easier to work out long and hard once we’re there.

Activation energy, thus, regularly stands between us and desired habits. So, it is worth understanding activation energy and how we can work with it.

Overcoming activation energy requires willpower. In the long run, the best use of willpower is to create habits. Habits, in turn, help us reduce the amount of activation energy required to get something. But, it isn’t easy to create good habits. So, here a couple of interesting questions for us to consider in our quest to do so –

1. What are ways to reduce the activation energy until we create a habit? For example, we could start the year with a commitment to go to the gym with a friend for the first 6 months. Or, perhaps, we might pay for a personal trainer.

2. Are there ways to bypass the friction and still reach the end outcome? A consistent home workout for a month may be a great way to get us into the habit. Once we consistently begin to feel the benefits of a good workout, it becomes to lower the activation energy threshold.

Like most things, activation energy is neither good or bad. It just is. And, our experience with it is what we make of it.

Doing the opposite

The best source of feedback that will help you get better is you. No one understands that combination of context, the natural impulse, and the internal decision making process that led to the final action better than you. Giving ourselves feedback is a skill worth developing and a principle I’ve found particularly helpful is “Doing the opposite.”

The most challenging kind of feedback is the one that involves finding the right balance between a great strength and its corresponding weakness. This is where doing the opposite helps a lot. For example, here a few experiment ideas –

(1) If you have trouble being assertive during meetings, walk into every meeting reminding yourself to be assertive for a few months.

(2) On the other hand, if you, like me, default to being loud and provocative, again, do the opposite.

(3) If you default to being pushy and impatient when you want to get something, work on relying on “pull” in every instance.

By pushing us to stretch and do something that isn’t natural, doing the opposite helps us develop a range of styles. This, in turn, helps us develop the ability to apply the right behavior in the right context. There are times when being provocative or pushy is helpful. But, it isn’t all the time.

A wonderful other side effect of doing the opposite is that it makes us realize we are all more malleable than we think. Once we get started down the path, experimenting on changing our style becomes a lot more fun. And, given we’re going to be doing plenty of it in our lifetime, it helps if we’re having fun.

PS: I’m actively working on challenge (2) as of the last more recent (~18 months), I’ve made a lot more headway on (3) over the last 5 years or so. For folks who know me now and still think I’m pushy, I’m glad you didn’t meet me 5 years ago. :-)

Signing up for good habits

It’s that time of the year when we make commitments to sign up for good habits. So, we commit to eat healthier, exercise more, read more. And, we do these things to get smarter, fitter and better.

It is important to think of these outcomes when we sign up and plan to do these things. Research on motivation has shown that extrinsic rewards matter when we plan to do things. So, when we’re about to sign up for a job, we think we care about the pay package and the prestige of the job.

However, extrinsic motivators are an illusion. Once we’re in the job, all that matters are the intrinsic motivators – who we work with and what we do. The job isn’t just a route to getting the paycheck. It is what we do – 12 hours a day. And, we better make it good.

Similarly, it is fine to begin signing up for good habits with the smarter, fitter and better outcomes. But, the outcomes are just a side show. For, once we get started, it matters that we re-focus on the process of doing these. And, what we always find is that, virtues aside, eating healthier, exercising and reading more add a tremendous amount of energy and happiness to our day.

It turns out that that good habits are worth doing simply because they’re good.

Our instincts suck at first

Our instincts for something generally suck at first. This is nearly always the case. So, the “trust your instincts” advice is generally hogwash. If you just started playing chess or skiing or living life, please don’t follow your instincts. Most expertise is counter intuitive.

How, then, do they get better? By disciplining ourselves to build habits.

So, if you wanted to develop instincts for using your time effectively, you need to commit to training your mind to build habits over time. Or, if you want to develop instincts around your field of work, you need to have a habit to continuously study your field as you would have in school.

Let’s consider the time example. Imagine you want to spend your time trusting your instincts to lead you to the most effective uses of your time. Unless you are naturally disciplined, you might need to begin with a checklist. Create a daily checklist which covers your top priorities. The level of granularity will be directly proportional to your lack of discipline at that point. So, in my case eight years back, I had a very granular checklist for the day.

