Activation energy and catalysts

There’s a common concept in chemistry – activation energy, or energy of activation for a chemical reaction. It refers to the minimum amount of energy needed for a chemical reaction to occur. In other words, the energy needed to convert ‘reactants’ into ‘products’ in a chemical reaction. You need to strike the match to light a fire – it will not ignite on its own. 

What’s even more interesting is that this energy requirement for a reaction can usually be reduced/lowered by using a catalyst, which is a substance/an agent used to increase the rate of a chemical reaction without participating in the reaction itself. It’s effectively a ‘facilitator’ to get a reaction going by lowering that energy barrier. 

I’m sure Arrhenius would not have foreseen how widely this concept applies even at a macro level back when he defined the term in 1889. Replace ‘activation energy’ with ‘willpower’ (or ‘mental inertia’ or ‘mental energy’), and the principle carries over quite nicely. 

The idea is to lower the activation energy for good things to make them easier, and to raise it for bad things to make them harder. Don’t always brute force your way into a good-but-draining activity each time. It’s more effective instead to modify (or ‘catalyze’) your environment so that the ‘good’ activity is a likely or natural outcome – it works.

For the longest time, I have tried to be regular with drinking sufficient water daily to no avail. More recently though, I’ve made my water drinking a bit easier by always having a bottle of water next to me through the day. And I keep sipping on it through the day versus having to go each time to get a glass of water when I get thirsty. Easier to just have a bottle of water around me so that drinking water is a likely or natural outcome. I average around 2.5 liters daily now, trying to improve to recommended daily limits. Small but steady victories. 

On the flip side, pizza and I have been best friends forever. So easy to get junk food with a few taps on a food delivery app. Delete that app, and force yourself to enter your username and password each time you want to order something from a restaurant. Hopefully that is annoying enough for you to not order every night. I’m not all the way there yet myself, but definitely better compared to where I was a year ago. Out of sight, out of mind. 

Expanding on the same theme, it becomes easy to see why trying to actively correct for this mental activation energy – decreasing it for good stuff, and increasing it for bad stuff – can help course correct our days and weeks. 

If I overdraw from my daily willpower reservoir over 100%, there’s a good chance I will just fault out and not do anything good. But if I can manage to make my life easier and bring my willpower withdrawal to below the available 100%, there’s a good chance I will do well. And over time, when difficult things become easier as we graduate into habits, it’s possible to add on more then. 

Correcting my environment has the same effect on me as correcting the direction of an electric field would have on a charged particle in space. Regardless of the starting location of the charged particle, if the ‘electric field’ (or my environment) is pointing in the desired direction (good habits), the particle will move as intended, even if slowly. And this would be with lower effort (or mental energy) compared to what the particle would have to spend if there was no electric field. Or worse, if the electric field pointed in the wrong direction. 

I want my default environment to be my desired state, so that even if I stray away temporarily, my environment would bring me back to nominal. I would want it to be a stable equilibrium, instead of an unstable equilibrium. 

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