In chemistry, activation energy is a term introduced in 1889 by the Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius, that is defined as the energy that must be overcome in order for a chemical reaction to occur.
In this article, I propose that:
- Every action you take has an activation cost (perhaps zero)
- These costs vary from person to person
- These costs can change over time
- Activation costs explain a lot of akrasia
After proposing that, I'd like to explore:
- Factors that increase activation costs
- Factors that decrease activation costs
Every action a person takes has an activation cost. The activation cost of a consistent, deeply embedded habit is zero. It happens almost automatically. The activation cost for most people in the United States to exercising is fairly high, and most people are inconsistent about exercising. However, there are people who - every single day - begin by putting their running shoes on and running. Their activation cost to running is effectively zero.
These costs vary from person to person. In the daily running example above, the activation cost to the runner is low. The runner simply starts running in the morning. For most people, it's higher for a variety of reasons we'll get to in a moment. The running example is fairly obvious, but you'll also see phenomenon like a neat person saying to a sloppy one, "Why don't you clean your desk? ... just f'ing do it, man." Assuming the messy person indeed wants to have a clean desk, then it's likely the messy person has a higher activation cost to cleaning his desk. (He could also have less energy/willpower)
These costs can change over time. If the every-morning-runner suffers from a prolonged illness or injury and ceases to run, restarting the program might have a much higher activation cost for a variety of reasons we'll cover in a moment.
Finally, I'd like to propose that activation costs explain a lot of akrasia and procrastination. Akrasia is defined as "acting against one's better judgment." I think it's possible that an action a person wishes to take has higher activation costs than they have available energy for activation at the moment. There is emerging literature on limited willpower and "ego depletion," here's Wikipedia on the topic:
Ego depletion refers to the idea that self-control or willpower is an exhaustible resource that can be used up. When that energy is low (rather than high), mental activity that requires self-control is impaired. In other words, using one's self-control impairs the ability to control one's self later on. In this sense, the idea of (limited) willpower is correct.
While this is anecdotal, I believe that starting a desired action is frequently the hardest part, and usually the part that requires the most ego/will/energy. Thus, the activation cost. Continuing in motion is not as difficult as starting - as activating.
This implies that there would be two effective ways to beat akrasia-based procrastination. The first would be to lower the activation cost; the second would be to increase energy/willpower/ego available for activation.
Both are valid approaches, but I think lowering activation costs is more sustainable. I think there's local maximums of energy that can be achieved, and it's likely that even the most successful and industrious people will go through low energy periods. Obviously, by lowering an activation cost to zero or near zero, it becomes trivial to do the action as much as is desired.
Some people have a zero activation cost to go running, and do it every day for the benefit of their health. Some people have zero activation cost to cleaning their desk, and do it whenever they realize its messy. Some people have a zero activation cost to self-promote/self-market, and thus they're frequently talking themselves up, promoting, and otherwise trying to get people to pay attention to their work. Most of us have higher activation costs to go running, clean a desk, or to market/promote something. Thus, it burns a lot more energy and is actually effectively impossible to complete the action sometimes.
The following factors seem to increase activation cost (not a complete list):
- Ugh fields
- Trivial inconveniences
- Poor quality compartmentalization
- Identity tied to an action to be taken that action-taker isn't skilled at
- Unclear or difficult instructions
- Prior failed attempts at the action or type of action
- Feeling like something is work or "has to be done"
The following factors seem to decrease activation cost (not a complete list):
- Deadline urgency
- Constraints (and thus, lack of opportunity cost)
- Grouping/batching tasks together
- Structured Procrastination
- Very clear, straightforward instructions
- Long term habits
- Cached-self effects
- Feeling like something is a game
Additionally, another way to go anti-akrasia is to increase energy levels through good diet, exercise, mental health, breathing, collaboration, good work environment, nature, adequate rest and relaxation. Some of these might additionally lower activation costs in addition to increasing energy.
I believe the most effective way to do activities you want to do is to decrease their activation cost to as close to zero as possible. This implies you should defeat ugh fields, reduce trivial inconveniences and barriers, de-compartmentalize (and get something to protect), untangle your identity from the action you're taking, and find as clear instructions as possible. Also, deadlines, constraints, momentum, grouping and batching tasks, structured procrastination, clear instructions, establishing habits, setting up helpful cached-self effects and reducing negative ones, and treating activities to be done as a game all seem to be of value.
I would be excited for more discussion on this topic. I believe activation costs are a large part of what causes procrastination akrasia, and reducing activation costs will help us get what we want.
Discussion is also available at LessWrong
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