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.

  • Hunter Nuttall

    Scott, I just found your blog and it’s very interesting. This is a great application of high school chemistry to real life. I had forgotten all about this stuff.

    How about pain and pleasure as motivational catalysts? You can get into action by thinking about the good things that will happen if you do, and/or the bad things that will happen if you don’t.

  • Amir | Passion-Based Learning

    I love how you used catalysts as an analogy. Nice post! 🙂

  • Slade | Shift Your Spirits


    Scientific observation is such a great source of spiritual and practical wisdom for me — often more so than “obvious” sources.

    I enjoy reading your Connecting Threads.


  • Ilham Hafizovic

    This was an amazing post, seeing as I am studying BioChemistry, I just love the entry and connection between energy catalysts and real life barriers. I am currently using some of my easier courses as catalysts to start studying.

    Since most of my electives do not tend to take a lot out of me, I am more willing to start doing homework, and once I start I just do not stop until I am done all of it. This is sort of my catalyst in life I guess.

    once again, thanks for the great article.

  • pHysiX

    gonna chew on this mate…gonna try to apply it to my badminton and table tennis.

    great points raised on aspects of life once again. =]