Why can’t you get anything done? Activation Energy

I was having drinks the other day with an amazing scientist and physician.  She started talking about getting things done and how some people have the “get-it-done” gene and some people don’t.  The people who don’t either don’t ever get things done or work really hard to develop something that looks like the get-it-done gene. I think that whether a scientist or not, this feeling is very familiar.  Like those times when you know that you have to make an important phone call or answer a time-sensitive email and instead you end up doing 15 different work related (or unrelated) tasks instead of what you need to get done.  Or even better, my favorite technique, cleaning your desk instead of starting a new project. My excuse? “Having a clean and organized desk will help me work better when I get started”, but we all know that it’s really just a solid way to procrastinate.

My most recent difficulty on getting something done was starting to write a manuscript that I was invited to write in June and had a very clear mid-September deadline.  Not only did it have a deadline, but there were collaborators that had to contribute to the manuscript, so I had to be on top of things. What was the problem?  I had all the information gathered to start writing. I had ideas in my head of what I wanted to write. I had a motivational deadline. My problem was activating what my colleague called the “get it done” gene, but I call activation energy.

You may recall this term from your high school chemistry class.  The technical definition is that activation energy is the minimum amount of energy required to start a chemical reaction.  If you think about it another way, it’s the energy barrier standing between chemicals and the chemical reaction that will turn those chemicals into products.  In some cases this activation energy may be really huge and a lot of energy is needed for the chemical reaction to take place.  In other cases, the temperature may change or an enzyme may be present that decreases this amount of energy needed for the reaction to take place.
This is IDENTICAL to those large and small barriers that you face when you are trying to get things done.  Some things, like cleaning your desk (especially while avoiding other tasks) is easy to start.  It takes very little activation energy to go from messy desk to cleaning (your chemical reaction) to the desk being clean (the product of your chemical reaction).  On the other hand, despite all your best efforts, some projects – like starting to write a manuscript –  have a really high activation energy and are really hard to get started.  Whether it’s easy or difficult to start, whether the activation energy is big or small, the end product is the same – a completed project. That’s what makes activation energy so annoying.  You know that you’ll eventually get to the same place whether you struggle at the beginning to get it started or not.

So I’ve tried to trick myself into decreasing the activation energy for the projects I just can’t seem to start.  I’ve “pretended” to get real work done by printing out papers I need to read, writing outlines, or doing online research.  These activities don’t have a high activation for me and therefore seem really easy and unrelated to the larger project.  But the trick is that these activities are actually helping me with the bigger project!  It’s like incrementally decreasing the activation energy through each low activation energy, easy activity.

There are other ways to decrease the activation energy too.  For example, I just read an article in The New Yorker reviewing a book called “SuperBetter” about gamifying your life.  If something difficult comes up, find a way to turn it into a game.  One of the examples was to turn challenges into a “quest” where you challenge yourself to achieve a particular goal as if you were in a game. What a fun way to decrease the activation energy when starting a project.  Make each step part of the massive, exciting, dangerous quest to navigate the twists and turns of writing a manuscript or making a presentation or developing a cool new product.

My other favorite technique to decrease activation energy is similar to the gamification idea, but is completely reward based.  For example, I will challenge myself to write one page or one section and then I will reward myself with a low fat chai tea latte from Starbucks or a few minutes surfing Facebook. It’s amazing what creating these mini-successes does to make overcoming that energy barrier.

And in case you’re wondering, I did finish that manuscript, several weeks early and with great success.  It only took multiple tiny tasks and a half a dozen chai tea lattes.