Activation Energy is not Net Energy

Posted on February 27, 2022
Tags: models

I often see a failure state that people reach where they beat themselves up for not being productive, and then fail (maybe with abandon) into doing something they don’t actually want to do. Getting all the way from [wasting time] to [being productive] is hard. I’ve had good luck getting myself out of this failure state by imagining a state between the two. This state is restful, and hanging out there is restorative.

Activation Energy can be Negative

Activation energy is the amount of effort it takes to initiate action on something. This use of activation energy is a generalization of the same concept applied to chemical reactions in chemistry. Once you get enough energy to start some chemical reactions, they’ll continue on their own-it’s just the “activation” that takes real doing. You can think of “doing nothing” as taking no energy, and “pursuing my dreams” as taking more energy than that.

Luigi is trying to finish drafting a section of his paper before lunch. It is 10 AM. He plans to take a 10-minute break at 11, and eat around 12 or 12:30. At 10:30, he discovers himself browsing Instagram. “I’m such an idiot! I must have been on here for 20 minutes by now!” he thinks to himself. “There’s no way I’m going to get anything done by 11. I’ll have barely loaded the context of my work back into my head by then. I basically already spent the leisure time I had planned at 11 anyway, so I’ll skip that break to make up for it.” If anything, Luigi less rested than before his foray onto social media, and now his task is even more aversive task than before. If he bounced off it before, he’s more likely to do it again, now. The rest of Luigi’s day has him bouncing between “this is getting even more urgent” and “I have increasing evidence that I can’t focus.”

2 classes of “breaks”

Sometimes, when trying to do something difficult, a person will run out of steam. Maybe it’s time for a walk. After such a restorative action, this person will return to the difficult thing and find and easier than before their break.

Sometimes, the same person runs out of steam, and instead of taking a proper break, they’ll check their email, scroll through a social network, or start playing a video game. If they can pull themselves out of this activity (which can be difficult to do), they return to the difficult thing and find it is harder than before their break. Even worse, the person scrolling the social network has often not consciously chosen this activity—their subjective experience was “I was trying something difficult, and then I discovered that had spent 10 minutes on Twitter.”

I model these two different types of breaks on a gradient of activation energy. - Doing a hard thing you value has positive activation energy: you have to rise to the occasion, which takes some level of exertion. - A restorative break deliberately taken is a restful state: “0”. In this state you’re properly resting, and will store energy until you can once again apply yourself to the hard thing you want to do. I model the other type of break (a break only in that it does not involve working) as an action with negative activation energy. You do not gain energy through it (it is not restful), and it is easier to end up in than your “0” state.

This model is useful for me in that I can imagine a return to zero as a success I deserve rewarding myself for. If I notice I am left of zero, instead of beating myself up about it, I can set a new goal to get to 0. Once I am back to zero I can orient myself better than when I am negative. This may cost more time than I feel like I have, and accepting the fact that I wasn’t resting productively during my “break” can be frustrating. But I’ve found my internal taskmaster can be counterproductive, and maintaining gentle oscillations between resting and productive works a lot better than riding the rollercoaster between anxious escapism and desperate exertion.