Over time, you’ll find yourself needing the granularity less. As an example, I used to run through a quick and simple morning checklist until a few months back. It made me feel like I was notching up quick wins. I don’t feel I need it anymore because I’m confident I can hit the ground running. But, I used this for many years.

Similarly, you can then convert daily checklists to weekly checklists. When I made that switch four years or so ago, my weekly checklist was very long. It was still very granular. The next edit made it shorter. Then, shorter again. My current version, as of two days ago, requires me to just spend a minute to go through it – it is just part of a weekly check in with myself. After years of training, I can feel my instincts slowly getting better.

And, if you care for a more specific example, I used to count 30 minutes of reading a non-fiction book as part of my daily checklist eight years ago. Then, I would count the rough aggregate time on a weekly basis. I stopped counting this a while back. I enjoy reading and trust myself to do so. But, I can’t say the same for exercise. In 2011, I began with trying to just exercise 3 times a week. This moved to 4 in 2013 and 5 in 2015. Now, we’re up to 6. I still track this carefully as I still resist it despite enjoying it. I hope the exercise habit will kick in in full swing in a couple of years.

Why do we resist stuff that we know is good for us? We all have a force within us that resists all positive change. Steven Pressfield calls this force “the resistance” – the most toxic force known to humans. So, don’t take it personally. Most of our instincts suck at first. But, they can get better. We just need to work at them over time. I’ve intentionally emphasized how long it took me to develop some rather basic instincts. Then again, I wasn’t disciplined at all and needed to do a lot of work. You probably are a lot more disciplined than I used to be. So, it’ll likely be a much quicker process for you. I hope it is.

But, if it isn’t, take heart. It’ll still likely be faster than my 8+ years.

It still isn’t easy. But, let’s, as a rule, not confuse easier and better.

Observing vs. Judging

One of the biggest changes in my attempts to change my own behavior in the past 2 years or so has been in the realm of observing vs. judging.

As an example, let me pick on a current trend – I haven’t been meditating in the last week and a half. I generally do so first thing in the morning but, due to a combination of a cold and a couple of disruptions, I’ve been waking up later than usual. In some ways, the core issue is disruption in the morning routine. The usual instinct would be to ask “judging” questions and attempt to use a firm hand – e.g. force myself to get back to routine tomorrow.

However, the approach I take instead is to just observe. In observing, I find myself asking learning questions, e.g, “why is this happening?”, “what are the consequences of this trend?” and even “how long will this continue?” I am my own guinea pig. :-) In addition to this, I also take note of a weekly count of meditation sessions during my week review time on Saturday.

Over time, I’ve built confidence in the fact that observing coupled with the act of measuring consistently tends to bring the changes I want to bring. And, this happens because I take off the pressure that judgment brings.

An example of this approach has been exercise – over 60 weeks that I have data for in the current system (I have some old data too elsewhere), my average exercise sessions in a week has gradually increased with time. It currently stands at 5.2 which means roughly 4 x 25 min sessions and 1.5 days of walking 10,000 steps at least. This is better than it was last year and the improvement has come from the same observe and measure process. Similarly, my average meditation count for 60 weeks is 1.7. However, if I take a 1 year look at this, we’re at 2.7 (3 is the target).

As with all meaningful life learnings, the guiding principles are consistent. In this case, it is playing the long game and focusing on learning questions versus judging questions.

observing, measuring, learning, judging

It is just the applications that are different.

Predictors of performance

As part of my ongoing experiments with my favorite guinea pig (i.e. myself), I was curious about understanding what factors were the best predictors of my performance in a given day. Now, performance isn’t easy to measure. So, I decided to just check for my mood at the end of the day – the general assumption was that, the better my performance during the day, the better the mood at the end of the day. It isn’t perfect but I thought it was a good enough proxy.

