In chemistry, there’s the idea of an activation cost. This is the threshold of energy you need to surpass to start a chemical reaction. Dynamite, for example, contains a lot of energy. But unless a spark or lit fuse pays the activation cost it won’t explode.
Life also has activation costs. There are many pursuits that require a minimum threshold of effort to make any improvement at all. Getting over that activation hurdle is often the hardest part.
Activation Costs and Personal Growth
I exercise regularly and follow a healthy diet. The common wisdom would say if I wanted to get stronger, I should just eat more protein and exercise a bit harder.
However, my experience hasn’t been like that. With regular exercise, I’ve quickly reached equilibrium in fitness. Putting in a consistent effort has zero net results on my overall strength. In order to make gains, I need to be temporarily obsessed with improving my fitness.
I’ve exercised regularly for a few years, and my total strength or weight would rarely change, even over 12 months of consistent effort. But I was able to gain about 8 pounds of muscle during four weeks in April with immense focus.
The total dedication and effort over 12 months was a lot more than it was over the few weeks I actually made gains. But because I never exceeded the activation threshold, I didn’t improve.
This tendency is something I’ve noticed in far more than fitness. Life is full of activation costs, and often if you’re stuck struggling at something for years, it’s not because success is impossible, but simply because you’ve never paid the price to get the chain reaction started.
Languages and Obsession
I had a similar experience with activation costs in learning French. I spent nearly five months trying to learn French before I regularly started speaking it with natives. After five months, I was still self-conscious shopping in French. After only a few weeks of obsession, I gave a 15-minute live presentation.
The best language advice I got was from my friend, Benny Lewis, who said the first task is to stop speaking English. I wasn’t able to maintain a strict no-English commitment, but it helped me become aware of how high the activation threshold was for real growth.
What’s the Key Success Factor in Blogging?
A reader asked me once if I could give some tips on how to become a successful blogger. What was the biggest reason for failure?
I thought hard about the question. Obviously being a good writer helps—but I’ve seen plenty of abysmal writers that get better. Having an interesting story helps too—but the story is shaped once you start writing. Every tip I could think of couldn’t be the biggest reason for failure, because I have known people who overcame them.
Then I realized the biggest source of failure is simply lacking obsession about it. I know bloggers who were fantastic writers with great content and great stories, but they weren’t obsessed about building a successful blog. Without it, success is just luck, with it few obstacles are insurmountable.
The Problem with Balance
Life balance is a nice idea. We want many things in life, so balance is a way of getting all of them. In the long-term I’d like to have great friends, great business, great accomplishments and great experiences. What’s the point of becoming successful if you can never enjoy your rewards?
But in the short-term, I think life balance is probably bad advice. Maybe a better idea would be oscillating obsessions. Without that intensity, it’s easy to wobble back and forth, never sparking the chain reaction of growth.
There are some places where the activation cost of success is low, so like a rusting pipe, you can slowly accumulate improvement. But too often the activation cost is high, without intense focus nothing happens, no matter how long you work at it.
My writing ability started out this way. When you’ve never written regularly before, simply showing up will cause improvement. I can easily see a difference between articles I wrote  in 2006 and those in 2008.
But soon equilibrium is established. Showing up each time has diminishing returns and the activation cost of improvement is higher. I write less frequently now, in part, because I’d rather invest my effort in writing bursts that allow me to improve, than churning out content.
The price of obsession is focus. If you want to surpass the activation threshold for an activity, especially if you’ve already drained the easy beginner improvement, you need to make it a priority.
The hardest part about making priorities is that you necessarily have to make something else less important. My burst of fitness improvement was only possible because every other goal—business, school, social life—was downgraded in importance.
Had I been trying to aggressively grow my business and fitness and relationships, I wouldn’t have succeeded. The only time this split focus approach works is when the activation costs are low enough that they can all be paid at once.
The Price of Devotion
I’m in the process of researching for a project that will require devotion for the next year of my life. While discussing the project with a friend, I mentioned that my income would probably go down. He seemed to disagree, that I could “have it all” and both grow my business and succeed in my project.
Life doesn’t work that way. If a pursuit is extraordinary, it tends to have a high activation cost. That cost is obsession, which is possible only if you are not obsessed about everything else.
Telling yourself you should do something is easy. It’s fading all the other desires into the background to focus on one obsession that’s hard. That’s probably why most people never do it.