Productivity Tips from High-School Chemistry: Build a Motivation Catalyst


In chemistry, a catalyst is a chemical that speeds up a reaction but isn’t involved in the reaction itself. Iron rusts more quickly with saltwater, even though rusting results from just iron and oxygen. Catalysts lower the energy needed to trigger a reaction. Similarly, a motivation catalyst lowers the amount of energy you need to get started.

This might be bringing up hazy memories for you, but if you took high-school chem, one topic covered is activation energies. The activation energy for a reaction is the energy needed to get the reaction going. Think of it like striking a match. Once you get match burning, the flame will keep going without more effort.

Productivity and motivation work on a similar principle. As Woody Allen said, “Half of life is just showing up.” If you can overcome the initial activation cost, the rest takes care of itself. Most of the willpower in exercise is getting yourself to the gym, not staying there. Most of the willpower in changing a habit is in the first month. Most of the energy to waking up each morning is in the first ten minutes.

A motivation catalyst is a trick to lower the activation energy involved in starting a task. Once you get going, the momentum will carry you through the rest of the task. I’d say 90% of the energy I devote to writing an article is in creating the headline. Once I find a good idea and a way of expressing it, the entire article flows easily.

What are some examples of motivational catalysts?

  • Habits. Routines have low activation energies. After going to the gym 5-6 days a week for over two years, it requires no willpower for me to exercise.
  • Friends. Having someone to push you through the activation phase can also be helpful. When I meet new members at the Toastmasters club I run, I encourage them strongly to try their first speech. Sometimes a little bit of peer pressure is all they need to get started.
  • Leverage. Give someone $20 and tell them if you don’t make progress on a goal in the next two weeks, they can keep it.
  • Focus. Focusing on only the next immediate step can work as a catalyst. Procrastination usually happens when you focus on everything that needs to be done.
  • Go Slow. Spreading your efforts into multiple steps can lower the activation barrier for each one. If you don’t have enough willpower to quit smoking cold-turkey, lower your usage in increments.
  • Mantras and Rituals. Developing a short phrase you tell yourself, or a quick ritual can temporarily focus you through the activation phase. Alternatively, you can look like a crazy person muttering to yourself. 😉

Using Catalysts to Overcome Your Roadblocks

As a kid, I can remember jumping off the dock at my family’s cabin. On colder days, it took a lot of willpower to convince myself to plunge into the icy lake water. Sometimes it took a few attempts before I finally took the dive. In that situation, my roadblock was getting into the water, which had a high activation cost.

Using a catalyst here could push through the roadblock. Running from the top of a hill towards the water or getting a friend to push you off made the jump easier. Without a catalyst, it is too easy to procrastinate.

The next time you hit a roadblock, try looking for a catalyst you can use to make the reaction easier. Once you get started, it is hard not to stop.