The results of this fairly unscientific experiment to test predictors of performance over the past 6 weeks or so were as follows –

1. Sleep. This didn’t surprise me one bit. But, it became very clear to me that lack of sleep was the single biggest day de-railer. Get 7.5 or 8 hours of sleep and I can literally feel energy through the day. Anything less and the effects begin to show. And, once it gets to the 6 hours territory, I just begin to feel slow.

2. Morning routine. This was a pleasant surprise. I found a huge difference when I got through my morning routine without stress- this includes meditating, blogging, clearing personal email, catching up on feeds/news, freshening up and having breakfast. If I have that 1.5 hours or so in the morning, the day goes much better.

(As you might expect, sleep has a big effect on the morning routine because sleeping late means waking up late and that, in turn, means less time for the morning routine. So, sleep’s top position is well deserved.)

3. A feeling of fitness. I target 6 exercise points in the week. 2 of these points can be 10,000 fitbit steps. 1 point otherwise is either 6 exercises in the gym or 0.5km in the pool (both take ~20 mins). If I feel I’m target for the 6 for the week, I feel great. If not, I feel sluggish. Interestingly, I observed that it is the “feeling” of fitness that matters more than fitness itself. The games our minds play..

I think I have generally been well fed in the past weeks and I didn’t try starving myself to see what the effects of food are. :-) I expect they are substantial too. I still think these 3 would be up top.

As I write this, it strikes me that all of this sounds so basic. That said, I also know that I’ve worked hard for the best part of the last 5 years to just get these basic things in place. And, they’ve played a big role in improving my overall level of happiness.

Common sense, as they say, is not so common. And, as I’ve learnt, getting the basic things consistently right is definitely no simple thing. Either that, or I’m a very slow learner.. and we can’t rule that out as yet. :-)

The slow burn

When I think of times when I successful changed a habit, almost all of them happened with a process I call “the slow burn.” And, in every case, the process was as follows –

1. Create a simple and clear goal – e.g. replace playing games on my phone before I sleep with reading a book, score 7 exercise points every week where 1 point = 20 mins of exercise
2. Think about my schedule and about how the new habit will fit in
3. Test it and keep iterating until it works

The most important aspect of the slow burn is the lack of finality. There are no statements like – “If this doesn’t work by this week, I’m really doing badly” or “it HAS to work by the end of the month.” It is not played in the spirit of win-lose. Instead, it is played in the spirit of the infinite game. We have until eternity to figure this out, and we will. We just need to really want to do it, listen carefully to ourselves for feedback, and follow it up by tweaking our schedule and environment to make it work.

For example, replacing playing games on my phone with reading a book required me to tweak the environment just a bit – placing a bed side lamp made it easy for me to switch off the lamp and head to bed (this was before I got myself an iPad and, while I understand this sounds incredibly lazy :-), this little tweak successfully changed a habit I really wanted to change). Similarly, hitting my exercise targets required many tiny tweaks to the schedule.

At first glance, this can all sound like too much effort to create a habit. Why not just power through it by creating big consequences, e.g. a $100 fine every time you miss exercise? My experiences have taught me otherwise. Yes, there are many ways to “power through” changes – create big fines, ask peers to guilt you into making changes, announce your intentions on facebook and shame yourself. But, these are just hacks. And, while hacks help improve systems and make them more efficient, they don’t help solve basic effectiveness problems. Guilt-tripping ourselves into changes are a sure-fire way of ensuring they don’t last.

If we really want to make long term changes, we have to first want to make them. Once we decide we really want to make them, we then need to make a commitment to evaluate these changes every few months and re-commit. This ensures we’re mentally ready. Once we’re ready and committed, we are ready to begin testing them and making small tweaks in our schedule to ensure they’re here to stay. This process requires a willingness to fail, a willingness to be kind to ourselves, and a willingness to be thoughtful about the tweaks and changes we need to make in our lifestyles and in our execution of our priorities.

Yes, it is a tough process – but it is not tough because it requires massive amounts of willpower at one go. It is tough because we make a commitment to re-commit when the going gets tough and to relentlessly take in feedback and get better. It is not about the big push. It is about the slow burn.

And, when we revisit the progress we’ve made thanks to a slow burn over a long period of time, it feels like magic.