Activation Energy: Why Can’t You Get Off Your Butt

You ever just stagnate? You really want to do something but you can’t seem to get going? For instance, you want to lose weight but you can’t seem to make it to the gym. “Oh it’s so late, I’ll go tomorrow.” Or you want to organize your home office but somehow the clutter keeps building despite this desire. “Where did these papers come from? Are they breeding??” In recent days it was rather forcefully presented to me that I may be stagnating. So it got me thinking why if we know intellectually what we want to do and how to do it, don’t we just do it? Of course, I had to research the heck out of it. My conclusion, lack of activation energyIMG_0877

So what is activation energy? Well, it’s a term originally used in chemistry to describe the minimum amount of energy that must be available for a chemical reaction to occur. But if you didn’t know this already, scientists in separate and disparate fields love to borrow from each other, so the positive psychology folks picked it up. Popularized most notably by happiness researcher Shawn Achor in his book The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and Performance at Work, activation energy as it applies to your psychology is the amount of energy it takes for you to do a task. Now our energy is a little bit more complicated than merely chemical energy, if only chemicals were involved we’d probably all make it to the gym. We’re often putting things off because of the physical energy it takes, the mental energy it takes, the emotional energy it takes, the financial energy it takes, even the relationship energy it takes. I’m exhausted just thinking about it! It’s no wonder we don’t want to do anything to change our lives!

I stumbled on to this thanks to Mel Robbins, whose Ted Talk you absolutely need to watch because it’ll make you feel like a slob and you’ll immediately want to conquer the world. (see Ted Talk How to Stop Screwing Yourself Over). She suggests that whenever you have a feeling or desire it immediately triggers hesitation. Your brain is designed to keep you safe. Its prime directive if you will, is to make sure the ticker keeps ticking and that it’s fed. It doesn’t really want you getting all creative with your day. So it’s always going to go through the million and one scenarios of how this absolutely brilliant idea of yours is going to go wrong. I mean really how likely is it that you’re going to get hit by a meteor while out on that run. By the time you’ve run through everything that could happen, what people may say, and even how the dog will react to your decision, you have forgotten what you intended to do in the first place and you sit right back down and continue watching Pawn Stars. Mel Robbins advice, not unlike Nike’s is to JUST DO IT!

That’s right ladies and gents, the secret to getting off your butt is to just do it. But there’s science behind it. Achor’s book is a much better resource than lowly me for all the science stuff. In the meantime before you run off to get his book I’ll give you the tips that I’ve gathered so far.

  1. A physical action plus an impulse will create new neural pathways better than just thinking about it. So when you have the thought, do something about it! You want a new job, look at the job boards. You want to become a runner, order an expensive pair of sneakers. Get the ball rolling.
  2. Make things easier for yourself. I hate traveling to the gym. I also don’t care much for everyone watching my process. I set up a little home gym in my rec room. So I have no excuse but loads of guilt. Remember out of sight is out of mind. If your guitar is right by where you like to play you’ll be more likely to practice.
  3. Break it up in to intermediate steps. Pack your gym bag before bed. Make a writing nook at home. Schedule your project like it’s an appointment. Break it up any way you can so the task doesn’t feel so overwhelming.
  4. Get a buddy to push you. There’s no better catalyst than a friend reminding you of what you said you were going to. Though sometimes this can lead to catastrophic reactions on particularly bad days. Like last Saturday when I was in an unprecedented hormonal rage. Needless to say, use this one with caution.
  5. Get competitive. For some of us we need to know that we’ve got competition out there. Or in the alternative need to be told that we can’t do something. Use it as fuel. I mean it’s the stuff that underdog movies are made of so it’s got to work, right?

That’s what I’ve figured out so far. The last couple of days I’ve been waking up at 5:00am and putting in tons of hours at my temp gig. It’s not perfect but it is discipline. Exercise enough of it for long enough and it becomes a habit, i.e. new neural pathways. So lay out your gym clothes and let me know what works for you.

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