A Chemistry Trick to Make Healthy Habits Way Easier

A Chemistry Trick to Make Healthy Habits Way Easier

Humans are suckers for convenience. 

I was once working on an effort to minimize consumption of single-use plastic water bottles. The company I was at was pretty eco-friendly, and they offered free, reusable bottles to employees. All you had to do was pick up a clean bottle, fill it using one of the many water-refill stations scattered throughout the building, and then return it at the end of the day, to be washed and disinfected for the next user. 

Despite this offering, people still opted for traditional, single-use bottles. 

Why? 

Convenience.

While other reasons were at play, convenience was by far the primary motivation for picking up a single-use water bottle; using a reusable bottle took an additional 10 seconds to fill, and that was enough of an inconvenience to become a major blocker for behavior change.

If I wanted employees to act more sustainably, the key was not to remind them of the importance of reusable bottles, but rather to make the environmentally friendly choice the convenient choice — e.g., to pre-fill the reusable bottles, and perhaps to place them in front of the traditional bottles (making the latter a more inconvenient option). 

This observation reminds me of a concept in chemistry called “activation energy.” The idea is often represented as a graph: 

Simply put, the activation energy is the amount of energy required to make a chemical reaction occur (to make the “reactants” turn into “products; to get from point A to B). Once enough energy is put into the system, the reaction happens easily; if the energy requirement is not meant, nothing will happen. 

But there’s a handy little trick that chemists use to circumvent the need to supply a large amount of energy: they decrease the activation energy by using a catalyst. The catalyst can be one of many things, but the takeaway is that using a catalyst reduces the amount of energy needed to make the reaction happen. 

In the realm of behavior change, the same idea applies. 

When I was working on the water bottle project, I was trying to get people to change from using pre-filled bottles to using reusable ones. This change required an “input” of 10 seconds to make happen. 

While one approach could have been to try to inspire that 10-second investment (via education, impassioned speeches, or  guilt-tripping), a far easier and more effective approach was to remove the 10-second requirement entirely — i.e., to lower the “activation energy” to virtually nothing.

In short, when we’re trying to get ourselves to adopt a healthy habit, there’s a certain amount of activation energy required. And we can either (a) try to meet that energy requirement (via inspiration, passion, or sheer willpower), or (b) lower — if not entirely remove — the energy barrier. While I’m all for cultivating drive and strengthening willpower, the latter is generally an easier approach (why try to overcome barriers when you can simply remove them??). 

Now, there are two components to consider when trying to lower the activation energy for a particular change you’re trying to make:

  1. Identify the blocker — the little hill that is standing in the way between where you are now and where you want to be, the hill that necessitates “activation energy” to move past but, when overcome, makes everything else so much easier.
    1.  As an example, if you’re trying to work out more, you might find that the most challenging part is just getting to the gym (or, let’s be real, getting off the couch). 
  2. Identify the catalyst(s) — the thing or strategy that will lower the activation energy for the desired change. 
    1.  Continuing with the “I want to work out more” example, you might consider building your workout habit at home, before moving to the gym. 

Based on my own observations, these are some of the most common blockers, as well as example “catalysts” to lower the activation energy required to overcome them: 

  1. Inconvenience (i.e., the need to expend energy)
    1. Make it convenient: choose a gym that’s close to you, get exercise equipment for home, sleep in (comfy) workout clothes so you’re ready to go in the morning.
    2. Leverage inertia: if you get up to use the bathroom, do a few squats before sitting down again.
    3. Make alternatives inconvenient: put a bunch of crap on your desk chair so that it’s easier to stand than to sit. 
  2. Discomfort/pain (physical or emotional)
    1. Make it fun: find a type of exercise you genuinely enjoy. 
    2. Minimize the duration of the discomfort/pain: start with just 10 minutes of low-intensity exercise, then slowly ramp up (in both duration and intensity). 
  3. Fear (of judgement, failure, unknowns, overwhelm)
    1. Focus on baby steps: break down your “30 minutes of daily exercise” goal into three 10-min chunks throughout the day. 
    2. Prioritize the habit over the goal: build a consistent, daily exercise habit (even if only a few minutes per day) before ramping up. 
    3. Reframe: reframe negative thoughts in a positive way (“I have to work out” → “I get to work out”; “I exercise because I hate my body” → “I exercise because I respect my body”; “I’m not a fitness person” → “I care about my health and well-being”).
    4. Do the work: read books, talk to friends, try therapy — do what you need to do to work through insecurities and build up your confidence and courage to try new, challenging things.

By minimizing the “activation energy” required for a particular habit, you make it much easier to act, and thus to cultivate the person you want to be. And the beautiful thing about action is that it propels more action; after working out once — and hopefully noticing some of the immediate benefits, assuming you don’t completely overdo it to the point of I-can’t-even-lift-my-water-bottle soreness — working out the next day should feel easier. 

Surely, this idea of activation energy isn’t enough to fully describe why we do or don’t do things, but I hope the analogy helps you observe your behaviors and challenges in a new, productive way 🙂 

Is there a habit in your own life that you’re struggling to keep up? Can you use the idea of “activation energy” to make it easier?  

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