The Chemistry of Forming Better Habits

In chemistry, there is such a thing as activation energy. Activation energy is the minimum amount of energy that must be available for a chemical reaction to take place. Let’s say you are holding a match and gently touching it to the striking bar on the side of the matchbox. Nothing will happen because there is no energy required to activate a chemical reaction and a spark of fire.

This post originally appeared on James Clear’s blog .

However, if you hit the match with some force, you will create the friction and heat needed to light the match. The energy you added when you hit the match was enough to reach the activation energy threshold and start the reaction.

Chemistry textbooks often explain activation energy with a diagram like this:

It’s like rolling a boulder uphill. You have to add a little extra energy to the equation to push the boulder towards the top. However, once you reach the peak, the boulder will roll on its own for the rest of the way. Likewise, chemical reactions require extra energy to start and then continue the rest of the journey.

Okay, activation energy is involved in chemical reactions around us, but how useful and practical is it for our daily life?

Activation energy for new habits

Just as every chemical reaction has an activation energy, we can think of every habit or behavior as having an activation energy.

Of course, this is just a metaphor, but no matter what habit you try to develop, it takes a certain amount of effort to create it. In chemistry, the more complex a chemical reaction is, the greater the activation energy. It’s the same with habits. The more complex or complex a behavior is, the higher the activation energy required to trigger it.

For example, the habit of doing one push-up a day requires very little energy to get started. Meanwhile, doing 100 push-ups a day is a habit with a much higher activation energy. Day after day, it will take more motivation, energy and perseverance to develop complex habits.

The gap between goals and habits

Here’s a common problem I run into when trying to develop new habits: It’s very easy to get motivated and excited about the big goal you want to achieve. This big goal makes you think you need to revitalize and transform your life with a new set of ambitious habits. In short, you are stuck dreaming of life- changing results, not lifestyle improvements .

The problem is that large targets often require a lot of activation energy. In the beginning, you might find the energy to start each day because you are motivated and excited about your new goal, but pretty soon (often within weeks) that motivation starts to fade, and suddenly you lack the energy you need to activate. your habit every day.

This is lesson one: smaller habits require less activation energy, which makes them more resilient. The more the activation energy of your habit, the harder it will be to stay consistent in the long run. When you need a lot of energy to get started, there are bound to be days when that never happens.

Finding a catalyst for your habits

Everyone is looking for tactics and tricks to help them succeed. Chemists are no exception. When it comes to chemical reactions, chemists have one trick, which is to use a so-called catalyst.

A catalyst is a substance that speeds up a chemical reaction. In fact, the catalyst reduces the activation energy and makes the reaction easier to proceed. The catalyst is not consumed in the reaction itself. It’s just to make the reaction happen faster.

When it comes to building better habits, you also have a catalyst that you can use: your environment.

The most powerful catalyst for the formation of new habits is environmental design (what some researchers call architecture of choice ). The idea is simple: the environment in which we live and work influences our behavior, so how can we structure this environment to make good habits more likely and bad ones more difficult?

Imagine trying to develop the habit of writing for 15 minutes every night after work. A noisy environment with loud roommates, violent kids, or constant TV noise in the background will require high activation energies to stick with your habit. With so many distractions, it’s likely that you’ll give up your writing habit at some point. In the meantime, if you’ve entered a quiet writing environment – like a desk in your local library – your surroundings suddenly become a catalyst for your behavior and make it easier to develop a habit.

The environment can stimulate your habits in both large and small. If you’ve put on running shoes and workout clothes the night before, you’ve simply lowered the activation energy you need to run the next morning. If you hire a food service to deliver low-calorie meals to you every week, you will significantly reduce the activation energy you need to lose weight. If you unplug the TV and hide it in the closet, you simply reduce the activation energy required to watch less TV.

This is lesson two: the right environment is like a catalyst for your habits and reduces the activation energy needed to build a good habit.

Intermediate States of Human Behavior

Chemical reactions often have an intermediate product that is similar to an intermediate step that occurs before you can move on to the final product. So, instead of going straight from A to B, you go from A to X to B. Before we go from start to end, there must be an intermediate step. There are also all kinds of intermediate stages with habits.

Let’s say you want to develop a habit of exercising. Well, that could include in-between steps like paying a gym membership, packing a gym bag in the morning, driving to the gym after work, exercising in front of others, and so on.

Here’s the important part: each intermediate step has its own activation energy. When you’re struggling to stick to a new habit, it can be important to examine each link in the chain and figure out which one is your stumbling block. In other words, which step has an activation energy that prevents the habit from forming?

Some of the intermediate steps may be easy for you. Continuing with our fitness example above, you may not need to pay for a gym membership or pack a gym bag in the morning. However, you may find that driving to the gym after work makes you frustrated, because as a result, you are more likely to find yourself in rush hour traffic. Or you may find that you do not like to engage in public with strangers.

Developing solutions that remove intermediate stages and reduce the total activation energy required to complete your habit can increase your consistency in the long run. For example, going to the gym in the morning will avoid rush hour traffic jams. Or maybe it is best to start a workout at home, as you can avoid traffic jams and workouts in public places. Without these two obstacles, the two intermediate steps that have caused friction with your habit will be much easier to complete.

This is lesson three: take a close look at your habits and see if you can eliminate the intermediate steps with the highest activation energies (i.e., the biggest sticking points).

Fundamental principles of chemistry reveal several helpful strategies we can use to develop better habits.

  1. Every habit has an activation energy it needs to get started. The less the habit, the less energy you need to get started.
  2. Catalysts reduce the activation energy required to develop a new habit. Optimizing your environment is the best way to do this in the real world. In the right environment, every habit becomes simpler.
  3. Even simple habits often contain intermediate stages. Eliminate the intermediate steps with maximum activation energy and your habits will be easier to practice.

And that’s the chemistry of building better habits.

Chemistry of Forming Better Habits | James Clear


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