I’ve had a post about Activation Energy mulling in my head for a couple weeks. Then I thought, I wonder if I’ve written about Activation Energy before? And guess what?
In 2008. Six and a half years ago. It’s something like the 20th post on the site—of more than 1200 at this point. I suppose that means the topic bears revisiting?
Activation Energy is a concept I coopted from Chemistry. Coined by Swiss scientist Svante Arrhenius in 1889, it refers to “the minimum energy that must be input to a chemical system with potential reactants to cause a chemical reaction.” In my usage, it refers to the amount of mental energy required to enter the creative state.
For example, how much must I procrastinate before I am filled with fear that I will not be able to meet my deadline? Or, how long does this idea need to gestate before I can execute it properly? Or, what do I need to clear off my plate before I can adequately focus on the task at hand? Creativity is the reactant. Creative work is the chemical reaction. And these efforts are the energy input.
To extend this metaphor further (and forgive me if botch the chemistry a little—I failed that class), chemical reactions produce either an endothermic reaction or an exothermic reaction. That is, reactions that absorb energy (endothermic) or reactions that release energy (exothermic). In Chemistry this is usually expressed as heat. An endothermic reaction is typically a cold reaction, whereas an exothermic reaction is hot.
Sometimes your activation energy is just right and you explode in a wild torrent of output and things are great and everything is amazing. That’s exothermic. Like an explosion.
Other times, it’s not so great. Anyone who has ever struggled on a creative project knows that you can find yourself in the perfect motivated place to do whatever you need to do, but very little comes out of it. It often feels like a failure. That’s endothermic.
Luckily, more times than not, the energy was not wasted. You just gave yourself a little more time to think about what you need to do. It’s all still there, ready to come out the next time in a different way. Sunlight is absorbed by plants allowing them to grow large, which is an endothermic process. Then, the larger plants catch fire and release all that stored up sunlight in a tremendous wildfire. The same is true of our creativity. The only thing that actually gets in its way is not overcoming the activation energy hump.
In my previous post I wrote about myself as a high activation energy sort of person. I don’t think that is totally true. Sometimes getting myself into that perfect state is like pulling teeth and sometimes my activation energy is so high that I will just never get there. But other days, it comes quick and easy.
One thing I’ve noticed is that the better my mood, the higher my activation energy. If I’m feeling super good and in the black on the anger spectrum (more on this in a later post), you’d have to nuke my brain to give me enough activation energy no matter how much I wanted to work. But if I am fuming pissed and stewing and far into the red, well, then all you have to do is get out of my way and I’m cranking through whatever I need to. Go too far, though, and it’s all lost. It’s a delicate balance.
If I’m well rested, nope. If I am too tired, nope. Somewhere in the balance there is a sweet spot where my brain isn’t bouncing around, fresh and rested, or dull and lethargic with exhaustion. Just tired enough not to be a spazz, but not so tired I can’t think.
If I’ve not been working at all, nope. If I’ve been working too much, nope. Again, balance. If I am not working at all, I fall into an inertia hole and I am dull and uncreative, but if I am working too much, all my creative juju is used up by projects at work with little-to-none left for other things.
The real question is, what is the proper life-work-emotional balance to lower your activation energy to a place where getting the reaction going is relatively easy? That balance is, of course, different for each person and for different types of projects.
With work, I need to procrastinate until that moment when not starting means not finishing in time. Up until that point, I’ll dawdle and distract myself, while feeling progressively more guilty and by extension progressively angrier until the equation tips and I blow through whatever work I have to do.
On personal projects, it helps me to be beholden to a partner. Someone expecting something on a deadline will put me into the creativity cycle I referenced in the previous paragraph. If no one is waiting for anything, then I fall into a procrastination spiral that resembles the cycle above but over a much, much longer period of time.
Take this post for example: I started it on the 21st of May. Today is the 10th of June, nearly 3 weeks later. What have I been doing with all that time? Working, mostly, and a bunch of work social stuff, all of which affect the balance. But today I finally reached the place where my activation energy equation worked to my advantage and I’ve written ~750 additional words so far. Not too bad. I can finally stop thinking about this post lingering my drafts, unfinished, and move on to another post I will start and then finish weeks later.
I’ve always been impressed with people who have seemingly low activation energy, the types who can just sit down, get their focus on, and crank through the work. I am definitely not one of those people, but by knowing what affects me and my creative process I can, and to a lesser extent have, learned to manipulate myself into that low activation energy state. In the end, if to lower the barrier to reaction I must do all this additional work and put myself into the perfect life-work-emotional balance, then maybe I am a high activation energy creative person after all. Maybe I was right back in 2008. Funny.